Chapter 5 - The Shaman of the Forest
With Friendship running fast before the wind and her rain-barrels full of fresh water once again, it was time for Sally and Tom to slip away back to Four Corner House. They said goodbye to Captain Bailfast, Phlegm, Rita and all the crew. Then they ducked through the Door and went upstairs to change out of their wet clothes. They had no time to lose.
Let’s get going,” Tom called across the landing between their rooms.
“What do you think could be wrong?” Sally called back. “Maybe something is hunting them?”
“The river dolphins are pretty big,” said Tom. “And pretty fast.”
“Well, nobody’s ever actually seen one,” Sally said. “…Do you suppose they could learn Marcopolon too?”
“Of course,” Tom said, frowning. He was following his own train of thought. “Bluebeak said they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. If something was hunting them, surely they would have just said so.”
“Unless it’s an invisible predator,” Sally suggested. She had opened the closet in her room where she kept various supplies for adventuring and scanned each shelf carefully. “Let’s see. What should we take? Do we have any…any…”
“Come on,” Tom said. “It’s not like we have a spray for keeping them off, whatever they are.”
“I know,” said Sally. “I was just looking for inspiration…Wait a minute – it could also be something very small.”
“Sure. Why not? They can be dangerous too.”
Tom shrugged. “Sure. It could be anything,” he said. “The sooner we get to the forest, the sooner we’ll find out. Are you ready?” He had changed into a pair of strong walking boots, shorts and a T-shirt. In his backpack, along with some sandwiches and cake, he had packed his fishing-rod and net.
“I think so,” said Sally. She was also dressed in light clothes with a good pair of shoes for hiking through the forest. She was carrying her bow and, instead of a backpack, a quiverful of arrows into which she had tucked her sandwiches and water bottle.
A moment later they were standing outside Forest Door. “You go first,” Sally said, “I got to go first through Ocean Door.”
“Thanks,” said Tom happily. He took a deep breath. He turned the handle and opened the Door. Right away they could feel the warm, humid air of the forest on their skin and hear the familiar sounds of insects and birds and monkeys in the trees. It was the end of the afternoon. Tom stepped through. In some ways, the forest was his favourite place; he loved the way the leaves of the trees scattered the sunlight and made a wonderland of shadows and sudden shafts of golden-green light. He climbed on top of a thick root to get his bearings. Sally climbed up beside him.
“Where exactly are we?” she asked.
“We just need to locate the river,” Tom murmured, “then we can find our way…” He pivoted slowly, using his eyes and ears to try to locate the river. Usually this was easy: even at night the river shone like a wide sheet of silver, and its low soft voice as it flowed past mud-bars and over sunken logs and brushed against the deep green banks was unmistakeable. In Marcopolon the rainforest was called the riverforest, because of the way the river and the trees mingled together, seeming to flow into each other. For some reason, however, Tom could not immediately find the river, and he made a second complete turn, balancing on the root. “That’s strange,” he said. “We must have come through in a part of the forest we haven’t seen before.”
“But isn’t that the swing?” Sally asked, pointing overhead at a long rope braided out of vines with a piece of wood for a seat.
“How can it be?” Tom asked. “We made the swing so it would go out over the water, remember? You grab hold of it on the bank, and take a run, and swing out over the water…Oh no,” he said.
“What is it?”
“This is the river,” Tom said slowly. “We’re standing in it. This big root is normally under water! Remember how you have to swing out over it so you don’t get a bump when you drop into the water?”
“But then – where’s the water?” Sally asked.
“It’s gone,” said Tom, shocked. “It’s just…gone. The river is all dried up. No wonder the river dolphins are in trouble!”
He slumped to the ground and stared straight ahead, his face pale. Sally rested a hand on his shoulder. “It can’t be all dried up,” she said. “It must still rain every day. That would give the river some water, wouldn’t it?”
“Look how muddy it is,” Tom said. “This is all that’s left! A trickle!” He pointed to the ground, where a little stream ran over pebbles and stones and bright green moss.
“Let’s walk upstream,” Sally urged. “Don’t despair. Maybe there’s something blocking it. Or maybe – maybe it’s just changed course. Come on.” She pulled Tom to his feet. He stood with his shoes in the tiny stream and gazed bleakly away into the distance. But Sally gave him a gentle shove and they set off along the muddy riverbed, their eyes fixed to the trickle of water as if it were a thread that someone had left for them to follow.
At first the stream was so narrow that the children could straddle it as they walked, but gradually it grew wider, and they had to jump from one side to the other if they wanted to cross. It grew deeper as well, about as deep as a bath at home would be, and in a few places where the river-bed turned or fell, the water picked up speed and even managed to wink and foam a little; but nobody would ever have guessed that this was the once-mighty river of the forest where paddle-boats had once taken newly arrived prospectors with the gleam of gold in their eyes up-river to stake a claim and brought them back, if they were lucky, with a half-dozen soft gold wafers in one hand and their trusty ball of wax in the other. Nor was it the river where the forest-dwellers fished and swam and raced their dug-out canoes. Normally Sally and Tom came across either the prospectors or the people of the forest within minutes of arriving. Today, however, although the tree-tops were full of sifting animal life, there did not seem to be any people around.
As evening fell the mosquitoes and other insects began to bother them, especially the large bees known as eye-lickers who settled on their faces to drink their sweat and had to be picked off carefully so they did not sting. Without the cooling effect of the river, the air beneath the trees was muggy and warm, and they stopped for a drink of water. “It’ll be night soon,” Sally said. “Maybe we better make camp. If it gets too dark we won’t be able to find our way.”
“We still have at least an hour,” Tom said stubbornly.
But Sally was right, now was the time to choose a campsite and prepare something to eat. They found a dry spot a few feet from the edge of the stream and made a fire and took out their sandwiches.
“Might as well try my fishing rod,” Tom said. He caught an eye-licker and baited his hook with it. He walked down to the stream and let the line trail in the water. “Hey!” he called. “Bring the net! I think I caught something!”
Sure enough, there was a fish seemingly clutching at the end of the line, not struggling as if it wanted to escape but bending its body as if trying to hold on. Sally scooped it out of the water onto a rock. And then, before their eyes, something peculiar happened: the fish’s scales seemed to knit together and change from silver to brown, and its body grew longer and rounder and sprouted arms and legs, until a man lay there instead of a fish. He had short black hair and wore a pouch on a string around his neck, and he was gasping for breath.
“A shape-shifter!” Tom whispered. “We could be in luck.” He gave a deep bow. “Are you all right?” he asked. “Can we help you?”
“Just need to catch my breath,” the shaman said, his chest heaving. “Phew! Good thing I managed to grab onto your line. I was quite weak!”
“Have you been a fish for long?” Sally asked politely.
“I’m not sure,” the shaman said. “A few days, I should think.”
“We’re Tom and Sally, from Four Corner House,” Tom said. “The dolphins of the western sea asked us to come here. They were afraid that something bad was happening to their cousins.”
“Ah,” the shaman said. “The river dolphins. Well, they were right. Something is happening – something very bad,” and they all turned to look at the river, flowing quietly past under the first stars of evening. The shaman had sat up on the rock; now he stood up and, bending deeply, returned Tom’s bow. “Thank you again for saving me. I am Orubo, shaman of the forest people. Like you, I was sent by my tribe to find out what is wrong with the river. Her strength has been stolen, as you can plainly see. She can no longer look after her children – the trees, the tribe, the fish, even the tiny water-spiders are in grave danger. The dolphins, guardians of the river in earlier times, have gone to a creek they know of, deep in the forest, and called a meeting of their kind to consider what must be done; but they need our help.”
“But – what is happening?” Sally asked.
“I became a fish to see for myself,” the shaman explained.
“And? What did you find out?”
Orubo shook his head sadly. “Everywhere I swam, I spoke to the children of the river, and their tale was always the same. They told me a new man had appeared in the forest, and gathered together all the goldfishers – ” this was Marcopolon for prospectors – “and took them upriver to build a huge dam.”
“But why?” Tom objected. “Why would the goldfishers want to build a dam? If they stop up the river, they won’t be able to fish for gold anymore.”
Orubo nodded. “So I went to see this dam myself, a long, long journey for a small fish. But eventually I reached the goldfisher’s camp, and I saw the man who had come to command them, and then I understood. He has promised them great wealth, and taken all their wax, and squeezed it together into one gigantic ball, the height of twenty men; and this he lowers into the reservoir behind the dam until it sinks beneath the water, and then he pulls it up again with the help of a cranes and it is covered all over with a skin of gold flakes. Then the men start scraping the gold off, and they bring it to him, and he melts it all together in a huge furnace. All this I saw for myself,” the shaman concluded, pointing at his chest.
“You were right,” Tom said to Sally. “There is something blocking the river. We have to find this man, and get him to take away the dam again.”
“He sounds very greedy,” Sally said. “And very…forceful. Who is he? Where does he come from?”
“The goldfishers call him Raspadero, the rasping-stick, because he shouts a lot and complains of everything,” the shaman explained. “But – as to where he comes from…well…” and he looked away as if embarrassed.
“Tell us,” Tom said. “We need to know everything, so we can help you and the river dolphins and everyone else. Maybe we can talk to him.”
“Maybe you can,” the shaman said. “Maybe you can.” He looked from Tom to Sally, then heaved a sigh. “Can it be true? You see, the dolphins told me…Raspadero came through the Door.”
“Impossible!” Sally declared. “My father’s the only man who comes through Forest Door, and it’s obviously not him.”
“I, too, was puzzled,” Orubo confessed. “But I had been a fish for so long, I became tired, and I could no longer swim against the current. Feeble as it was, it bore me away, past the village of my own tribe and all the way to here, where you caught me…So I could not learn anymore about this man.”
“You found out plenty,” Tom said. “If Raspadero came through the Door, then he’s going right back. That’s one of the rules! You have to leave things as you find them. You can’t go building dams, and taking all the gold, and ruining the river for everyone else. Come on! Put out that camp-fire. We have to keep going.”
“Tom,” said Sally gently. “We can’t travel at night. We need to rest. And…well, so does Orubo. Remember? He said he was tired…”
“Tired of being a fish,” said Tom. “Isn’t that right, Oruba? You could turn us into something, and we could run through the forest and not lose time.”
“Tom! You’re being almost…rude,” Sally said; but the idea of running through the forest as an animal had piqued her interest.
“It’s possible…” Orubo murmured, “with the right ingredients…”
“Tell us what they are,” Tom said instantly. “We’ll help you find them.” And it was a good thing Sally had not put out the campfire, because boiling water was the first thing they needed, along with special twigs and a green liquid squeezed from the leaf of a particular fern and a few tufts of moss. Into this broth Oruba placed a black hair that he had lifted from the paw-print of a jaguar. Then he murmured into the fire, and stirred the water, and as the moon broke through the trees he turned to Tom and said:
He held out a cup of bark into which he had poured the steaming liquid. Tom took the cup and looked at it for a moment, then stepped into the shadows beyond the firelight and raised the cup to his lips. Sally, peering into the darkness, her heart thumping, saw her brother drop to all fours. Within seconds Tom was gone, and in his place crouched a black jaguar with golden eyes and sharp white teeth. Sally jumped. “Tom!” The jaguar lifted a paw and waved.
“And now for you,” Oruba said. He took a feather from his pouch, crumbled it between his palms, and shook the powder into the water. “Drink this.” Sally drew herself up straight and swallowed the cloudy potion. She felt something tugging at her shoulders and arms and her eyes seemed to grow large and round. A moment later she flew up into a tree in the form of a forest owl. She gave a screech and stretched her wings.
“When you feel yourself becoming tired,” Oruba said, in a voice that sounded strangely distant, “you must find a human to lay a hand on you, so that you can change back. For it is well known that whatever form you are in when you fall asleep, that is the form you will have for ever when you wake. I have seen this for myself,” he said, tapping his chest. “And now, children of the forest…Follow the river until you come to a great clearing in the trees; you will see Raspadero’s furnace burning all through the night, and you will see the great dam he has built, and the reservoir behind it, and the cranes, and the goldfishers harvesting gold from the ball of wax.”
“And most of all, we’ll see Raspadero,” Tom thought, scraping his claws across the twisted root of a tree.
With a commanding shriek, Sally the owl launched herself into the air and flew off upstream. Silently, Tom the jaguar bounded after her, his paws barely touching the ground as he loped through the dark forest…
Next week: The villain Raspadero reveals his true identity, and the children make a plan to trap him…