Gollum’s horse-deer came sliding to a stop about ten yards away from us. It didn’t seem to be well suited for riding, it was more like when a little kid rides a dog. Or when Johnny Depp rides a capybara into the pool at Kiefer Sutherland’s house. He (the spindly dude not the furry horse) seemed more curious about us than afraid, but he wasn’t going to be coming any closer either. His clothing looked like it was burlap or canvas or something coarse like that. His feet were all gnarled and bloated so much I’m not sure you could have gotten a normal shoe or a boot over it – ironically it looked like the “boot” print we found earlier was some kind of sandal that he had attached to his foot like a horseshoe.
He had a pouch/pocket with a tool of some kind sitting in it, I wouldn’t call it a knife, it was more like a sharpened rock. What it looked like was one of those things you see in a museum in the Neanderthal exhibit, a scraper I guess they call them. I don’t know if it was intended to be a weapon but he kept his hand close to it most of the time. Every few moments he touched the “handle” like you see someone patting their wallet to make sure it’s there.
He wasn’t as hard to understand as the traders but it was still a struggle. He mumbled, combined, contracted, and truncated words seemingly at random. I swear that he kept asking us if we were men, which makes absolutely no sense. Martialla? Maybe. If you just caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of your eye she’s mannish enough that you might make that mistake until you looked right at her. Which you wouldn’t because you’d be looking at me. Because there is no way anyone would ever think I was a dude. I was number thirty-seven on Maxim’s hot one hundred last year! I guess everyone on that list is dead so I suppose I’m number one now. Which is nice for me. Number one baby!
After that I’m ninety percent sure that he asked us if we were cars. After a lot of back and forth and pantomime we determined that he does know what a car is, same as us, but it was too hard to figure out what he was trying to ask about them. We asked if there were still cars or how he knows about them and he looked at us like a dog looks at an answering machine when it hears its master’s voice coming from it. This communication problem is going to get really old really fast. The one thing we did understand is when he asked us why we had masks on. We told him it was because of the air and he sniffed a bit and then shrugged. I don’t know why exactly, but seeing such a normal human gesture like that almost made me cry. It was a gesture that wasn’t like we were in a post-apocalyptic hellhole, it was more like I had just asked someone what time the Scorpion King was playing and they didn’t know.
I asked him about the guy with the potato head that killed the trader and he got all bent out of shape. I think what he said was that lumpy is one of the invincible and that’s why he (spindly not lumpy) was out there – scouting for his village to see how far Mr. Potatohead and his potatohead friends had come into their valley. He didn’t seem jazzed about them being so close. We tried to ascertain what he meant exactly by “invincible” but that was lost in translation. Or maybe he was just too agitated to pay attention. He wanted us to come back to his village so we could tell “Kway” what we had seen.
Following him seemed like a bad idea, but it was also the reason we were out there. The only choices we have now are likely going to be bad ones. We agreed to go with him and he turned his animal, which is more the size of a pony than a horse or a deer close up, and we followed. Its tail wasn’t really like that of a horse or a deer, it was more like a short lion tail – smooth and then a big puff of hair like a horse’s mane at the end.
Martialla looked over at me “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Maybe we were asleep for a lot longer than a hundred years. I mean what the hell is this animal? It would take millions of years for a new species to evolve!”
I frowned “Who the hell knows? Maybe when they blew up the Coca-Cola bottling plant all the chemicals got in the water and that sped up the evolutionary process. Like what happened to Joker in the Batman.”
She stared at me “I don’t even know how to respond to that statement.”
As we trailing along behind him our new friend chattered away over his shoulder, mostly about how he wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers and how brave he was for doing so. Seems like he might be a kid. It’s hard to tell based on his appearance but he acts like a kid. Although would you send a kid out to scout for lumpy-headed murderers? You might if you didn’t like him too much. We passed through an area of tall grass and I could hear something moving parallel to us. I caught sight several times of some mean looking dog. Our guide didn’t seem concerned in the least though, he said that we were too big to be attacked by “daws”.
As we got closer to the lake, we noticed that the plumes of smoke we had seen from the hills were coming from there too. Eventually we saw some villages. And by villages I guess I mean ramshackle collections of huts clustered around very rickety looking docks out into the greasy water. The huts had some scraps of metal and tattered plastic in them, but they were mostly made up of sticks and mud it seemed like. I’m not sure what good they would even do. Being in a mud house during the rain seems worse than just being rained on.
The lake stank like it was a chemical factory or something. Dead fish or toxic waste, that you expect in a lake smell, but this was like an oil refinery. I felt like I might puke at any moment – which would really suck when you have a mask on. Sure, I have no idea what an oil refinery smells like, but this is what I assume it smells like. From a distance, the water looked murky and gross but up close it looked like a tar pit mixed with vinaigrette mixed with a trout smoothie.
Our arrival caused quite a stir. The tiny dirty people poking the water with long sticks all ran out at us like it was a Viking raid. Our guide, who may have told us his name somewhere in his gibberish, rode forward, presumably to calm them down, and was promptly yanked off his animal and tossed to the ground like a sack of dirt.
The yanker looked like the only one of the bunch to top five feet and was looking marginally less scrawny, while being no less dirty. He had a bunch of rags wrapped about his head and his stick looked more like an actual spear instead of just a long pointed pole – clearly a leader. I can’t articulate the difference between a pointy stick and a spear but you know it when you see it. He used said spear to poke at our new friend with the non-pointy end and bark at him as he lay on the ground arguing with him.
Martialla looked over at me “Should we do something?”
“The bossman is clearly not happy to see us, I feel like intervening would make things worse.” I looked around at the compost heap of a village “I’m not sure if I should feel relieved or insulted that they don’t want us here.”