Every other boat was a former battle craft. They had even come across a tracked amphibious thing that ferried people back and forth across the river. They took their cues from these craft and decorated theirs to match.
The shoreline was naked of trees, but not of industrial litter. Oil drums, both collapsible and rigid, were stacked up with old tyres, track segments and whole abandoned vehicles. The few green shoots became ever rarer as the air became more polluted. They took to covering their mouths with cloth and shielding their eyes with goggles.
“What could produce this much toxic air?” Marra wondered.
“Reff.” Dack told her, “It is a city dedicated to refining and processing the resources they strip from the plains and forests.”
The city came at them suddenly, appearing from its own haze. There were docks and warehouses and beyond them a great barrier of smokestacks and soot. They found a decrepit little jetty and landed. “I believe I have found my mission.” Morn announced as he alighted.
“Here? But there could be more deserving downstream. What about my country?” Marra asked.
“To take back your country you need more men like Dack and fewer like me. Even on your own you have the strength to do the job. It is my task to help the truly helpless.”
There was movement at the shore end of the jetty. Small figures resolved from the murk. They were all armed, some with spears taller than themselves. Two larger figures came towards the boat. As they drew nearer they were revealed as identical twins, each with the build of a wrestler. Identical but for one detail- one had a red crescent tattooed down the right side of his face, the other the left.
“Off are jetty!” proclaimed Left. For all his size he was very young, perhaps no more than a year past hairing.
“I would like to enter Reff.”
“Nothing in Reff but death.” Right announced.
“Perhaps I could help. Can I speak with your parents?”
Left laughed at that. A nasty laugh with hints of violence. “Are parents are dead.” Right announced.
“You are orphans?”
“We are all.” Left gestured at the little figures.
Right had come to a decision. “We fight. You win, you pass. You lose…..” He addressed this to Dack, then studied Marra, considering her his prize.
“Very well.” Morn stepped forward. Marra kept Dack from protesting. “You fight me. If I win, you will take me into the city. If I lose, we shall get in our boat and sail away.”
That wasn’t the prize that Left wanted, but he was ready for a fight now. Besides, he was nearly three whole spans taller than this little man and one span taller than the dark one and the woman. “Both of us.” He announced. It was supposed to unnerve his opponent, but the little man simply nodded and smiled.
Marra and Dack took steps back. They could jump into the boat and get weapons if needed. Left stepped forward, relishing the bone popping noises he would soon hear. He lunged at Morn.
And went straight over him. Morn had ducked under his attacker’s arms and dropped to the floor. He jabbed at the boy’s groin and levered him into a cartwheel by the ankle. Left landed on his face, pivoting about it onto his back.
Morn bounced back up, ready to defend against Right’s attack. This youngster was more wary than his brother. He tried jabbing punches. Morn dodged them, tapping at nerve clusters until the boy found his legs wouldn’t respond and he fell sideways.
Some of the smaller figures raised their spears. Left was forcing himself up, he waved them to stop. Morn was ready for another attack, though there would not be much to it. “No one beat me before.” Left complained, “Show me how.”
“Maybe one day. Your brother will recover in a little while. When he does, perhaps you can show me where you all live.”
Left nodded agreement. He waved the little ones to come closer. “Are tribe. You have belongings?”
Marra and Dack passed items up from the boat. Morn passed some of them back. The little ones picked up the treasure as it was piled up, ready to carry it back to their hideout.
Finally, Marra and Dack came onto the jetty to say their farewells. “It has been an honour to share time on the river with you.” Marra announced.
“And with you.” They clasped hands and bowed until their foreheads touched.
Dack and Morn bowed to each other without touching. “May we meet again.” Dack said.
“Indeed. There are great things coming. Perhaps we will be part of them.” Morn joined the tribe of juveniles and walked off into the grime.