CHAPTER 33

In Which Formal Introductions Are Made

T he trees all along the river turned spectacular shades of red, orange, and yellow, and one morning Kit arose to the sight of the leaves falling at once in a silent golden storm. The next day rain came to the valley. A chill north wind stripped the remaining leaves from the trees. The clan gathered all the weapons and tools-the stout spears and axes, the scrapers and pounders, the short, stone-bladed knives-and bundled up their skins and sleeping mats and coils of woven fibre rope, and moved out.

This happened, as so much else, without any discussion that Kit could detect. They simply understood that today was moving day, and everyone began packing. Kit pitched in by rolling the skins he used for sleeping and shouldering the spears. He had learned that whatever he did by way of helping with the chores was always remarked on by the clan, who more and more seemed to regard him as an exotic and unexpectedly useful pet.

When everything had been gathered, Big Hunter led them back through the valley. They followed the river downstream and, owing to the mostly bare trees and shrubs, Kit could get a better sense of the size and shape of the great limestone gorge that was their home. In places the grey curtains of stone rose to tower hundreds of feet above them-now so close the sheer walls cast the narrow gap in perpetual shadow, now so far apart they were but a hazy backdrop rising above the forest. At the narrow parts, the river ran fast over a lumpy bed of well-tumbled stones; when the walls receded, the water widened and deepened to a dark, slow-moving river. But whether quick and shallow or deep and slow, the river wound and wiggled its way through mostly deciduous woodland.

They walked all morning and stopped to rest around midday in a grove on the edge of a spacious meadow of long grass, now dry. They picked and ate some late blackberries and lazed in the sun, which shed a thin warmth from a dead white sky. Kit found a flat rock, stretched himself out on it, and napped until it was time to move on again. They did not stop until the sun had dropped below the cliff tops, and then they found a hollow near the river where they made a simple camp.

No fire was lit that night, and Kit discovered just how inadequate his clothing had become. He wrapped himself in his sleeping skins, but nevertheless spent most of the long dark hours shivering and wakeful. He had known the day was coming when he would have to augment his wardrobe with furs such as the River City Clan wore, but he thought he would have a little more time to get himself properly outfitted.

They decamped early the next morning and trekked along the ever-deepening river. As they passed the trail that marked the ley, Kit tested the ley lamp yet again, but received no response. He had not expected any, but nevertheless resumed the journey with a slightly heavier footstep than before. Pausing only to rest and drink, the clan reached their destination as the sun sank below the canyon rim. Their new home was a massive limestone ledge carved out of the great curtain wall of the gorge, perhaps fifty or sixty feet above the valley floor and overlooking a wide expanse of river. Kit could see why they had chosen it as a wintering place: the ledge was south facing to catch the sun and, owing to the generous overhang, away from the wind and very dry. Farther back, the ledge gave way to two chambers, the smaller of which was a natural basin filled with water that seeped down through the stone from somewhere above. Aside from having to gather firewood and haul it up from the woods below, it was perfect.

In all, Kit estimated they had travelled at least twenty miles from the first camp, which meant they were fifteen or so miles from the ley that had brought him to the valley-too far to just nip ’round and check it from time to time, a fact he noted with some regret. But soon he was too busy to worry about it for, with their move to winter quarters, the clan also set about stockpiling food and supplies for the winter.

The hunters-both males and females, for Kit had long since noted that hunting was not strictly a guys-only pursuit-had gone out only every third or fourth day when they were back at River City. Now they went out every day, leaving before sunrise and coming home around midday. The hunt had taken on a sense of seriousness and purpose previously lacking.

The older, nonhunting females likewise busied themselves with gathering roots and berries, preparing furs and skins, weaving rope, and storing nuts and other odds and ends they would need for the long, cold season ahead. Gradually they transformed the bare rock ledge into something resembling a utopia as envisaged by a band of survivalist gypsies.

At first Kit stayed in camp and watched the little ones so their elders could hunt and gather. Kit had yet to figure out the parentage of the young ones, since none of the elders seemed to take any proprietary interest in any particular individual; all treated each and every one with alike deference and regard. By way of helping out, Kit was content to play babysitter, inasmuch as it allowed him to spend some time getting to grips with Sir Henry’s book-as he had been in his idle moments ever since joining the clan. While he read, the youngsters played around his feet. The littlest of the lot accepted him as a natural part of their world and responded to him as they would to any other elder. The slightly older children seemed more aware of his otherness and were shy around him.

But that changed the day Kit began to learn their language.

The adults had trooped off, leaving him in charge as had become the custom. This time Kit noticed that some of the older tykes had begun vocalising to the younger ones, repeating the same sounds over and over again, which the infants imitated. So Kit joined in the game and was soon enrolled in this rudimentary language class. The clan thought this a smashing good game and vied with each other to teach him sounds. When he had mastered the basics, one of the older children brought him a stone and put it in his hand.

Kit held it up. “What?” he said.

To his amazement the child paused and very clearly replied, “Tok.”

“Tok,” said Kit. He put down the stone and picked up another pebble and held it in the palm of his hand.

“Tok.” The young one tapped the pebble, repeating the word.

Just to see if he understood correctly, Kit tossed the pebble away and then patted the smooth stone surface of the limestone ledge on which they sat. “What?”

Again, the same word was repeated: tok. And Kit had effectively doubled his Stone Age vocabulary. He now knew the word for stone to add to his mental dictionary beside the word for bear. Next they tried water, which turned out to be, simply, nah.

“Nah?” asked Kit, raising his eyebrows in imitation of their own inquisitive expressions. He poured water from the gourd back into the catchment pool, then put in his hand. “Nah.” He shook off the water from his fingers.

“Nah,” said his small teacher, pointing at the pool, then dipping his own hand and shaking it. Then, cupping his hand, he slurped up some water. “E-na.”

The lesson continued until the elders began to return, by which time Kit had a dozen fresh words. He was polishing his new acquisition so that he could show it off to the elders when they gathered that evening, but he was not given the chance. As soon as the first adults appeared, his small teacher, in full view of everyone, picked up a stone and presented it to Kit with an expression of such keen anticipation, Kit could not help laughing. “Tok,” he declared.

The effect was stunning-as if he had set off a roman candle or pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Everyone gathered around, and before he knew it they were all offering him rocks and pebbles just to hear him say the word. He moved on to demonstrate his mastery of the word for water and for drinking, and wood, and fire, hand, leg, arm, and the rest of the few he had learned. Then, as he had their rapt attention, he placed the flat of his hand on his chest and said, “Kit.”

His gesture was met with baffled silence. He repeated the gesture and said his name once more. The clansmen regarded him with quizzical expressions, their heavy brows furrowed, their broad faces pinched. Kit began thumping his chest and saying his name, slowly, clearly, willing them to understand. His repeated attempts failed to gain any result until Big Hunter stepped forward and, in a fair imitation of Kit, put his own hand on his chest and in a voice that seemed to come from somewhere deep underground, said, “Dar-dok.”

Kit repeated the word to himself, then pointed to Big Hunter and said, “Dar-dok.” Then, with the same gesture, he indicated himself and said his own name once more.

Big Hunter drew himself up and with evident pride said, “Kit.”

The fact that it came out more like Ghidt was easily overlooked in the moment as Dardok’s success brought coos of amazed delight all around. The rest of the clan began chanting his name. Kit revelled in the fact that he had successfully crossed a communication divide; he could teach them, as well as learn.

To be sure, they were only getting started. A forthright young female shoved in, made the chest-pointing gesture, and repeated Kit’s name. Then placing a hand to herself, uttered with remarkable enunciation, “Ne-ek.”

Kit swiftly mastered this name and was instantly inundated by the entire clan who pressed forward all together, each one speaking a name and demanding Kit’s repeated reply. In the days that followed, alongside his study of the green book, some portion of each day was devoted to learning new words; and when Kit was not adding to his word store, he was practising the ones he had already learned. In this way, he gradually built up a working vocabulary and, with it, a sense of how the River City Clan saw the world.

Among themselves, they still did not speak all that much. But around him they became regular chatterboxes. The difference was stark, and Kit wondered about it-until the obvious explanation occurred to him: they needed very little speech because they had this strange telepathy, or whatever it was that allowed them to know what others were thinking. Among clan members, they communicated just fine without any speech at all. It was only Kit who was forced to vocalise to make himself understood.

Confirmation of this fact was conclusively demonstrated by the arrival of visitors a few days later.

The weather had been growing steadily colder and wetter, the days shorter. More often than not they awoke in the morning to frost on the ground. Nestled in their rock-ledge fortress, however, they remained dry and reasonably warm. Kit was sewing a handsome new suit of fur-deer and rabbit, mostly-which with patience and dogged perseverance he was patching together using the flint knife, bone needle, and hemp thread they had given him. He was putting the finishing touches on a feature of which he was inordinately proud: a roomy inner pocket designed to hold Mina’s ley lamp and Sir Henry’s book and keep them safe. The clan was lolling around the fire at the rim of the ledge, when suddenly Dardok stood up and gazed off into the foggy treetops along the river.

Instantly, four others joined his survey of the valley below. The rest of the clansmen dropped what they were doing and fell absolutely silent. An atmosphere of intense anxiety descended over the camp. Again, not a word or sign passed among them, but all were wary, the tension swirling around them like the sinewy coils of a serpent. Kit stood too and quietly crept to the rim of the ledge to see if he could discover what had alerted the others. A minute or two eked by, and then he heard a sound he had heard every day since coming to the winter quarters: heavy feet on the rocky trail leading to the ledge.

Someone was coming.

Kit waited, every sense prickling, bracing himself for a fight. Who was it? Were they under attack? He cast a hasty glance around for the nearest weapon.

Then, as one, the clan relaxed. Although Dardok still stood watching the path below, the palpable sense of imminent danger simply melted away. Something had changed. But what?

Before Kit could determine what had happened to alter the mood, he saw movement on the path leading up to the ledge, and a moment later their visitors arrived: a group of fifteen-seven females, five males, and the rest young ones of various ages and sizes. From the enthusiastic welcome that commenced, Kit reckoned the group was well known to the River City folk. In fact, seeing how naturally the newcomers were accepted and how easily they insinuated themselves into the life of the group, Kit began to think that perhaps they were not merely visitors but part of the same extended valley clan.

Then the newcomers saw Kit, and he was subjected to the inevitable examination with much murmuring, touching, and rubbing of his skin and scruffy beard. They appeared fascinated by the colour and texture of his pale skin and fine curly hair; and were amused by his thin frame, short arms, narrow shoulders, and curious upright posture.

The round of buffeting had no sooner concluded than a second group of visitors arrived-four sturdy males bearing a fifth on a litter made of birch poles and skins. This fifth male was the oldest Kit had seen so far, with wispy grey hair and a long white beard and a face so ancient and wrinkled that, wrapped chin to ankles in hides and furs, he looked positively mummified. The bearers carefully lowered the bier to the ground, and several of the nearer clan members helped him to his feet. As soon as he was upright, he waved off his aides and shuffled forward with unsteady steps to meet Kit.

At his approach, Kit became aware of a tingling sensation at the base of his skull. Time seemed to slow-the ordinary flow dwindled down to a mere trickle and pooled around them. Moreover, Kit was aware of a very strange and powerful emotion-one he had only ever felt once before in his life. As a youngster, Kit had been introduced to what was reputed to be the oldest tree in England-a massive, gnarled, tangle-rooted thing called the Marton Oak, which had survived almost 1,300 years of earthly life. Kit remembered standing there beneath the twilight canopy of its enormous spreading boughs among roots that were as big as he was, and feeling an almost supernatural force that gave him to know that he was in the presence of a living entity of such peace and gentleness and strength of spirit that it inhabited a whole other plane of existence, and beside which he was as small and notional as a clod of dirt.

In the presence of the old one, Kit felt that way again, dwarfed by a spirit not only far older and wiser but also far larger and more powerful than any he had ever encountered. And like that ancient oak, the old man was unutterably regal: a king of his kind. Once more Kit was that young boy standing in the shadow of a vastly superior entity and knowing to his very pith and core how very insignificant he was.

Yet he felt no fear. A boundless and placid acceptance seemed to emanate from the aged being before him, and Kit understood that despite the yawning abyss between them he had nothing to fear.

The Ancient One examined Kit slowly head to toe, and Kit saw that while one of the old one’s eyes was bright and piercing keen, the other was clouded and almost opaque. Upon concluding his examination, the aged chieftain raised his head and fixed Kit with an ardent, determined look, and Kit was aware that this was an attempt at communication; he could feel it as a physical force of considerable intensity. Kit, beguiled by the power and directness of the approach, simply opened himself to it.

The result was staggering.

What kind of creature are you?

The question struck him like a closed fist, and Kit instinctively took a quick backwards step to recover his equilibrium. It took a second before Kit realised that the question had not been spoken aloud. Moreover, it had not, in fact, used words at all.

“I am a man,” Kit blurted, even though he knew this would not be understood.

But he was wrong in this assumption.

Ma-an, echoed the disembodied voice in his head.

Clear as a bell and distinct from his own thought, with its own timbre and texture and cadence, the unspoken voice of the Ancient One took shape, and the unprecedented interview commenced.

Ma-an… Kit’s word for himself was then combined with the idea of being, or existing… is… then Kit got a sense of growing things, action, breathing, change… living… life inextricably entwined with something tangible, yet amorphous, an animating fire, present yet hidden within… living soul.

The question, as it entered Kit’s mind, was: Are you, Man, a living soul?

“Oh, yes! Yes, indeed. I am-I have a soul,” Kit assured him, speaking aloud. He suspected it was probably unnecessary, but it was just easier to vocalise his thoughts.

Goodness… the feeling of fullness and rightness… satisfaction, flowed from the Ancient One, along with an awareness of a soul’s unique value and place in the world. Kit’s instant interpretation of these interconnected conceptual traces came out as: That is good. Creatures with souls are rare.

“Rare, yes.”

The chief gave a grunt of satisfaction. The next thought that formed in Kit’s consciousness was the recognition of a long and varied experience allied with surprise at a sudden and startling uniqueness. The sense Kit made of it was: We have seen many things, but never one like you.

“I have not seen any like you,” Kit replied.

Next Kit received what he interpreted as a sort of formal introduction. Into his mind poured a complicated and much mingled concept, an association of metaphors: pure animal strength and courage allied with majestic dominance-a lion, perhaps?-and this was combined with a sense of longevity-like a yew tree or a mountain-and lastly, the concept of serenity as applied to a calm, deep, freshwater lake of immense size and limitless depths. All this, then, was somehow combined and united in an affirmation of individual personhood-the being standing right in front of him, in fact: the Ancient One.

Then, with a delicacy of gesture that Kit found endearing, the old chieftain placed a thick hand over his heart and said aloud, “En-Ul.”

There was no question but that this was the Ancient One’s name, and Kit repeated it at once, saying, “I am pleased to meet you, En-Ul.” He lowered his head in a little bow-an automatic response, but one Kit felt appropriate to the situation-and received a grunt of satisfaction in reply. The next question flowed into Kit’s mind already formed: Where is your home?

“My home is far from here,” was how Kit chose to answer. To say more would have been unnecessary, and probably impossible anyway.

The next two questions followed so quickly in succession they formed a single inquiry: Why are you alone? Are you cast out from your clan?

“No, no-I am not an outcast,” Kit hastened to assure him. “I am alone because I am… lost. I was travelling and became lost.” He did not know if the concept of travelling would translate. “My clan-my people do not know I am here.”

A feeling of sympathetic sorrow flowed in inundating waves to Kit-empathetic commiseration, mingled with a sense of the wrongness of such a state as Kit described: That is bad. You… possessive… fellow beings – your people, Kit decided… strong imperative.. . must… outpouring of grief and anxiety… mourn… an empty place… absence…

Your people must mourn your absence.

“Some of them do, I suppose,” admitted Kit lamely.

The Ancient One gave another grunt of satisfaction, and then, peering deep into Kit’s eyes, expressed a largess of generosity and inclusive fellowship Kit could only describe as a feeling of welcome to a long lost and much loved son; it felt as if he was being adopted into the clan. It felt as if he was coming home.

The intensity of the emotion so directly conveyed took his breath away. Kit could not speak for the sudden stirring of his own long-suppressed feelings. Tears welled in his eyes, and he began to weep. They were tears of grief for his own inadequacy, his frailty, his shrunken and limited intelligence, his woeful dependency.

He wept hot, miserable tears, and with the weeping came a kind of solace, a comfort like that of a friendly hand reached out to steady a tottering child. As if in response to his misery, he sensed an empathy and understanding. There was nothing superior in it, or condemning. Into his soul flowed, simply, acceptance.

When Kit found his voice again, all he could say was, “Thank you.”

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