Wherein: A Tribe Arrives on the Island
A Pack of Boys
Paramon worked on a net draped across his lap. Every so often, he looked out at the green sea, the crests foaming milk white. He loved the work of repairing nets, the needlework that made his thin hands useful. There were so many chores on the island that a man of small stature wasn’t as good for, but he was surprisingly skilled at repairing nets. Down the shoreline, the Shiths were clearing debris from their nets, while Hubter and his boys fished with long handled scoops in the waves. Ulgo, Wen, and Fearn were teaching the children to cut long beach grass for weaving. It was a companionable morning. The sun was warm and the sand sloped gently from the dunes into a long roll of shoreline. It didn’t look like it would grow hotter or draw to a close. It seemed like morning forever on an early summer day.
Paramon was looking down at his hands maneuvering the needle, when he heard a shout and looked up. His stomach lurched. There were boats on the horizon. He let the needle and the net fall to the sand as he stood. There were boats on the horizon. He felt all of the other settlers around him slowly cease what they were doing, fall silent, and step closer to the ocean, staring out.
He whispered, “There are boats on the horizon!”
Onan and Winder, out past the surf in their fishing boat, stood and gestured wildly, causing the boat to tip and rock. They waved and pointed and shouted at the boats. Paramon stared past them. He blinked and rubbed his eyes. To see something on that horizon which had so long been clear, it made him doubt his vision. It made him doubt all of their vision. He wondered, could we all be having the same dream? Paramon looked around at the others. Without speaking, Wen gathered all the children on the beach together. Onan and Winder rowed furiously through the surf to shore. They pulled their boat onto land and ran up the beach to stand beside Paramon. He did not take his eyes off the boats to look at them. There were as many as five boats closing in on the island.
“What are we going to do?” Onan’s voice trembled with eagerness.
Hubter joined them and said grimly, “Klek and May, take Lup and collect weapons. Get everyone else out here.”
Klek asked, “What weapons?”
Hubter growled, “Find some!” The boys ran over the dunes, turning to look behind them, shading their eyes. The men looked at each other. Ulgo and Wen took the children to the top of the dunes, but waited there, still looking, mesmerized, out to sea.
Winder repeated, “What are we going to do?”
Five boats, bigger by far than what the settlers had arrived on, were coming in fast. Oars sliced the sea and pulled the boats in, closing the vast ocean space.
They heard running footsteps and turned. Maynard appeared on the dunes. Red-faced and out of breath, Maynard shouted, “Paramon, trouble!”
Hostt and Bearnt appeared behind Maynard, passing him and pounding down the dunes right in his direction. Before he could cry out, his arms were grabbed and wrenched brutally from behind by Bearnt, he was dragged several feet, and then Hostt’s face, purple with rage and exertion, was right in his own, shouting. Paramon could smell their unwashed stink, and fought to get his arms loose. Hostt shouted, “Where are the weapons?” Paramon stared at the thick red lips, uncomprehending.
“What?” Paramon struggled to get his burning arms loose from Bearnt’s powerful grip. Abruptly, he was stunned by a punch that made his skull shake. Instantly, his head began to throb. He ducked and twisted to block his face from a second blow. “What are you doing?” He could taste blood as he spoke.
He heard a loud crack. Suddenly, Bearnt let go of him and Paramon fell down onto one hand and his knees. When he looked up, Hostt was across from him on his own knees, his hand to his head, blood pouring out through his fingers. Maynard stood above Bearnt, gesturing with a hunk of driftwood. The men, evenly matched, circled each other.
Maynard was joined by Hubter and Onan. Hubter said Bearnt, “You’ll answer to all of us.” Paramon’s jaw throbbed and he pushed himself to his feet. Hostt swayed on his knees, holding his head. Hubter spat in the sand at Hostt, saying, “You stupid good-for-nothing lout. Can’t you see we have problems enough?” He pointed a long finger out at the boats.
“You’re worms,” hissed Bearnt, his face dripping with sweat and shining in the sun, “you think we’re afraid? You’re the fools. Hiding the weapons! I’ll kill you. . .” Paramon’s heart pounded and he could not understand what was happening. He had been attacked, and now they were being threatened, and were there still boats on the horizon? He turned and saw the boats, encroaching relentlessly. He looked up the dunes. The women and children all stared in dismay at the arguing men and at the boats out on the sea.
Elder and the boys appeared above them, running over the dunes, two boys carrying a sagging blanket between them. Sillith, Liny, Svan, Lutto, Insnar and Ethete came after them. They all stopped and stared, open-mouthed, at the boats on the horizon and at the men fighting on the shore.
“Weapons!” Klek and May shouted, “Come!” They pointed at the blanket and when they reached the beach, threw it down and spread it open.
“Look how close they are!” Liny shouted, pointing out to sea.
“Leave him,” Paramon murmured to Maynard. He said to Bearnt, “Can we assume these are your weapons?”
“Paramon!” Sillith ran down the dune. Paramon gave her a quick hug but pushed her safely behind him. “What happened, Paramon?”
Paramon said, “Hostt and Bearnt think that fighting amongst ourselves is the best way to greet outsiders.”
“You had it coming a long time, Wharsh.”
“Like hell he did,” Maynard said, brandishing his log. “Get away from him.”
From the dunes, Liny said in disgust, “What the hell are you all doing? There are boats out there!”
Bearnt marched to the blanket. He hissed at the boys and Elder standing around it, “Who stole these?”
Elder grinned at him, took a long flat blade from the heap of sharp tools on the blanket, and walked toward the churning waves, saying over his shoulder, “Someone needed to make sure these were in a safe place when we needed them, and not in each other’s skulls.”
Bearnt’s face moved in dismay, and he looked at Hostt, who sat in the sand and stared out at the water as if in shock. “Fine!” Bearnt growled, “We won’t be killed with you soft fools!” He took a handful of knives from the heap and roused Hostt, who didn’t seem to understand. Bearnt helped Hostt to his feet. With Bearnt’s handful of knives, weaving under Hostt’s weight, they moved south on the beach, alone.
Maynard turned and said to Hubter, “Shall we?” and gestured at the blanket.
“Doesn’t look like you need it,” Hubter said, nodding to the driftwood still clutched in Maynard’s hand.
Maynard dropped the wood and Paramon said, “It looks like we’ve gone native, now, eh?” He grinned at Maynard.
“Are you all right, Paramon? I was afraid he was going to kill you.”
“He might have,” Paramon said. “I could use some lessons in fighting.”
Paramon reached in a pulled out a short thin blade. He looked at it and shrugged. He couldn’t imagine using it, driving it into flesh. His jaw throbbed, and the vulnerability of the body was on him. He threw the blade back on the pile. The settlers gathered around the blanket, which had been lowered to the sand. Some of the boys reached in wonderingly and took a spear or a knife out. Others moved away from the weapons. They turned to look at the boats. The boats drew closer.
Each boat carried a mass of dark heads. Faces peered around the elaborate mastheads, many faces.
Paramon moved to Sillith’s side and put his arm around her. He felt the other families gather together on the beach. They looked at the masts, at the oars, at the proud carvings on the prow of the boats that cut smartly through the surf. One boat appeared to carry horses (horses!).
“Paramon!” Sillith murmured, “did you ever imagine?”
The settlers watched speechless as the shore was breached, as the boats crested the waves, elegantly and surely. The people in the boats, all dark-haired and darker skinned than the settlers, chattered to one another as they rocked in the shallower surf.
As the first boat drew into the shallows, a short, strong man leapt into the water and pulled the boat after him with a long, taut rope. The other boats were landed in the same efficient manner. Bodies poured over the sides of the boat into the sea with yelps and splashes, and children handed down, two on each hip of the women, as they stepped out of the water onto the beach, chattering in an unfamiliar language while the boats were hauled higher onto shore.
Paramon felt embarrassed about the weapons, about the way they were heaped in a blanket, the way that those who held them, held them without familiarity. Watching the newcomers, Paramon knew they must look like what they were. A rag-tag settlement. Poor and ungoverned. There was no way for the settlers to defend themselves against such a huge tribe. There were twice as many of the newcomers than there were settlers. Paramon counted them, realizing helplessly that they were outnumbered. They watched as a group of men unrolled a wrap of spears, took one each, and stood at attention, as if waiting for their leader’s call to drive them through the hearts of the settlers.
The short, broad leader, who’d been the first to jump from the boats, strode to where the men stood in front of all the other settlers who crowded the dunes behind them.
The man spoke to the settlers in his language. Paramon watched him, heard the guttural noises and saw that hand gestures were part of the language. None of the settlers moved. After a pause, Paramon realized it would be up to him to communicate with the man. Paramon stepped forward and put his palms out to show that he did not understand.
The man nodded impatiently and continued to speak in a loud, stentorian voice, looking at each of them in turn, and making great sweeping gestures at the people behind him, at the ocean beyond. It was clear that he was giving some sort of speech, to which the bemused settlers listened without comprehension, their mouths gaping.
Finally the man pointed to himself and said the word, “Umar.”
He pointed to Paramon. Paramon nodded, understood, pointed to himself and said, “Paramon.” Umar nodded and grinned back at him. Paramon was unnerved by this exchange, which seemed peaceable enough, but also marked Paramon as the leader. How were they to explain that they had no leader?
Just then Mithic Tallo arrived, running over the dunes, staggering down the deep sand and shouting. The dark-haired newcomers all began twittering and laughing and talking amongst themselves at the sight of the frantic man.
“Who are they?” Mithic shouted, “Who do they think they are? They can’t be here! Tell them, Maynard! Tell them! They can’t know we’re here!” He ran to the blanket and grabbed a small knife, waving it in front of him.
Maynard stepped in front of Mithic, stopping him, his back to the crowd on the beach, talking fast, and he took the knife away easily from Mithic, and put his arm across Mithic’s chest to block him. The newcomers murmured and laughed.
Hubter and Onan said, “What are we going to do now, Paramon?”
Umar issued a gruff command over his shoulder, and a huge group of the women, younger men, and children came to him. By the pride in his posture and the likenesses among them, it was clear that this was his family.
There was a long silence, the ocean rolling in toward them all.
Paramon said, “Hubter, show him your family.”
Hubter nodded, looked at Umar’s family, then turned and called to the dunes, “Ulgo?”
Ulgo hesitated. She looked at the women in Umar’s group and they, seeing Hubter speak to her, smiled broad encouragement, and beckoned her closer. Ulgo and the eight Leggith children descended the dunes, graceful on their long legs, the smaller ones clustering in Ulgo’s skirt. Umar laughed with delight when the family was gathered and he pointed to each of the children and the parent they resembled, and turned to his family, encouraging them to join him in his admiration.
His posture, his spirit, was one of a leader. Paramon admired it. There was a kind of hunger in him, seeing it. His sense of confidence, pride, his lack of vulnerability, even here, on their land, was impressive. Paramon wondered, with a start, what their lives would have been like if they’d had someone so strong, so forthright, so willing to lead in the settlement. His jaw ached and he had no idea what he should do. He stared at Umar and his family, and looked at Hubter, who stared impassively back, waiting.
Paramon turned back to Umar. With a sweeping gesture, Paramon motioned toward the tribe behind Umar, the horses, the piled stores of goods on the boats. He raised his shoulders, and held out his hands in question. Umar pointed down at the beach upon which they stood and spoke emphatically.
“He means to stay!” said Onan.
Paramon shook his head at Umar, no.
Umar raised his eyebrows and hammered his spear on the ground three times.
While the settlers watched, ten men, already armed, stood in a half-circle before them. In a moment, ten more were armed with spears and at a command from Umar, all spears were lowered at once, pointed towards the settlers.
Paramon looked at the spears, the expressions on the men’s faces, Umar’s expression. They would kill all of the settlers, he could see. In fact, he realized that Umar considered them such a negligible threat that the only reason he didn’t kill them at once was because he didn’t fear them in the least. Paramon thought, he might not care if he kills us or not. His heart hammered as he imagined his daughter in the crowd behind him.
Paramon bent low to his waist, bowed, and spread his arms in welcome.
“What are you doing,” hissed Tallo.
“Saving us,” whispered Liny, “can’t you see they mean to stay, whether they kill us or not? Paramon is trying to save our lives.”
Umar spoke to one of the men. Half of his men raised their spears to a resting position, though the other half kept them lowered at the settlers. One of his men turned and called to a bunch of boys. Together, they waded into the surf, opened a hinged plank from the side of one of the boats, and coaxed a horse from the boat to the land.
This horse, a fine chestnut color, was led to the settlers. Umar stepped in and took the leather bridle from his man. He said some words and handed the bridle to Hubter, beaming, his teeth white and strong.
“A gift,” said Paramon.
“I don’t want a gift,” Hubter muttered, “I want them to leave.”
“Don’t refuse it.”
Hubter took the reigns of the horse and nodded at Umar. His children moved forward to the front of the horse, cooing and talking with excitement.
Paramon smiled at the tribe, and spread his arms again. Then Paramon gestured toward Umar’s tribe and pointed to the North of the island. He stamped on the ground with a foot, and pointed North. Paramon knew it was risky to try and tell this man what to do, but he felt he had to try. The settlers might be able to have some dignity, if at least they chose where the newcomers were to go.
Umar gave him a half-grin, staring at him, measuring him. He cocked his head and looked at Paramon’s jaw, murmuring something. Already, Paramon knew nothing escaped this man’s attention and assumed his face must bear the mark of Hostt’s blow. His method was honesty, so Paramon chose it here. He turned his head slightly, and let Umar get a better look at his jaw. Paramon raised his eyebrows as if it was a joke.
Paramon looked into the man’s wide dark eyes. There was humor in them, intelligence. Paramon held out his hand. Umar stared at it, and looking up at Paramon, lifted his own short broad palm. Paramon clasped and shook it. Umar was surprised and laughed out loud. Behind him, the children of his tribe began mimicking it with one another and giggling.
Umar began to move among the settler men, taking their hands and shaking them, laughing at his new trick. He paused at Liny, whose smile was brilliant with curiosity and excitement and Umar thumped him on the chest while he shook his hand.
After this, Umar turned to his people, hammered his spear on the ground, and pointed North, speaking again in his booming voice.
Paramon felt he ought to at least put on some kind of show, so he turned to the settlers and in a loud voice said, “They aren’t going to kill us, but they are going to stay. Looks like they’ve taken my suggestion about going to the North end. Don’t question me on this in front of them, because we are not respected. We’ll talk about this when we get back to the clearing. Hubter, Maynard, Liny and I will show them to the North. He seems to like Liny. We’ll have the swamp between us and Maynard has it mapped out. We can keep scouts there to protect ourselves. I don’t know anything else right now to do, but we’re not being massacred, so diplomacy is still the order of the day. ” The settlers stared at him in shock. He looked at Sillith and Liny, who smiled encouragingly back.
Maynard said, “Well done, then. Shall we? He’s waiting.”
Umar was waiting for them to finish. When Paramon turned to him, Umar nodded and pointed north. Paramon pointed also, and over his shoulder said to the others, “I suggest you sit here and watch. We want them to have the impression of being watched. Someone keep your eye out for Bearnt and Hostt, in case they show up, and Onan, keep Mithic steady.”
“Steady!” Mithic said in disgust, sitting primly in the sand. “You give away the island and we’re supposed to be steady.” Onan rolled his eyes at Paramon and the settlers sat in the dunes to watch the unloading of the boats.