Circles of Fire

Chapter One

Two shapes heaved a long bundle across an arid landscape. Despite the dark of night, the two walked sure footed towards a previously agreed location. A light breeze brought a hint of the smell of salt, the sound of the sea, they stopped. The two figures scanned all around, their pupils wide. When they were both satisfied, they lowered their burden to the hard ground. The boy in the bundle didn't stir from his drug induced torpor. After one last sweep of the flat, open terrain the woman patted the bundle softly, then moved off. The man moved north, the woman south. For several hundred steps they moved apart, then they both turned roughly east, met up again and headed south.

The boy dreamed, as the drugged sleep turned slowly to a semi-natural slumber. He was running along the bottom of a deep ravine, its smooth sides rose sheer to an un-climbable height. Behind him a large prarla sprinted towards him, coming ever closer. He tried to run faster, but the giant cat was gaining. At the end of the ravine he could see a small opening, big enough for him, but too small for the ravening beast. But no matter how hard he ran, he couldn't reach the haven of safety. The breath of the Prarla fell hot on his back, growing in intensity as the animal neared. Without stopping the boy decided he had had enough of this dream, it was time to wake up.

Consciousness came slowly, a brighter light like the coming of dawn over the lip of the dream ravine. The heat from the dream lingered as the rising sun beat down on his back. The boy opened his eyes, carefully at the outset. The first thing he noticed was the closeness of a piece of sacking, so close he could only just focus on it. Brown, rough weave filled his entire visual field, even when he turned his head. The sack smelled of old vegetables and some kind of plant stem was scratching his hand. Through the weave he could make out the curved side of a dry, rocky depression.

First things first, the boy thought, get out of this smelly bag. He was surprised to find his hands free, he had thought after they had tricked him into drinking the drugged brew, they would have gone all the way and trussed him like a snap-hen. His feet he wasn't so sure about, they certainly weren't free, but they may only have been tied into the neck of the sack. With a lot of shuffling around he managed to get his hands up in front of him. With his little finger, he didn't want to ruin the sack, he might need it later, he made one of the holes larger and peered out. 

He had been laid in a shallow bowl shaped depression in the yellowish rock. By rolling over he was able to see more, but the sides of the bowl prevented a full view. I'll bet they have been planning this for a whole moon, he thought, scouting around for just such a spot. The sun was half way up the eastern sky, giving the boy three quarters of a day before Sundeath.

The boy began to kick his feet, pulling with one then the other until his ankles ached. Another three or four goes and the bindings at last began to work loose. Once they were moving it became easier, and thus more effective, to kick. Finally, with a ripping sound, the rope fastening came free.

Wriggling like a salamander shedding its itchy skin, the boy sloughed off the sack, but had the good sense not to stand straight up. Instead, he crawled across to the nearest lip and looked out. The landscape was flat for miles around, running slightly down hill towards Sunbirth. Not a single rock, tree, animal or hill punctuated the view. All was flat and lifeless as far as he could see. So, the boy thought, everything normal there. He took a moment to check himself over. No bruises, no scratches or breaks, in fact no pain at all, someone must have caught him. The clothes he had put on earlier were still on him, a leather tunic, a pair of lizard skin trousers and his only pair of shoes, goat hide, tied with thin green reeds. The bone knife he carried was gone, as was the skin grit-storm shade he was supposed to take everywhere.

A small voice at the back of the boy's mind whispered, "Tocaen, remember what you have been taught." His father's voice, speaking to him only last night, before this had happened.

Well, he thought, let's go through the basics. What can I see? Nothing, which means something in itself. It means I am not too far from home. Next, what can I hear? The wind, blowing towards Sunbirth, as usual. And something else, a roaring rumble, from the way of Sundeath. What can I smell? The salt lake, that some call Sea. What can I taste? That awful black brew they made me drink, yuk! What can I feel? Rock, hard rock, very dry, but slightly powdery. Ha! He almost shouted in triumph, Now I know where I am. This kind of rock is only found down flow, If I go to the salt lake and head up flow, it will bring me to one of the everlakes, it's an easy walk from there.

"Lastly, how long have I been here?" He sat down in the bowl and looked up. Sure enough a small speck in the sky spiralled above him, riding on the thermals. Now he had shown signs of life, the death bird would rise up as high as it could, then glide off in search of easier prey. "Just long enough to be spotted by one of them, so not too long." He surmised. Gathering his only possession, a malodorous sack, Tocaen faced into the wind and the smell of salt, and began to walk.

A roaring boom filled his ears long before he reached the sea, sound travelled very well on this flat ground, at least with the wind. The boy stood on the edge of a high cliff. He felt no fear of the cliff, although it must have been at least twenty Heights, possibly more, to the shingle beach at the bottom. The salt lake though, that was a different story. Down there was forbidden territory, where the water was poison and the sea rose up to snatch you away. Monsters lived in the green depths, bigger than the large-snouted Brownskers, longer than Slip-snakes, great fish that could swallow you whole, or bite you in half, depending on their whim. There was no safety on the beach either, the creatures could reach out of the water, drag you screaming under the frothing waves, never to be seen again. The boy shivered, turning quickly away.

Tocaen followed the line of the cliff, far enough back so that most of the time he couldn't see the water. As he walked he contemplated his fate. He had been born into a harsh land, where life was a constant struggle against thirst and starvation. He had heard it said that all around this desert were green lands, where all kinds of plants and animals came leaping out of the ground to fill the bellies of all who waited. But the people all grew fat, which meant big and bloated like a frightened bladderrab. They were also lazy, liars and cheats, with nothing to fight for and no pride in themselves.

Tocaen wasn't sure if this was true, he did like to see things with his own eyes before he would believe it. But if it was? Imagine never having to crawl around on your belly all day trying to get enough to eat. Imagine not having to risk your life every time you stooped to drink. Then again, imagine being so fat you couldn't get through a door. That is surely the saddest thing he had ever heard. 

Up ahead a slight movement near the ground stopped him dead in his tracks and halted his reverie. Damn, he thought, not paying attention, that won't do me any good. He dropped to a squat as he had been taught, his eyes scanning the area from which the movement came. Tocaen's pupils had closed to mere dots in the bright light of day, but he could still see perfectly well. Up ahead he could make out a furry back as a prarla walked stealthily along a shallow ravine. If it had seen him it wasn't interested, not today at least. A full grown Prarla was more than a match for an unarmed boy. Although attacks were rare, in the dry season, which was most of the year, food was food. The hungrier an animal got, including humans, the more of a risk they were willing to take for a meal.

Tocaen squatted lower, resting his splayed finger tips against the ground for balance. Although the large cat was pictured on his Circle's banner, it didn't give him any control over it. The Circle had merely adopted the Prarla as a symbol of their spirit to survive, emulating it's ways. The prarla moved on, without a sound or a backwards glance, finally disappearing into a deeper crevice.

Tocaen was about to stand, when he noticed the rock underneath his fingers. It should still have been powdery if he was headed the right way. But this rock was a yellowish brown, not the red brown he had been on. Fire! He thought, tricked. There must be a small patch of powdery rock somewhere up flow from home. To confirm his suspicion that he was headed the wrong way he continued on to the crevice. Carefully, lest the prarla was waiting for him, he flicked the sack over the lip. When it wasn't immediately shredded by whirling claws he edged closer. The wide, sun created crack wasn't empty, but only contained a few scuttling crevice mice and the remains of a vomp, the furry, long legged animal that some predators favoured. So the prarla had already eaten, which explained why it had ignored him.

The crevice widened at the seaward end, splitting in two just before it was cut short by the sea cliff. If Tocaen was right, there should be a slight overhang of grey rock about two Heights down. He walked quietly over to the edge and looked down. Sure enough, there was the rock, still glistening with water from a deep spring. The water and the rock reminded Tocaen of his predicament. He had walked in the wrong direction for at least an hour because he had jumped to conclusions, and now he was thirsty.

Finding water wasn't a problem, there was lots of it underground. Getting to it was the tricky part. Once you had found it you then had to remove any creature that had staked a claim to it, then actually get something down to it to bring it up. The only thing Tocaen had was a sack, he didn't fancy using that as a gatherer, the water would taste like old vegetables, but he might not have the luxury of choice. That wouldn't have been the first time, not by a long way.

If only I could drink the salt lake, all that water just a short climb away. With a sigh he turned around and headed inland. After only a sort while he came across a deep fissure. With one ear pressed to the hole, after carefully checking for other residents, he could hear water trickling some way below. Too deep, he decided. All right, he thought, I'll go without. Tocaen draped the sack over his head to keep out the sun and set off back the way he had come.

Two hours later, his little stroll had turned into something more serious. Even Tocaen's happy-go-lucky outlook had begun to evaporate in the full heat of the ever rising sun. He had never been out this far on his own before, the hunters of the Circle usually ventured out together. The Rule said that at least two people must be together at all times, even in the Circle home. You never knew what might happen in these lands, sometimes when you thought you were safely tucked up in bed. 

Yet here he was, out here, alone, and so far with very little problem. Apart from the small matter of a raging thirst, and the something that was following him. Twice he had seen a furtive shadow moving towards him, dropping out of sight when he turned his full vision on it. He was certain he could liberate some water from somewhere, or something, but with a stalker watching his every move he daren't stop.

So on he trudged, inland of the cliff edge where the crevices were shallower. Every so often he would whirl around. Sometimes he caught a glimpse of what could have been a brown shape, or just an illusion created by the hot rocks. Mostly there would be nothing. This went on for some time. Tocaen walked purposefully back to the everlake he knew, where water awaited, if he could get close enough.

He realised he would never make it without a drink as the sun touched the highest point of the sky. It was still several thousteps to the everlake, he was starting to wilt already. Coming to a long crevice he stopped. A sudden thought had come to him, a plan to rid himself of his companion. Purposefully, he turned inland and set off down the crevice, walking deeper and deeper until his head disappeared below surface level. Then, Tocaen dropped into a crouch and clambered back along the crevice towards the sea, dropping to a crawl and finally onto his belly as the crevice grew shallower.

He covered himself with the sack, lying in the angle of the crevice bottom. A few handfuls of wind scoured sand thrown over the sack completed his camouflage.By slowly lifting his head he would just be able to see along the crevice and over the lip, to watch for any approach over the surface. The rock was cool on his back, and a slight breeze angled along the crevice. The fires on his brow began to die down, but his heart seemed to be beating loud enough to hear. Nothing moved, not a sign of any pursuit. No evidence of life at all. Just the heat haze rising, folding the ageless rocks into ripples of heat.

When his neck muscles began to burn with an inner fire, he dropped his head back to the rock. If the thing was out there surely it would have moved by now? Or had it gone along another ravine, hoping to snare him? It would have to wait a long time, Tocaen thought with some satisfaction.

Tocaen lay still long enough for the shadows to move slightly. Then, with one last look around, which revealed all was still, he leapt up and raced towards the next crevice. The ravine was further away than he had anticipated, causing him a moment of panic as he thought he would be spotted. At last he was able to leap into the ravine and repeat his camouflage trick. His neck strained again as he searched for the stalker.
The throbbing of blood through his head was all he could hear as he searched. A sweat had broken out all over him as he ran. The heat welled up under the sack, causing his sight to lose focus. He fought to control his breathing, to slow down his heart beat, to control the heat effect, all things he had been taught, but somehow, now that it mattered he couldn't do. Out of the heat haze a shape took form, gliding over the rock with a slithering sound, straight towards him. He blinked, but the shape remained. Forcing himself, he rested his head against cold rock, breathing deeply. Slow down, he said to his heart, slow down. When he could stand it no longer he lifted his head again. The shape had gone with the pounding in his head. Relieved he slumped back.

After several deep breaths his breathing returned to normal, although he was still sweating too much. As the blood stopped thumping in his ears, Tocaen suddenly realised the slithering hadn't stopped. Turning his head very slowly, he looked towards where his ears said the sound was coming from. The bottom of this crevasse was very sandy, in the sand, heading towards him was a long shape, easily as long as him. One end was thrashing backwards and forwards whilst the body pushed along from behind. Along the length of the shape where it broke the surface Tocaen could see brown, waxy scales.

Slowly, to avoid vibration, Tocaen rolled the sack over to where the snake was heading. He carefully stood, checked all around for signs of the pursuer, then crept onto an exposed area of hard rock. Making sure the snake hadn't sensed him, he prepared himself, then leapt at the snake, hand extended.

Although he thought he had judged it correctly, Tocaen's hands closed around nothing but sand as he grabbed for the neck. Alerted by his fumbled landing, the snake whipped around, flicking itself free of the grit and rearing up. Tocaen lunged again, taking a bite in the hand before making contact. The snake was hot and slippery in his sweaty grip, he brought both hands together around its neck in an effort to hold it. The rest of the snake threw itself at Tocaen's head and shoulders, knocking him sideways with its weight. He let go with one hand to steady himself and was rewarded with another bite, this time right in his thumb. 

Tocaen decided enough was enough. He took as firm a grip as he could manage and rolled his body on top of the writhing coils. He could feel the hard body of the snake struggling beneath him. It was hissing loudly now, and releasing a thick liquid from its mouth. With all his effort he managed to keep the head away from him, forcing it to the sand. The liquid made the sand fizz slightly. Tocaen gulped, maybe this time he had taken on too much? The coils underneath him began to buck and spasm. Tocaen renewed his efforts, forcing the body into the ground, stopping its breath. Slowly, over several minutes, the snake ceased its struggle, then finally fell limp.

Tocaen was ecstatic. He had done it, all alone he had fought a burrow snake and won. He stood and stretched the snake to its full length. Pacing it out he found it to be a little longer than his own height of nine and a half hands. He stood over the snake wondering how best to extract the water. With a movement so sudden Tocaen saw only a blur, the snake lunged at his leg and bit deep just above his ankle. The jaws locked with an audible snap. Tocaen, despite years of training, screamed. His hands fought his brain for control. His brain wanted them to clamp over his mouth to shut him up, whilst his hands wanted to rip the snake off. The pain shooting up his leg forced a compromise. One had clamped over his mouth, muffling the scream, the other dropped to his ankle and began pulling the jaws apart.

Tocaen had to admit it, he had heard them lock, the only way this snake was letting go was by being dismantled. Of course, the snake was dead. Burrow snakes, by some strange quirk of nature, always died when they locked their jaws. Aromat, the Circle's knowledge keeper, had told him a bone in the serpent's mouth pierced its brain as it locked. Aromat didn't know why this should be, but guessed it stopped you messing about with other burrow snakes the next time you met one.

Tocaen's leg was throbbing now, along with the pain in his head and the dry throat. The wound had bled slightly, but was now stopping, or at least slowing. He slumped to the ground, sending a shooting lance of agony right up to his neck. This time he didn't scream. He tried to think, to calm himself, which wasn't easy with a large snake attached to your leg. He had no blade of any kind, nothing to cut off the head and release the jaw. If he could drag himself to a loose rock, perhaps he could pound the body loose, then walk back home. He looked around. Nothing. No choice then but to pick up the snake and go looking. 

The first step was a burning arrow of agony. He gritted his teeth and tried again, this time with more care. A line of fire ran up his leg, flickering under the surface of his skin. He discovered that the pain shot up his leg every time he moved his ankle joint. So, trying to keep his ankle straight, and with the snake hanging over his shoulder, he hobbled and limped along the chasm, searching for a way to release it. After what seemed like hours Tocaen came across a low bank with a slight hint of moisture in the dark sand that had been wind blown into its lee.
Carefully, but by no means painlessly, he lowered the snake to the ground. To take his mind off the aching and the blood squelching in his shoe, Tocaen began to dig into the sand. Sure enough about two hands down a slight pool of water began to collect. He dug until he reached the rock beneath, then waited for the sand to settle.

Tocaen had become so engrossed in his search that he didn't notice first one, then two furred creatures emerge from a wide burrow. The two creatures scanned the area with nose and eyes, then padded silently towards Tocaen's unguarded back. The braver of the two creatures crept forwards, ever alert to the dangers of other predators. Without a sound the first animal pounced, closely followed by the second.

The first clue Tocaen had that something was amiss was when a sharp pain ripped through his already tender ankle. As the agony flared anew his legs were pulled backwards, causing his knees to collapse, sending him face first into the wet sand. Only by sheer will power did he stop himself from passing out. Mostly he was angry. He had had enough of these games, all he wanted was a drink of water, was that too much to ask?

Tocaen rolled over onto his back, just quick enough to see a furry brown backside disappear into a long crevice. A trail of wet blood caught his eye. He traced it all the way back to the stump of what was left of the burrow snake. The head was still attached, along with about a hand of the body. What a waste, Tocaen murmured, all the water that had been stored in the snakes body had been leaked onto the ground by a greedy whatever it was. Tocaen had no choice now but to re-dig his hole and wait for the water to settle.

This time he kept his eyes open has he sat and waited. The furry thief had reopened the holes made by the snakes fangs, causing small drops of blood to run down his leg. Tocaen decided that now was the time to remove this burden, before the wound went bad, and whilst he at least had a small amount of water. The wrenching of the snake had done what Tocaen hadn't dared, the entry holes were now bigger, giving the head a little room to move. By pushing against his leg muscle, which hurt like fire, he was able to extract the bottom fangs. The top two weren't as easy, as it involved rotating the head and dragging the teeth along his skin. Finally, after several goes and lots of curses, the head came free.

The wounds were quite clean with no ragged bits, one advantage of being bitten by a snake. Blood had begun to flow again, but Tocaen was able to stop it fairly quickly by putting four fingers over the holes. When he looked down at the water hole again he was surprised to see it had almost filled with cleanish water. He drank thirstily, lapping like a cat.

When his thirst was quenched he turned his attention back to the snakes head. By peeling back the tough skin he was able to expose the softer flesh underneath, which he devoured hungrily. It wasn't much but it was better than nothing. As he pulled the skin he found it came off in one piece, stretching over the flattened skull. Tocaen detached the neck bones from the head by twisting and pulling. He was trying to see if what Aromat had told him was true about the way the snake died. Sure enough, when he examined the jaw bones, a ridged sliver had separated from the main bone and was now lodged in its brain. The sliver also served to lock the jaws tight.

With the sun moving rapidly towards night, a rested Tocaen set off once more for home. His ankle was merely throbbing now, a pain he would have to bear until he reached the Circle. Tocaen now had three possessions; a sack, a snake skull, and a snake skin, which he wore as a long bracelet. He had tried to fit the skin over his wounded leg, but it was too narrow to go over his foot. The success with the snake, the drink of water and the fine bracelet all heartened him considerably. Tocaen was now confident he would reach the everlake without further incident, from there it was an easy walk home. He might even bump into someone he knew, the everlake was a good spot for food, if a little risky. But this was a harsh land, it wouldn't let him off so lightly.

At first Tocaen was unconcerned as he neared the everlake and spied the Mass drifting like a grey cloud over it. They were quite common at this time of year, millions of tiny flying insects dancing on the rising heat, being buffeted and knocked by the ever present wind. Always they reformed, packing tightly together for some arcane reason of their own. Perhaps it was safer that way, almost every creature around preyed on anything smaller than itself, and bigger if they hunted in packs.

Certainly Tocaen could see several assaults on the flank of the Mass. Fish could be heard plopping back into the water after leaping to snatch a quick mouthful. Birds of several kinds flicked and dived into the cloud, emerging to dive straight back in.

Tocaen marched confidently over to a shallow arm of the everlake to chance a drink. Many types of animal lived and guarded the lake, not least of which were the Grikes. Massive fish with heads full of teeth, they could actually leave the water and chase you on stiff fins. But water was much in demand of course. Now, during the dry season when only the deepest fissures and a few everlakes contained water, competition was hot. Not even the giant bulk and thick skin of the Brownskers offered complete protection in the days before the waters came back.

He had slaked his thirst safely and turned down flow towards home when the noise caught his attention. It was a high pitched wavering sound, like a wasp caught in a clay jar. Tocaen turned towards the sound, the memory of a conversation clicked in his mind as the image registered on his eye; Rippers!

The swarm must have been obscured by the Mass, but was now revealed. Hundreds of hand sized dragonflies, each armed with a blade-sting, each dedicated to defending their territory, each heading his way. Tocaen turned to run, he wasn't sure if that was the right thing to do, or even if he could, but it was the only plan he could come up with. Frantically he searched his memory. Every creature, no matter how strong, had at least one weakness. A brownsker could outrun a hunter, lift him from the ground like a bundle of rags and smash him to pieces. But they had very bad eyes. If you laid down and stayed still they lost sight of you. The grikes moved only slowly on land and didn't stray far from water, and so on for every creature. But what was the rippers weakness?

Tocaen tried hard to ignore the pain that was climbing up his leg, numbing his foot. Think boy, think, he goaded himself. The sound neared, closer, ever closer came the rippers. To Tocaen they sounded like a bunch of angry strangers, screaming for blood. Although he had only ever seen a dead one up close, Tocaen's mind filled in the details of one or two hundred notched blade-like stings, each whipped reflexively forward as it struck its target, leaving a long cut dripping with venom. They were fast, in flight and delivering their stings.

The rippers were almost upon him now, their sound saturating his hearing. A sweat broke out on his back, running cold up to his neck as he tensed for the anticipated pain. He was running blindly, throwing his injured leg forwards, not caring about the searing agony of every foot fall. Suddenly Tocaen remembered, an image formed in his mind of Aromat demonstrating with a reed doll and a small cloth. Movement, they attacked anything that moved. Tocaen almost stopped running as he realised the only thing moving was him. He was on a wide plain, flat and featureless apart from the nearby everlake. With just an old sack and a snakes head for company.

Tocaen stopped almost on the spot as he realised what he'd said. He had dragged this old thing right across the plain, now he would make it pay its way. Tocaen was surprised at the distance between him and the rippers when he turned to face them. Even greater surprised when the distance was cut to nothing in a few beats. Tocaen was as ready as he ever would be, despite that. With the sack in front of him he began to spin it, the snakes head providing a little weight.

The rippers rushed in, blindly throwing themselves at this intruder. Although the sack wasn't heavy enough to do much damage, as it was now the only thing moving they went for it with a vengeance. With the buzzing all around him, Tocaen bravely kept the sack spinning until his arms ached, then continued to spin it. The ripper stings were shredding the old material, slowly but surely, as time and again the incensed dragonflies dived in for the kill. Some of them became entangled in the cloth, their stings trapping them fast. The unlucky ones were then ripped by their comrades, spraying yellow ichor over the rough sack. 

Eventually Tocaen could spin no more, his arms were bloodless weights hung from his shoulders. With a resigned sigh he let go of the sack and dropped to his knees. The sack flew off, landing several Heights away to his left. Tocaen didn't notice, nor really care, but most of the rippers followed it. After a while they lost interest, possibly thinking the enemy was now dead. With a short circuit of the area, they turned and headed back to the everlake.

Tocaen heard the sound fade through the pumping blood in his ears. Finally it registered and he looked up. The swarm had gone, leaving him collapsed in a heap, his ankle bleeding, his head throbbing and his fingers cut to ribbons. He stared at them for a moment, not comprehending why. An injured ripper flittered along the floor in front of him. For a few minutes he watched it as it flicked its sting in and out. Its wings sliced cleanly in half, it was unable to fly. Tocaen leaned over, and with a very emotional thump, he flattened the ripper into the rock.

Chapter Two

Tocaen remained where he was for some time, until the lack of blood flow to his legs made him move. His ankle had stopped bleeding again, but it hurt even worse now, and had swelled alarmingly. The little cuts on his hands and fingers were itching, now that the burning had died down. His left hand, the one with the snake skin bracelet, was uninjured where the tough hide had protected his wrist. He made a mental note to have a full set of clothes, including gloves and a hood, made out of burrow snake skin. Of course you still had to catch the snakes...

The orange moon, Reen, was rising rapidly now in the sky down flow. The moon was so orange it was called Nightsun by some. It was a warm orange without the burning of the day sun. Its companion, Den-eye, would not be up for several nights yet. Den-eye was a bright, almost pure, white. Its light shone brightly on many a successful hunting trip. The two moons looked the same size to Tocaen, but Den-eye moved much faster and would catch Reen over the up flow mountains and overtake it, in a few more sundeaths. The two moons had been meeting in the dark skies for ever, so Aromat had said, like two lovers, meeting in the night, only for Den-eye to rush off, to return one moon later, alone.

Tocaen's pupils opened wider as the sun set. The colours faded out with the rising of the moon, leaving a landscape of black and grey shades tinged with orange. Although he couldn't see as far, he could see just as well in this light, to a distance of about 400 steps. If he had been paying attention now he would have seen, on the edge of his vision, a furtive shape approaching from up flow.

Tocaen was feeling very dejected, his ankle wasn't hurting now, which worried him because it was still swollen. The drink he had snatched at the everlake was the last water he'd had. Although the sun wasn't burning it off he was still getting thirsty. He was sure now of his direction, he would be home some time around sunbirth, but how could he enter the Circle looking like this? His clothes were dusty and worn, his fingers were covered with cuts, his ankle looked like a blowmelon at Seeding. All he had to show, besides a body that would need all the skills the Carers had, was a tatty sack and some pieces of snake.
The sack dragged and bumped along the rock, leaving a trail of snake scent in his wake. The shape had stopped approaching now, contenting itself with keeping pace, a task it found all too easy with Tocaen in his present mood.

Tocaen seemed to be struck by this stray thought, suddenly stopping. The shadow dropped flat to the ground becoming almost invisible. After a quick scan around, in which he saw nothing untoward, Tocaen moved quickly off. If he was to get his ankle mended before he developed a permanent limp he had better get a move on. The shape followed after some minutes, but was hard pressed to keep up and remain hidden, a tricky balance made more difficult by its quarries seemingly random changes of direction.

Tocaen was wondering which was the best way to enter the Circle. Straight in the front entrance like a man, or sneaking in the back way like a boy? If he was going in the front way he needed to cross the dry chasm to make it look like he had come from that direction. If he wanted to skulk in unannounced, he would have to veer a little towards sundeath. Several times he had decided, only to change his mind. Finally he approached the last place narrow enough to jump over. Now he had to chose.

Tocaen hesitated, a running jump would cause him a lot of pain, unless he could land on his one good leg, but that might be dangerous. So, gritting his teeth he ran, jumped, pressed both his legs together and tensed for the landing.

His youth and agility served him well, but none the less it hurt, not as much as he was expecting, but pain all the same. He stood up straight, dusted himself down, looked the world in the eye and set off on the last part of his journey.

As the sun at his back began to re-colour the vista, Tocaen spied the buildings of the Prarla Circle. The village was actually 'C' shaped, the open part facing towards sunbirth. The settlement had been deliberately built beside two crevasses, a wide one that carried the main river, and a smaller one at a right-angle to it. This second chasm had been widened, lengthened and the sides smoothed. The work had taken many generations as the rock was very hard and the tools quite primitive. The village was now completely encircled by this defensive ditch, apart from a wide stone bridge at the front, and a natural bridge built into the design at the back. Both bridges were protected by wooden gates, sharpened stakes protruding through to the outside. During the dry season the bottom of the chasm was filled with dry reeds that crackled when trod on. This gave the villagers at least some warning if anything tried to cross.

He noticed quite a few people were about as he approached, a little unusual for this early in the day. He spotted a tall slender woman with long red hair, who looked a little agitated. And a shorter but stouter man with the tribes usual blonde hair, who seemed to be fiddling with something. The woman was his mother, Veekaana, the man his uncle Pyrdal.

With his first foot step onto the stone bridge that crossed the deep crevasse, a shout went up. His mother, uncle and aunt Zsala, who he hadn't noticed, rushed towards him. Veekaana arrived first, still fleet of foot despite her now village-bound life. She grabbed him and hugged him to her. Then she stepped back and examined him. All was well until she saw the ankle, she gasped, "Tocaen, whatever have you done?" And without giving him chance to answer she took his hand and lead him to Sa, the village Carer.

"Mother, I'm fine, don't fuss, I can walk myself." Tocaen whined as he was propelled bodily towards the Carer's house. Veekaana stopped so suddenly that Tocaen almost hurt his ankle more trying to stop. Her hand went to her mouth and she grinned, "I am sorry son, I was forgetting, you are a man now." She let go of his hand, standing quietly whilst he made up his own mind what to do. "Oh, come on mother," Tocaen said, clutching his mother's arm, "You can help me this one last time." His mother smiled knowingly.

A few minutes later, the shadow that had followed Tocaen appeared on the bridge, paused for a moment, then crossed and entered the village. A long shapeless poncho shifted slightly in the ever present wind, casting a shadow, causing Pyrdal to turn. He greeted the shadow, helping it to remove the hooded garment. "So, all went well, apart from some small mishap." Pyrdal smiled at Arpon, Tocaen's father.

"No, not at all well, not from my point of view." Arpon grimaced, wiping the sweat from his brow. "I lost him, yesterday morning, didn't pick him up again until last night." Arpon sat down on a low step. Pyrdal and Zsala looked in amazement at Arpon. "Lost him? The best tracker in the village, and you lost him? Say, you taught that boy well Arpon, well indeed." Pyrdal laughed loudly, but was quieted by his partners icy glare. "It isn't funny Pyrdal, Tocaen was out there all alone, you know how dangerous that can be." Zsala put an arm around her brothers shoulders, "Never mind Arpon, at least he's safe now, and we won't tell Veekaana if you won't, straight?"

"Straight." Answered Arpon, but not entirely sure. Pyrdal crouched in front of Arpon, "Besides, the children are supposed to be alone. How can they prove their adult status if they know someone is watching?"

"That's not the point," replied Arpon, "He didn't know I was watching, because I wasn't there. I thought he had headed straight sunbirth towards the everlake. You know how hazardous that can be so I moved ahead to get concealed close enough to help him. But when he arrived he was on the other shore, by the time I managed to get around to him, he'd gone. Then, last night I found a trail of blood near a few dead rippers, followed it and eventually tracked him down. It was such a relief I can tell you. What would Vee have said if anything had happened to him? I'd be hung there on the drying line like a lizards carcase." Arpon hid his head in his hands.

"Come on, Arp, let's go and visit your son, the man. You should be proud of him. Not many youngsters walk the path to adulthood unescorted and make it back." Zsala took Arpon's hand, levering him to his feet.

Tocaen was lying on a high bed. He was watching the brightly coloured Fleks dance around the room, their wings alight with an inner fire. Their mischievous faces smiled at him as he tried to focus on their tiny, almost human bodies. Tocaen smiled back, trying to lift a hand to wave at them.

"Now, lie still you, or I'll give you some more numbweed." A kindly voice spoke from somewhere near his feet, trying to sound stern. The Fleks, being imaginary, weren't at all impressed, and carried on dancing around the room. Tocaen could feel every prod and poke, every cut and stitch that the carer, Sa, made to his ankle, but because of the numbweed she had given him he didn't really care. He carried on watching the tiny lights fly around until his eyes slowly closed.

Arpon and Veekaana stood by the bed, hand in hand. Arpon had decided to tell his partner the truth about Tocaen's walk, only later when she was more settled. Veekaana was very proud of Tocaen, sensing something had gone wrong at the first look at Arpon after he had returned. She knew Arpon was worried, so chose not to ask him about it until he had settled. Tocaen's two sisters, Keth and Saana had visited briefly, but soon got bored with watching their brother sleep. They had been chased out by Sa when they had tried to peep under the bandage on Tocaen's leg.

"How did he come by all those cuts on his hands? They look very sore." Veekaana asked Arpon.

"Er, Rippers, small swarm up at the everlake." He remembered just in time the squashed and flattened bodies he had found.

"Oh, poor thing, I'll bet that was painful. Never mind, he's here now, that's all that matters. The village has another man, which should cheer everybody up, especially with the water due back any day." Veekaana squeezed Arpon's arm.

He smiled, "Yes but we have to do it all again when Keth walks to womanhood." Veekaana's face dropped, and Arpon regretted immediately saying it. Veekaana was very sensitive about her children taking the walk, her own sister had been attacked by a grike on her walk. Her mother had been too far away to rescue her. She had lived, for a few days, she even managed to mortally wound the grike. But the blood loss had been too much. The Circle had supported her mother, but she never recovered from the shock, leaving Veekaana and her father to look after each other the best they could. Veekaana remembered her father's look of almost pure panic when she left for the mainhouse on her appointed day.

Her walk had gone without a hitch, almost too easy really. Her Circle had said she was a very skilled woman to make the journey so easily. Veekaana wasn't so sure. The Drisee as a people weren't one's to put much store by luck, but Veekaana was convinced something was working in her favour that night.

The couple sat together in silence for a while, watching their eldest breathe, occasionally twitching in his wild dreams induced by the numbweed. Although regretting the passing of his childhood, they were both privately glad that Tocaen had successfully become a man on his first attempt. No real status was lost by needing a second or even a third go, but Tocaen was slightly different to other boys. He constantly asked questions, sticking his nose and fingers into anything that looked interesting. He had been burned, bitten, stung and lanced, had his fingers trapped, snapped and slammed, been attacked by insects, lizards, and furred beasts and chased out of many homes by irate Skill keepers. Over the years this had taught him to move quickly, approach more cautiously, but not diminished his curiosity one bit. True, Tocaen had the potential to become a three of even four Skiller, but only if he grew more common sense.

Tomorrow, a ceremony would be held in the Circle, to celebrate the arrival of another man, and to prepare a welcome for the water. Some of the oldsters would see the arrival of a new man and the return of the water as a sign of good fortune, but most of the villagers didn't believe such nonsense, not since the famous Knower, Corbrak, had conducted those tests.

Corbrak was a legend, a real man, but one of the most skilled Knowers the Drisee had ever seen. It was said he stored the knowledge of the People since the first settling many generations ago, when the lands were still wet. It is told that Corbrak, exasperated by his people's foolish superstitions, had asked each of the people to tell him something they believed was true. One by one he had experimented, mainly on himself, with all their old believes, proving each one a lie. In this way he had disproved the existence of witches, imps, spirits, bad luck, charms, good fortune and finally, God.

Most of the people were impressed, some left to start new tribes, and were not missed. Those who stayed, although some still doubted, were mainly practical, hard working, open minded people. Their descendants still were. Corbrak was also said to be responsible for the 'rules' that allowed the Drisee to survive. As a mark of respect the name Corbrak is never given to any other member of the Circles.

Tocaen awoke some time in the middle of the next day. He was immediately surrounded by visitors, mostly his own blood, but all the children of the village seemed to enter and leave as one knot, only to return a few heartbeats later. His aunt Zsala came in bearing a freshly roasted hog-fish, making sure he ate every mouthful before she conversed with him.

"I am sorry for what we did, Tocaen. I know it was necessary for your walk, but I felt really bad leaving you drugged and tied up out there. I think Pyrdal is too, but he won't admit it."

"It's fine, Zsala, straight. I know you had no choice. Besides, if I'm going to be dumped in the middle of nowhere, I would sooner it was you who did it. That was sneaky though, leaving me on that small patch of red rock. I headed off in completely the wrong direction."

Zsala tussled Tocaen's hair, a gesture she knew she should no longer be able to get away with. But Tocaen smiled broadly. "Anyway, your father wouldn't have let any serious harm come to you, he would have caught up with you and sent you back the right way eventually." Zsala smiled.
Tocaen sat up further, the remains of the fish rolling on his lap. "You mean it was father, the shadow following me? I hid from it, I thought it was a prarla."

"All children are precious here, too precious to risk on some symbolic walk. All fathers accompany their sons, all mothers their daughters. But don't tell the children, it's useless taking the walk if you know you are being looked after, even from a distance. But I must go, there are things to do. Get some rest Tocaen, tonight you will need your strength."

His parents arrived together shortly after Zsala had left. His mother hugged him tight, carefully avoiding the sore areas. Arpon, his father, clasped shoulders with him, man to man. "I suppose your aunt has told you I was with you all the time? She never could keep a secret for long." Arpon smiled, but looked sideways at Veekaana whilst he said it. Tocaen had no idea what the curious expression meant.

His mother let him go long enough to speak. "Arpon, it seems funny calling your father that instead of 'your father', but I suppose I will get used to it. Anyway, Arpon has told me all about your adventure. Aromat is very interested to see your arm where it was protected by the burrow snake skin, he says that could be a useful know." She smiled broadly, pride shining in her grey eyes. After telling Tocaen about the Circle gossip, he tried to be surprised at how much he had missed in so short a time, his parents left.

Sa attended to his wounds again later in the day, then permitted his final guests to enter. She made sure he was neat and tidy, paying particular attention to his hair, then withdrew to a discrete distance. Tocaen was puzzled by the fuss, until the visitors walked in. Every girl of almost woman age, and the few un-partnered young women arrived together, perhaps for protection. Tocaen blushed to his root tips, as did some of the women, pulling the thin sheet over his bare chest.

Stilted conversation followed, mostly about neutral topics, then each and every one kissed him on the forehead and asked for a dance at the nights celebration. Tocaen found himself unable to refuse such well delivered offers. He now understood why Zsala had told him to save his strength. Each dance would last longer than a thoubeat. He would be dancing most of the night!

Laying back down and pulling the rough reed-fibre sheet up to his chin, he closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

Tocaen sat on a reed mat that had been spread before the mainhouse. The only person who hadn't visited him today was Aromat, the Circle knower. Aromat stood before him now, a long pale green reed held in his hand. "Before me sits a boy, a boy yet but a boy who has walked to manhood." The knower chanted the words repeated to every new man since Corbrak, his voice deep and powerful. Every person in the village was gathered around, forming the traditional circle. "Yet the journey is not one of a few steps, but of many. A single step has been taken, many thousteps more must he tread before he completes the journey. The sun burns, the water rises, the rock beats on weary feet. Who among you will guide the man?"

"I." Pyrdal answered from the crowd, "I, Prarla Fissuredeep Pyrdal, will teach him to hunt."

"I." Sa spoke, "I, Prarla Everlake Sa, will teach him to care."

Silence fell on the crowd. Tocaen now had two Skillers to teach him his Skills. It wasn't unusual for a man of Tocaen's ability to have two skills to learn, he had already spoken to the two, and expressed a wish to learn hunting and healing. With so few people around everyone did what they could, if that meant more than one thing so much the better.

romat himself was a fine hunter, a gentle carer and an excellent weaver before the accident with the brownsker cost him his left foot. The Circle Keeper, Heraapa, had promoted him to Knower, the repository for all the Cirles knowledge. Aromat's head was now crammed full of things that needed to be remembered. He could recite lists and numbers and facts all day, in any order, and still not run out. Tocaen had asked Aromat how he kept things in his head. The knower had smiled and said that one day he would teach him.

"I." Said a third voice. There were gasps from the crowd, to have three teachers was almost unheard off. Veekaana smiled proudly, Arpon nodded his head wisely, as though he had known all along. The crowd looked around for the third voice. Tocaen stared at Aromat, his mouth wide with disbelief. "I, Prarla Redcave Aromat, will teach him to Know." Aromat stated.

After another moment of silence, during which no one else spoke, Aromat continued. "Here sits the boy, without status, I give him status," Aromat presented Tocaen with the reed, a yellow flag painted with the face of a prarla attached to one end. Holding Tocaen's hand he helped him to his feet, "Here stands the man, status won." The crowd cheered heartily, mainly because that was the end of the ceremony and now the celebration could begin.

A space was cleared of people and quickly covered with mats. As if on some sudden command several of the men and women disappeared into their homes and returned with dishes of food, bowls of roast fish and vomps and jars of distilled fruits. Arpon produced a spicey stew that was his speciality, he had made an extra large bowlful, and made it extra spicy, just for his son's ceremony. The spices were a very welcome addition to the Circles diet. As nothing delicate grew in the desert conditions, the spices were brought down the flow, traded from Circle to Circle. But these must have been saved from last year, as were a lot of the ingredients, because with the water drying up, so did the trade. Travel was as easy as floating on a boat during the wet season, as difficult as marching across a barren desert at other times. Only the skills passed down over the years had allowed the tribes to flourish. Skills that were kept alive by the careful teaching system, and by the annual tribal meetings.

Tocaen sat himself down again on the reed mat, enjoying the attention. Now that he had been proclaimed a man, and just for tonight, only he was allowed on this mat unless he invited someone onto it. The rest of the tribe had to content themselves with grabbing whatever space they could. Soon the space around the edges began to fill up with small clay bowls filled with various foods. He tried to eat at least a little of them all. Most were quite good, but he got more choosey as his stomach began to fill.

Presently Aromat returned, walking straight onto the mat and sitting down. In times past this would have resulted in a challenge from Tocaen for the trespasser to prove his manhood, but according to Aromat this had resulted in the deaths of too many new men, something the Circle could do without, so the practise had been stopped. Besides, Tocaen took no offense from Aromat, he considered him a great man, and wished to learn all he knew. Secondly Aromat had brought with him a large jar of Tekaala, the distilled fruit of a thorny desert plant.

For Tocaen this was his first taste, he was looking forward to it enormously.

With great care, almost reverently, Aromat removed the lid and poured out two bowls full. Tocaen noticed that Aromat's bowl was considerably bigger than his own. Then, together, they lifted their bowls and drank. Aromat drained his in one swift, graceful movement, obviously long practised. Tocaen tried the same trick, drinking deeply. He had taken a good mouthful and swallowed it down when the fire burst around his mouth, down his throat and into his stomach. If there had been any left in his mouth he would have coughed it out, but it was too late for that.

He tried to take a breath of cool air, but it seemed as though his throat had shrivelled up. He gasped, gasped again, forcing air in but unable to release it. His face went a strange red colour, the bowl almost broke as he tried to find something to grab hold of. Finally, with an almighty splutter he breathed out, a rasping animal sound. The adults in the crowd laughed loudly, knowingly. The children sympathised, and hoped they would not be forced to drink the vile stuff when they walked to adulthood.

Tocaen recovered quickly, ate a few bland fruits, then asked for more as the drink started to relax him. Aromat laughed loudly, clouting Tocaen on the shoulder, then poured him a large measure.

Before the food had even finished, the young women of the Circle began to gather on nearby mats, all glancing at Tocaen, waiting to catch his eye, then quickly turning away. Tocaen began to feel strange, a certain warmth had settled in his stomach, a looseness in his limbs, an easiness throughout his frame, mentally as well as physically. Most strange of all, though he had felt this before to a lesser degree, there was a tingling between his legs, a warm glow that increased when he looked at the women. He knew what would happen down there, it had happened quite regularly for about a year. Tocaen hoped the women wouldn't notice as they danced, then changed his mind and hoped they would.

Chapter Three

On the far distant Sabre ridge mountains, many miles north of Tocaen's village, something was happening. The event happened most years to varying degrees, but this year it was particularly good, from Tocaen's point of view. The thaw came early. Hundreds of square miles of mountain peaks were covered by a heavy layer of snow. Now, as the sun crept higher, the snow began to melt. Each drop fell into a trickle of water that ran down the black rock into a gully. The gullies filled and overflowed, joining with others to form streams. The cold streams plunged over ages worn falls into rivers of melt water. The rivers, by a quirk of nature ran mostly south. With the days lengthening, the flow speeded up, causing rivers to swell into torrents of cold, clear flood water, rushing and dashing down familiar canyons. Eventually the waters reached the foot of the slopes, roaring out onto the vast bowl shaped plains below. The single river that flowed deep in its channel swelled, the various lakes, protected from the greedy sun by the deep chasms, became once again inundated. Where only days earlier had been a low river and a series of small lakes, was now a vast, expanding sea of icy blue. The water had returned.

Nature, never slow to exploit a situation, exploded forth in an orgy of reproduction. Seeds left dormant since the last flood sent forth shoots, greening the desert in just a few hours. Animals buried under the dry earth awoke and began to fight for a mate. Fish in the deep channels emerged into the bright day, leaping for the newly emerged insects, swelling the already present eggs in their bellies. Reptiles and amphibians both extended their ranges, increased their diet, prepared to mate. The few large land animals, mainly mammals and flightless birds, were pushed back by the flood, or forced to wade in it.

The need to grow, to mate, to spawn, was a powerful one. Every living thing on the plains was affected, even the humans. The insects hatched from the crevices in their billions, blood suckers, plant suckers, all whirling on the waters. The smaller predators came next, larger insects, crevicemice and snap hens. Then larger herbivores like the vomps, prey for prarla and man, eagle and wingless tep-tep. The large fish called grikes ranged over ever wider areas, bringing terror to anything the grikes considered food, which seemed to consists of anything that fitted in their mouths, either whole or in pieces.

Many of the animals had developed a migratory existence, moving out with the edge of the water, returning as it receded. Others just stayed where they were and adapted to the water, growing webbed toes and larger lungs to allow them to float. Others took to the skies, shedding gossamer casings or leathery skins, revealing iridescent or brightly feathered wings. They all joined the mass of life, in some cases only to become another creatures meal. For humans as well, the time of plenty was also the time of greatest danger.

Tocaen leaned idly against the stone bridge in front of the Circle. The whole village was gathered, waiting for the return of the life bringing water. Already, the river at the bottom of the chasm was several hands above its usual level. The children of the tribe were sitting with their legs dangling over the edge, ready for the first touch of the water.

He remembered himself doing the same not so long ago, now he was a man and too old for such games. Secretly, Tocaen was extremely glad of the return to plenty, for he had a plan that required lots of food and an easy way to travel.

Life had changed considerably since last year. The water had returned within days of his walk to manhood, a good sign some said. Tocaen wasn't so sure. A year of hard work had followed, going out with the hunters to catch vomps, small, and not so small, grikes and the big walking birds with the vicious crested heads. A Tep-tep could kick a man to death with its powerful legs or split his head with one blow of its crest. He also escorted the older children on to the plains, or helped them with their archery skills. Not that he minded that much, he was young himself once, but the task was hardly exciting.

Evenings, when not out hunting nocturnal food, were spent learning the seemingly endless list of herbs and their medicinal uses. Tocaen was completely fed up with Sa saying something about a plant then adding, "But of course its very rare". He knew what would come next, he would have to find some.

Tocaen enjoyed his lessons, to a point, he realised he had to learn something, but the rules were getting on his nerves. He had expected the hunting and gathering trips to give him some freedom, but the rules were enforced even out in the middle of nowhere. Wear your hat at all times, someone would say, then someone else would say it a few heartbeats later. Never leave the Circle without a companion, someone experienced, remember you are only just a man. Always carry enough food and water for twice your journey, never sleep in the sun, don't hold that knife, never, don't, you must, you shouldn't...On and on, rules that made his head spin, and as far as he could see the rules didn't achieve anything, just old nonsense passed down the generations like the names they carried. No one knew, for instance what Tocaen actually meant.

Tocaen turned away from the Circle, leaning against the rough stone parapet. He looked out across the dry ground, in just a few days this would all be green.

Now, the rest of his name was easy enough, prarla, that was a furry creature, a big, long bodied thing with powerful claws and sharp teeth. Sunrock, another easy one, the large boulder was only a few thousteps away, a simple walk and there it was. Most of the names, either from his own or other Circles were the same; the Circle name, being most important was first, swifthawk, firefoot, grike, all other Circles and all animal names. Fissuredeep, clearstream, bluelake, roundcavern, all Blood names, and all features of the landscape, this name, telling of your parentage, came next.

Then came the oddity, Tocaen, Aromat, Arpon etc, names handed down from family to family, traded around, given as gifts or used without permission, but never, ever, changed. And all meaningless.

Tocaen turned back to the water, to find it higher still and almost to the children's feet. Soon it would spill over the banks of the chasm and creep over to the village, hissing and seeping under the stilt-legged houses. But it wouldn't stop there, the water would rise until the underneaths of the houses were only just out of the water. In some years the flood actually entered some of the lower legged ones. Of course other years it came only halfway up the legs. It wasn't just the height of the water that varied, some years the overflow came early, some late. Usually, but not always, the earlier the water, the higher it went. Sometimes the opposite was true, and occasionally the water took longer to dry out, even in years when the level was low.

Today, in anticipation of the arrival of visitors, the adults were wearing their status reeds. These were reeds dried slowly to retain their suppleness. The reed was attached to the left shoulder, nearest the arm, by a leather pocket. It showed the Circle, your skill and status, by means of coloured pennants. In the incessant wind these pennants were always visible. Something else that was annoying Tocaen today, the flapping of cloth against his face. A practised wearer could stand at just the right angle to avoid this without even thinking. Today, Tocaen chose to let it annoy him.

At the top of the reed was the Circle pennant, a prarla's head on a triangular flag for Tocaen's Circle. Next came the strips that represented skills, black for Hunter, white for novice hunter, blue for maker, green for novice, yellow for carer, orange for novice. Then grey for knower, there was no novice knower, you either knew or you didn't. At the moment, despite long lessons, Tocaen didn't know. Then came red for Circle keeper. Only one person carried the red at any one time, at the moment that was Heraapa.

The different skills where kept and taught by the Circle skill keeper, or keepers if both were equally proficient. This was represented by a coloured band at the reed end of the pennant. Thus, Tocaen's status reed had a prarla at the top, a white pennant below that for novice hunter and a faded orange one below that for novice carer. Below an empty space beneath that were hung small, personal tokens, things usually found or traded, items that meant something only to the wearer. Tocaen had a small feather that had blown into his mouth one day, and an old bone that had dug into his hand when he had been knocked down by Heraapa during fighting practice. Tocaen was convinced this represented his life.

Heraapa's reed, in contrast, was almost full up. The Circle flag at the top, followed by a red strip for Circle keeper, a black strip, with the red band of a skill keeper, then a blue strip for maker, then a yellow strip for carer. Below all that was a veritable treasure house of tokens; metal arrow heads, carved bone and ivory, grike teeth, polished stones, tiny skulls and strange bones, feathers and strips of skin. Of all the status reeds on show today, heraapa's must have weighed the most. 

In this way, members of your own and neighbouring Circles could tell at a glance where you were from and what you did, even from a distance. Although the Circles never fought, that was against the rules, some were considered more friendly than others, maybe because of blood ties, as the members of different Circles were encouraged to partner outside their own Circle, more rules, thought Tocaen.

Of course this also indicated people who were not of the Drisee, and therefore fair game, quite literally in very dry years. After the flood had brought green to the plains, Tocaen would be tested again, as he had been during the drought, on his hunting skills. As this was considered an easy season for hunting, Heraapa would not be content with a kill any less than the same size as Tocaen was himself. Then, when he had cleaned, cooked and served the kill to himself and the hunters, one of them would attack him, but they wouldn't go easy on him as they had during training. He wasn't required to win, just give a good account of himself. Only then would he be given the black strip of a hunter. So this was also a season for wounds. To earn his yellow strip he would have to heal a major injury, possibly a broken bone, by himself. If the wound was his own, so much the better.

Tocaen wasn't looking forward to that part at all, although he was strong and quite fast, he lacked what Heraapa called the killer instinct, the ability to deliver the final, fatal, blow. Yes, he was an adequate hunter, with a bow, but he hated killing prey with a knife or spear, that was too messy, and a little too personal for his liking. The choice of combatant was secretly decided by drawing of pebbles from a bag, so Tocaen wasn't to know which member of the tribe would attack him. Only Blood were exempt because of the chance of leniency. Being soft on someone on the plains was a sure method of getting them killed.
Tocaen sighed loudly, he was sick of this life. All had been fine when he was a child. Just after his walk, things had become harder, he was expected to help the Circle now, leaving very little time for himself. Aromat had told him all about the tribes in other places. How the fruit grows on trees right outside the house, how grass grows all year round, letting a man keep big, fat animals called Ship and Boors, that ate the grass and then you ate them. How buildings were made twice as high as a man, out of solid wood from the trees, which were apparently very large plants, and never got wet or cold. And large groups of men called melissa patrolled the Circles keeping danger at bay.

A child screamed as the water touched her feet, bringing Tocaen out of his reverie. The water was still rising fast. The flood would reach the village just before sundeath at this rate. Tocaen looked away. And that was another thing, how the village kept the old words for things. Everyone knew that the sun wasn't born every morning, spat from the hot earth by an enormous lizard, to sail across the sky, dying with a great hissing in the far ocean. But still they called it sunbirth and sundeath, typical. When he was Circle keeper and wore the red pennant he would drag the tribe into a new age.

For the first time, Tocaen realised he had a goal, previously he had been unable to justify his plan to leave. Now he had the perfect opportunity, if he was to learn as much as he could, he would have to visit these far off places. He could bring back seed and ships to eat, metals, and those big hairy things that men rode on. And books, Aromat had told him of books. It seemed a much better idea to make marks on paper than to try and remember everything. And writing, now there was a wonderful thing, the first opportunity he got he would learn writing.

But first things first. He would pass his skill tests, learn as much as he could from Aromat, then get a boat and ride off. Most of the rest of the Circle were standing on or near the lip of the chasm. The water had risen to within a finger of overflowing, showing no sign of stopping. The water was rising so fast this year, it was probably going to be a good season.

All the better for my plan, thought Tocaen. If the Circle had plenty to eat he wouldn't feel bad about leaving them one hunter short. More practically, it would make his departure all the swifter, all he needed was a boat. And a few supplies; his bow of course, a knife, a water skin, some food, clothes, rope, perhaps some candles, his fire rock. He groaned inwardly, he hadn't realised until now how much he would actually have to take. How was he going to carry it all?

A chanting started as the water neared the top of the crevice. A children's rhyme that called the waters on. No need for that, thought Tocaen, the waters come whether we are here or not, didn't children know anything?

As the water reached the very top, some of the adults joined in, chanting softly. There was a certain tenseness about the Circle, parents held children's hands, lovers embraced, old friends nodded wisely to each other. The chanting quieted then stopped all together as the water brimmed against the lip, surely it must overflow now? Then a loud cheer went up as the wet season returned to the Prarla camp with a vengeance. The months dry ground fizzed and bubbled as the clear water crept its way towards stilted dwellings.

In the village itself the adults had returned, busying them selves with final checks, making sure the legs of their houses were solid and secure. The boats that had been lashed under the houses since last flood were now brought out and tied to front steps. Arpon found a large star creeper nested in his, a quick flick of a knife speared the creature. The twelve legs would be pulled off and dried, to be used as arrow head covers. Its round body, with the fanged head removed, would go in the cooking pot. They weren't particularly tasty but it wasn't yet wet enough that nutrition of any kind could be wasted.

Tocaen watched the preparation from the bridge, unwilling to give up his illusion of solitude. The rising water wouldn't cut him off for some time yet, the ground being a little higher here. He had decided to return to his house at the last minute, even if his feet got wet. Once the flood had reached stilt high they would be trapped in the huts for three days or more.

Two days later a morose Tocaen sat on the front step of the hut staring into the now murky water. The level had risen steadily until late this morning, then slacked off. It had only risen another two fingers since then. So, it wasn't to be a major flood this year. The flood had come very quickly though, so perhaps it would be a long season.

His parents' boat bobbed and swung on the slight current, tugging at its tether as if eager to be free. Tocaen knew that feeling, but rules said no contact with the water until the fish returned. More rules, more confinement, more time wasted when he could be travelling. Tocaen studied the depths, he couldn't see anything, but Aromat had insisted they were there. Flick worms that hatched out with the rising water, tiny creatures that burrowed into your skin to suck your blood. Anyone even rowing a boat was bound to get a certain amount of wetness on them, so no one left their homes. Eventually the fish would rise from their hiding places in the depths of the chasms, or hatch from long buried eggs, to devour the worms voraciously, or to have the worms burrow into them.

So, as soon as the fish returned the waters would be worm free, although other creatures would stir that offered more of a hazard than itchy skin and a few days of weakness. Another rule Tocaen found annoying. A full grown grike could overturn a canoe and eat the occupants in a few heartbeats, yet hunters still went out to find them. But a few tiny worms kept the strongest men in bed.

A flash of colour caught Tocaen's eye, eagerly he scanned the water, could it have been a fish? Another flash of bright blue by his left foot. A long shape appeared near the surface. Tocaen slumped in disappointment, a ribbon fish, heights long but only as thick as his finger. Not even a fish according to Aromat, and they certainly didn't eat worms. This one was vivid blue with a scarlet stripe down its back, a warning to others that its flesh was poison. Sa used them sometimes to make a potion for fever, the flesh being only slightly poisonous to Driseeans.

Tocaen watched as the length of the ribbon fish drifted slowly by, tapping his feet in impatience. The water extended far out across the plain now, leaving the village in the midst of a vast lake, a lake ripe for travelling on, to far off places. He sighed loudly, would this waiting never end?

A few days later the all clear was given by Heraapa, who had caught a good net full of fat fish. Eagerly, the whole village, not just Tocaen, took to the water. It was good to be out, even if it was just with his father and some of the other hunters. Fish was plentiful now and would constitute most of their diet for quite a while. But the tribe needed more than food to survive the dry season. They needed weapons, wood to make and repair their homes and boats, skins and furs, and metal. 

This last item was usually traded from the travellers that came downflow on wide boats. They were small people from the mountains upflow, very strong, and clever with metal. They claimed to dig it out of deep holes in the mountains, but Tocaen didn't believe that, although he wasn't sure where it came from.

It was these for whom Tocaen waited. Because they also brought boats with them. As a man he was allowed to trade just like any one else, if he wanted a boat, and had the goods to barter, he could have a boat. This was the peg on which his plan turned, a boat was fast, faster than walking, and easier. It was also able to carry much more than he could alone, and it was almost impossible to track. It didn't have to be anything special, just a small one man open canoe would be fine. He had been stashing trade goods away for some time; herbs and the few spices that grew in the desert or the everlakes, skins of lizards and snakes, highly prized in the virtually barren mountain heights. As a novice carer he had access to the plants and knowledge of their use, so knew which ones were worth the most.

At least he hoped as much. Everything else was now ready; bow, arrows, spare string, clothes, blanket, water skin, empty for the moment of course, rope, fishing stuff, a small knife, although he hoped to get a larger one from the traders. His best fire rocks, which made sparks when struck together, his status reed, the snakes head from his walk, all stacked neatly into the old patched up sack he had been bound in. He told his mother, when she inquired, that he was getting ready in case the hut flooded. She thought this was a good idea, since the waters, although rising slower, hadn't actually stopped yet. Veekaana and Arpon set about doing the same with some of their stuff, ready to lift it out of the way.

They were late. Five days had passed since the lake had been declared safe. Five days of Tocaen trying to remain calm whilst he felt just the opposite. The traders usually arrived with the flooding of the plain. This gave them time to visit all the Circles, including the ones downflow from here, and still get back before the lake dried.

Tocaen was sitting in his parent's canoe paddling back and forth, practising for the big day. He had been shouted at by Heraapa for not wearing his hat, and so was sulking, mumbling about stupid rules. A shout went up from the other side of the village, "The traders! The traders are here!"

Tocaen looked up, at last, they were here. He dug deep into the water with his fathers paddle, almost turning a full circle in his haste. He cursed himself for not being around the other side, he would probably get last choice now, although he wasn't sure if anyone else wanted a boat.

By the time he had mastered the canoe and retrieved his trade goods he reached the mainhouse almost last. The wide landing, specially made for occasions like this, had become a market place. Its stilted boards creaked alarmingly under the trample of eager buyers. Tocaen was relieved to see several trade boats, all of which seemed well stocked. 

He had decided, as he wanted a canoe, to row round to the market. As he approached he saw several boats tied in a chain floating behind one of the barges. He rushed towards them, not noticing he was being watched.

There were several canoes here, all well crafted from seasoned wood. Some were painted bright colours, no good for what Tocaen intended. Most of the canoes were big enough for two or four persons, but there was one, just one, single person canoe, just right for him. He paddled along side it. Yes, it was just right, if only he had enough to trade. He looked up. Standing on the deck of the barge was a small, wide man. he was grinning, his teeth showing pearly white. The man winked a grey eye and said, "You like that 'un is it?" in a thick accent. Tocaen, who had watched his father deal with traders before, knew just what to say. "It's not bad, I might be interested, if there's nothing else I like."

But the trader had seen Tocaen rushing over, knew a young man's dream when he saw it in his eyes. "Good 'un it is, not better on this trip, sold easy that 'un, here or there next stop." The trader crossed his arms, as if he had already sold the boat.

"So, what would you want for it then?" Asked Tocaen, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice. The trader had him on a hook, now to just reel him in. "Well, its real wood that 'un, none yer reeds or grasses an' like. Lot of effort gone in it. Couple weight of spices, reckon, easy." The trader had decided to clean this youngster out, and make him glad of it.

Tocaen sagged, he had barely one weight, enough to hold in his cupped hands. "How about skins? I've got furred lizard pelts, good ones, they always go well." He rummaged around at his feet to dig out the pelts.

"Well, normal like, easy, this season, not so pop'lar. Need good ten hands, good size 'uns it is, no scraps."

"What!" Tocaen exclaimed, "Fifty pelts for a boat, no deal, I could buy this barge for that many." His faced dropped another notch.

"Not this year 'un. Bad year for wood, crop not up proper. Short it is. Next year, better, plant 'un early. You not dealin I got other 'un." The trader pretended to walk away.

"No, wait! What about both, I mean spices and pelts, I've got tar bush flower, and low rockbladders, good stuff. And these pelts," he held up the winter-skinned fur lizard pelts. "Not big ones but good fur, not a sign of moult."

The trader stood as if in thought for a while, fancy the poor kid thinking wood grew in a field like oats. But the pelts were good, and tar bush flower quite rare, that alone was probably worth the whole canoe. "Let 'un see, maybe can find some'un I likes." The man knelt down on the low deck and took Tocaen's stash. Tocaen was shaking with anticipation, let there be enough, he chanted mentally, just let there be enough.

"Well," said the man after an interminably long time, "These pelts is good, small 'uns, but good, some spice good, some is weed, know? Tell 'un what, you young 'un, like you, that canoe for all this, fair deal, straight?" He held out his hands, crossed at the wrist. Tocaen smiled, crossed his own hands and grasped the traders, "Straight". The deal was done, Tocaen had a boat at last.

Tocaen waited as the man untied the canoe from the chain and pushed it out to him. He took the mooring rope, tied it to his father's canoe and started to row back. He stopped mid stroke. No!, he had spent his entire cache on the boat and had nothing left for a knife. The trader, worried he was going to come back and ruin the best deal he'd made this trip, shouted out, "Some'un wrong, young 'un?"

"No, well, yes, I wanted a hunting knife as well, but I've nothing left."

The trader rubbed his chin a moment, "Know, I sick of fish, bring meat, for my supper, 'fore leave 'un. I give you best knife on barge. Straight?"

Tocaen was beaming, "Straight!" he shouted and paddled off to get his bow. Meat, not fish, but meat came in all types, if it came out the water it was still meat. He knew just where to go.

- Copyright Steve Dean