For four hot and thirsty sunnings they squelched across the Nertsea Delta's foot-sucking sand and swirling estuaries. At sun's dying they slept where they fell, their hairy-swine cloaks and Ari's Oriacan sacrificial cloak doing little to halt the cold seeping up from the wet sand. Twice they were attacked by serpents lurking amongst the riverweed and three times they sank into the sinking-mud, saved only by the blessing of the Moon Goddess and Fish's quick thinking.
Ari was the slowest, for although she'd lived the hard life of an Eastern Zoner and had travelled with the Wilderness gypsies, she was not used to such relentless trekking. Fish, with his seasons in the Arid Zone; and Weed and Branch with their stocky Zoner bodies showed no fatigue until they stopped to sleep.
When they waded through the estuaries Fish helped Ari by tying her to him. Weed also helped. But as it was forbidden for him to touch a female not of his cluster and as his female, Sky, was waiting for him back in Tsae Lake village, he could only advise the fragile Mega where not to step.
Branch did not help Ari. She did not like the too tall, too skinny, white-haired Chiphead. It made no difference that she and Weed had followed Fish into the Southern Zone to find her. That she had fought a Mighty Arena Champion and was almost eaten by sloths while helping save her. Branch had done it all for Fish; not for this weak armed, wobble-legged female with the bad fortune green eyes. The odd thing was that Fish was just as tall and with the same grass green eyes and white hair, yet he did not disgust her. Her head swivelled round to look at Fish and she tried to remember the aversion she'd felt when she was first told by Ant that his Mega Outcast sibling was joining their cluster. It was seasons ago and Fish had become her best friend. So, as her best friend, when his time in the Arid Zone was over and he had to steal a female, he deserved to steal one who was better than this pale skinned Ari. Trudging through the sand, lifting one heavy foot after the other, she thought of whom Fish could steal. In the end she had to admit that as no Eastern Zoner female would agree to be stolen by him Ari was the only one. Unless Ari decided to become a Mega again; or a four-fingered Rebel or Body Harvester hadn't already stolen her.
Branch shuddered. Being stolen by a Body Harvester and carried across the Northern Sea was her greatest fear.
Fish was sure that by continuing west they would reach the Wilderness Mountains. Weed disagreed. Twice the scar that stretched from his left eye to his lip had itched. Twice he'd gone into a chanting trance repeating the golden-clawed Bear's warning of danger ahead. Each time they'd turned south and travelled for two sunnings before heading west again. Now they'd reached the end of the Nertsea Delta and could see solid land ahead but to reach it they must cross a slick of sinking-mud and a fast flowing estuary.
With Weed's rope tied around his waist, Fish raced towards the mud slick. On reaching it he threw himself into a belly slide exactly like a marsh crabben. Sliding across it he reached the estuary just as the mud began to suck him under. He kicked hard and swam towards the knife grass that grew along the opposite embankment. Grabbing a clump he tried to pull himself out of the water but the grass gave way bringing down a blinding shower of dirt. Five times he tried before he found a clump that held his weight.
Once on land he tied the end of his rope to a tree and signalled for Branch and Ari to do as he had done. Although reluctant to touch Ari's pale skin, Branch clasped the Mega's hand and together they ran across the sand and flung themselves belly first onto the mud. Above their heads stretched the rope held taunt by Weed on one side of the estuary and Fish on the other.
"Grab it and pull yourself along!" yelled Fish.
But all Ari could think about was how the mud was sucking her down and how deep the water had been when she'd jumped from the Sacrificial Platform into the river Or-Mool; how she'd kicked until her lungs felt as if they would split apart while aiming the gulping gypsy baby towards the river's surface. She'd tricked Or-Mool that time. She'd stolen two sacrificial victims from his hungry mouth, the child and herself. Was it here in this estuary that the god Or-Mool would take his revenge?
Branch shouted for Ari to move faster as she pushed the Mega out of the mud and into the river. More shouting and pushing had them finally reach the far bank where Fish grabbed Branch's tunic and Ari's long white hair and heaved them to safety.
Then it was Weed's turn. Racing across the sand he flung himself onto the slick, but he was heavier than the others and the mud sucked at him faster. Fish, Branch, and Ari hauled him waist deep through the mud until he reached the river. Here the current swept him and the rope he was clasping around in a semi-circle much like a hooked silverfin.
The river serpent rose from the centre of the river. Its double-spiked head was the size of an adult Zoner's fist, its large bulbous eyes, half hidden beneath sharp, bony protrusions, resembled poached pigeon eggs and its gaping mouth showed four rows of dagger-sharp teeth. Weed barely had time to loosen his knife before it dragged him under. A slick of blood rose to the surface as Fish hauled on the severed rope and a spluttering Weed surfaced further downstream only to be dragged under again.
Fish and Branch raced along the riverbank but there was no more blood or bursting of air bubbles. They had gone a good distance when they heard Ari's shout. Doubling back they found her hanging over the river with her long legs hooked around a sapling and her thin arms wrapped around Weed's limp body.
They pulled him out onto the grass. Ari cleared his mouth of river grass while Branch pushed on his back, counted to five and pushed again. Muddy water gushed from his blue lips but his chest did not rise.
Help him, Moon Goddess, prayed Fish. Save the Future Teller for he and I have yet to find the golden-clawed Bear as the golden-clawed Bear promised.
It was Fish with his head swimming from the lack of oxygen that heard Weed's first hoarse intake of air, and Ari who saw his eyelashes flicker.
Weed gasped, coughed, and filled his lungs and Fish fell back onto the grass. "What took you so long? Were you visiting your golden-clawed Bear?" he demanded.
"Don't joke," hushed a tearful Branch.
For they all knew by the stunned look in Weed's eyes that it had been his birth cycle deity that he'd been visiting and who had almost claimed his living.
"We saw blood on the water," burst out Ari.
Weed blood-shot brown eyes focused on her. "I stabbed the serpent. How did you find me, Fish?"
"Ari found you."
Weed smiled gratefully at Ari. "I thank you for saving my living, Ari. I will return the favour."
"You already have," answered Ari, pleased that Weed, the eldest of the group, had acknowledged her. Then she saw Branch's annoyed look.
Ari wanted to tell Branch that she was sorry for refusing to move along the rope when they'd been stuck in the mud. She wanted to explain that she'd thought Or-Mool was going to drown her. But how could she say she was sorry to someone whose ox-brown eyes were filled with such dislike?
Fish squeezed the water from his and Weed's gypsy shirts, pantaloons and felt boots while Branch and Ari squeezed the water from their gypsy skirts and tunics. Branch would have given anything to be wearing her village weave kilt and goat leather boots, but they only had the clothes given to them by the Wilderness gypsies.
Fish helped Weed to his feet, and then shouldering their backpacks, wet capes and his ball and chain weapon, he pointed to the setting sun. "We must find somewhere to sleep before nighting comes."
They left the riverbank with its tubular-rooted shrubs and finger-cutting sword grass and entered a forest of tall trees. Far above their heads stretched a thick canopy that, Fish hand-signalled to Ari, could contain snakes and animals that could hurt them so they must be silent and take care.
Scarlet-leafed katydid vines and nets of hairy-stemmed lianas hung from the canopy, blocking their way or tripping them up. One vine's yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers hung so low that the flowers' sticky petals touched Ari and Fish's heads; leaving a glue-like sheen on their hair.
Beneath each of the trumpet flowers grew a fleshy-leafed plant, its centre full of rainwater and stinkflies. Fish sliced at a leaf of this plant and a red sap resembling blood appeared. Suddenly, the trumpet flower hanging immediately above the wounded plant aimed a stream of sweet smelling syrup into its quivering centre.
Branch stepped back fast. "Did you see that? It's as if the ground plant called for help to the tree plant--as if they are connected!"
Weed's finger came to his lips. "Sssshhh! We are being followed."
They froze as a rustling noise sounding like something large wriggling over the dry leaves came towards them.
Not hunting animals, hand-signalled Weed, otherwise they'd have stopped when we stopped.
But large, hand-signalled Branch.
Fish pushed Ari ahead of him. "Run," he hissed.
They forced their way through vines as thick as a Zoner's arms, ducked beneath creepers that caused a burning rash when touched and struggled through curtains of hairy-vines that tried to ensnare them. Each time they stopped they heard the rustling behind them.
"I hate this place!" muttered Branch after a third trumpet flower had released its syrup over her head, causing a swarm of stinkflies to settle on her face.
Ari wanted to agree that she hated the forest too, but she said nothing.
They pushed on through the vines until it became so dark they couldn't see each other, and then Fish pointed to a tree with five buttress roots spreading out over the forest floor. "We'll camp here. If whatever is following us had wanted to, it could have caught us by now, so I think we're safe. I'll take first watch."
Ari and Branch spread their cloak over the roots and crawled beneath them while Weed undid their food bag and shared out the last of the Wilderness Gypsies' sugar plums.
"Next sunning we must find food; even if it has to be tree gorf or nebbuk," he told them.
"Tree gorfs taste foul and I can't eat a nebbuk. I once had one as pet," grumbled Branch.
"You once had everything as a pet," teased Weed, trying to make her laugh. "It's as well you can't make pets of fruit and vegetables or you'd starve."
Instead of being amused, Branch's voice became even more sullen. "I can't kill and eat something that is soft and cuddly."
Ari wanted to agree; but didn't.
Weed laughed. "Then it's as well you can't see the big grandfather nebbuk crouching above your head waiting for you to throw away your sugar plum pips."
Branch sat up so fast that she became entangled in her cloak. When her short curls finally appeared she was face to face with a large, red-eared male nebbuk busily combing fleas from his long black tail. While jumping up to shoo him away she left her sugar plums unguarded and with a flash of a black paw the nebbuk stole them.
Weed and Fish couldn't stop laughing.
Branch crawled back under her cloak. "There's something sour about this forest," she muttered bad-temperedly. "Something very sour."
Ari waited a moment then she pushed half of her sugar plums under Branch's cloak. A second later the plums were pushed out.
While the others slept, Fish, with his knees pulled up to his chin, listened for the ominous rustling but all he heard was the croaking of a lovesick tree gorf and the yelp of a small creature preyed upon by a larger one. Soon his thoughts strayed to Ari. He'd seen her kind gesture and Branch's refusal and it upset him. Branch was his cluster sister just as Weed was his cluster brother, so what was Ari? Not a friend as he barely knew her, but someone for whom he had travelled far and fought hard; someone who would soon be pushed-over into the Arid Zone to join his and Branch's cluster, but what if Branch didn't want Ari to join them?
No other cluster would accept a Mega just as none would have accepted a Mega Outcast whose Eastern Zoner parents had kept him regardless of their village elders' warnings. Worse still, unlike him, Ari had no family. Her parents, the High Dean Ta and his High Lady Dean thought their daughter to be past living. But what if - once her brain caught up with her sixteen summers living - she wanted to return to their Inner Circle Megalopolis palace? How would her High Dean parents explain to the other High Deans that Ari had been living in an Eastern Zone village with a family of Zoners? And what if she didn't return to Megalopolis? How could he convince Branch that Ari's lack of knowledge wasn't dangerous to their cluster? He sighed and glanced over to where Ari slept. He supposed it all depended on how old her brain was now.
Wing had said that Ari's brain had been around eleven summers old when she'd been stolen and taken to the Southern Zone by the Wilderness Gypsies but Fish was sure her brain was older now. Sometimes her knowledge seemed to equal that of Branch and himself, other times there were great gaps, which left Branch impatient and irritated.
Weed was kinder and Fish hoped that he was too; only things had changed since he and Ari had met in Oriac. Their escape by jumping into Or-Mool and their trek across the Nertsea Delta had left no time for being alone or talking. Also there were Weed and Branch's feelings and opinions to consider. He looked at the rejected sugared plums, but then there were also Ari's. Pushing the plums under Branch's cloak he shook her shoulder none too gently.
Branch awoke instantly. "What is it?"
"It's your turn to watch and Ari kindly gave you half her plums. You'd better eat them before they're stolen by a nebbuk."
With his word 'kindly' ringing in her ears Branch threw aside her cloak ready to tell him where Ari could put her sugared plums, but the look in Fish's green eyes warned her. Instead she whispered sarcastically, "Then I shall have to thank her, otherwise I might find myself crossing the Wilderness Mountains alone."
Fish frowned. "Don't be a thick-headed sworc! Eat the plums!"
Next sunning, Fish awoke to Weed's shout that Branch was gone. It was the six plum pips piled in a neat pyramid that reminded Fish of her whispered words.