At dusk – which was as dark and gloomy as every other part of the day – Mehrak went out to scavenge the forest floor for scuttling beasts. It appeared to Sammy that the people of Perseopia weren’t as close to the top of the food chain as they were where she came from. She couldn’t understand why Mehrak wasn’t able to snare anything larger than rats or bugs. Weren’t there any wild pigs, cows or giant mice or something?
She watched him go. He was so enthusiastic about his gathering. It was really quite sweet. If any of the boys she knew were as eager to do their school work as Mehrak was to forage, they’d be bullied mercilessly.
Sammy turned away and bounded up the soft, spongy hoods of several small mushrooms, using them as springy stepping stones to take her higher. And it wasn’t long before she reached Louis’s head height.
Louis waved an ear at her. She was beginning to recognise more of the signs he made using his ears. The few basic words she’d picked up already included: hungry, thirsty, tired, yes, no, and – of course – mushroom. Although mushroom wasn’t always obvious as Louis seemed to have as many words for mushroom as Eskimos have for snow.
On this occasion, Sammy couldn’t understand what he was signing so she called out to Mehrak. A short while later, he appeared below, carrying a dirty, turnip-shaped vegetable.
“What is it?” he called up. He put the turnip in a bag and wiped his hands with a small cloth that hung from his belt.
Sammy nodded in the direction of Louis’s rotating ears.
“It’s a man,” Mehrak said.
“Somewhere in that direction,” Mehrak pointed. “Ten stadia away, sitting by a campfire.”
“Ten stadia? How far is that?”
“Erm.” Mehrak looked about, searching for something. His eyes stopped on Louis. “See Louis?”
“Yeah,” Sammy said. “I see him.” He was pretty hard to miss, being roughly the length of a train carriage.
“Imagine twenty gastrosaurs, just like him, in a row, head to tail. That’s one stadion.”
“The man is two hundred gastrosaurs away? Louis can smell him that far away?”
“He can. He can hear the snap of the man’s camp fire too, if he angles his ears just right.”
“Interesting,” she said as she started making her way down the mushrooms.
“Louis warned us of the crabmen the other night. And they were twenty stadia away.”
“Are we going to go over there and meet him?” she asked as she reached the ground and walked over.
“Meet him? The man?”
“No.” Mehrak picked up his vegetables and carried them to the backdoor. “He might be dangerous.” He stepped onto Louis’s tail and got lifted to the hatch.
“Why?” Sammy took the tail lift up, closing the hatch behind her. She turned the wheel to lock the door and went up the stairs after Mehrak. “Will he be a wolfman who shoots laser beams from his eyes?”
Mehrak stopped. “A wolfman?” He took a spoon and tried the soup that was bubbling on the stove. “That’s hardly likely, is it?”
“Crabmen, wasters, lake monsters, wolfmen – everything that lives in Perseopia is horrible.”
Mehrak pointed at himself with the spoon. “Everything?”
“Maybe he’s nice like you are.”
Mehrak gave the soup a stir then carried it to the table. “You can’t pick up everyone you meet in the Fungi Forest. There are a lot of crazies.”
“You picked me up.”
Mehrak poured the soup into two bowls. “That’s true, but Louis could tell you were young, scared and sort of familiar.” He shrugged. “You’re young and naive. This man is, er, a few years older. I’m sure he can look after himself.”
“How old was your wife? She wasn’t fine.”
Mehrak bristled, but said nothing. He put the empty pan in the sink and then sat down at the table. He concentrated on stirring his soup and didn’t make eye contact.
After a while he sighed and shook his head. “Finish your soup first, then.”