The crocodile's jaws looked as big as Jiri. Its huge tail pushed it with the flooded river's current, angling toward the drift of brush that Jiri clung to. It would slam into that loose pile of logs and knock Jiri, Fumo, and Boro into the water.
Where they would all get to see exactly how big the crocodile's jaws were.
"Girl, are you as useless as you are cursed?" Fumo shouted. "Use your fire!"
Jiri could feel the fire in her hands, and the logs she clung to were beginning to steam with its heat, but she ignored it, ignored Fumo.
I don't think I'd hit it. I don't think it would turn it if I did.
Jiri held the fire inside her and reached instead for another spirit, tangling her soul in its magic, calling for its aid. In the river beside the crocodile, a fin broke through, bright pink against the dull-red water. The river dolphin Jiri's magic had summoned was barely a third the size of the crocodile, and Jiri doubted the armored reptile was hurt when the dolphin rammed into it, but that didn't matter. The charging attack, and then the crocodile's twisting reaction to it, was enough. The flood current caught the reptile and swept it away from the snag, rushing the animal downstream.
"Thank you," Jiri shouted to the dolphin as it jumped up out of the water and disappeared. She clambered to Boro and drove her hand underwater, reaching for his caught foot. Her head almost went under before she found it, jammed into the crook of a branch. Boro's muscles tightened in pain under her hand as she pulled at it, but it wouldn't come loose.
"Hold him," she told Fumo. Jiri stopped pulling and shoved against Boro's stuck foot instead, twisting it hard. Boro shouted, and his hand tore at Jiri's braids, but she fought away and pushed until Boro's ankle popped beneath her hand and his foot came free. Jiri almost fell between the logs as Fumo jerked his son up, out of the water, safe.
∗ ∗ ∗
"You broke his ankle." Fumo frowned down at his son's twisted, swollen leg as Hadzi laid him out on the stone outcrop.
"I had to," Jiri said, bending over the young man. "To get him free."
"I know that," Fumo said, shaking his head. "But I thought you could have done some kind of magic. I could have popped his ankle."
"You should have," Jiri said.
"I—" Fumo started, but Jiri raised her voice over his protest.
"Hold him still."
"I can hold still," Boro said through clenched teeth.
"Of course," Jiri said, her scalp still aching from where Boro had tried to rip out her braids, and looked at Fumo. The man frowned at her, but he bent to grab his son and held him down, ignoring his curses. Those curses turned incoherent when Jiri took Boro's injured foot by the big toe, pulling up until the bones slid into place and his foot was no longer twisted at an angle. Then Jiri called on the spirits, asking them to help, to heal.
Boro relaxed suddenly. Below Jiri's hands, his swollen ankle shrank to its normal size, marked only with the mottling of old bruises.
Happy now, Fumo? Could you have done that? Jiri kept her thoughts quiet this time, though.
"Oh, thank all my ancestors," Boro groaned. "And you, shaman. You saved my life."
Jiri shrugged, embarrassed and unsure, especially when she realized that everyone was staring at her. "It's—I— We should go back. It's dangerous near this water."
"Two can take Boro back," Fumo said. "I need the others."
"For what?" Jiri stood, acutely aware that Fumo wouldn't have spoken to Oza like that. "That snag could tear apart at any moment. Nothing's worth the risk of being out there when that happens."
Jiri frowned at Fumo. The man was second only to the wara in the village. And Oza, of course. But he liked to act like he owned Kibwe. "Show me."
∗ ∗ ∗
The boat lay at an angle in the snag. Jiri moved carefully across the tilted wood planks that made a deck over the back half of the boat. The front was open, and she could see bits of cargo and debris floating on the water that swirled around the ship's ribs.
"Here," Fumo said, dropping down from the deck. Jiri followed, and stared at the dark hollow beneath the deck. A single crate filled the space, taller than Fumo and wider than both of them together, its wood so raw it still bled sap. Thick ropes lashed it in place, but the crate was scarred from where other cargo had slammed into it. Fumo pointed to a broken gap in its side.
Jiri plucked a stick out of the water splashing around her feet and called to the spirits as her hand swept through the air. Shadows flickered and vanished behind her fingers as she gathered sunlight and shaped it into a glowing golden ball that she fixed to the end of the stick.
In her spell-wrought light, the rough facets of the gem that filled that huge crate gleamed like a hundred thousand stars.
∗ ∗ ∗
"That thing is worth a thousand mango harvests." Fumo's hands worked, splicing broken ropes together. "We'll all be rich."
"It's not ours," Jiri said.
"It is now," Hadzi said. "We found it. A diamond almost as big as a hippo!"
"A diamond," Jiri said. She reached through the broken crate and rested her hand lightly on the huge gem. It felt hard and cool beneath her palm, like rough glass. Then a shudder ran through it, as if some unseen blow had struck the shining stone. The whole boat was shaking as the river rolled around it, and it might have been just that, but...
"Can gems even be this big?" Jiri said.
"They are in stories," Hadzi said. His smile lit his face, making him even more handsome, but that wasn't enough to pull Jiri's thoughts out of the spiral that they were caught in.
Oza told me something, once, about a great jewel. A story? Some legend about lost treasures, like he told to the village children sometimes? Jiri pulled her hand away from the rough surface of the gem. No. Something else.
She couldn't remember.
"Hadzi, take this." Fumo handed his son one end of the rope he'd spliced together. "Tie it to those braces. We'll anchor the ship to those trees, and move the gem as soon as the water drops."
If this whole boat isn't battered to pieces before then.
Jiri didn't say anything. She had her misgivings, but Fumo didn't, and she didn't think Fumo was going to listen to her. Best to let them finish, then get them off this wreck before it sank.
They would have listened to Oza.
Jiri frowned at the water rushing past, and she saw it. A dark shape in the water, twisting in the current. Her heart quickened, but it wasn't another crocodile. No, she could see the twisted ball of roots at one end, the ragged, broken crown of branches at the other. A whole tree, washed out by the storm. It caught in an eddy and spun in a slow circle, out away from the terrible current of the river's center, spinning away, spinning toward—
"Off the boat!" Jiri whipped around, and Hadzi was staring up at her curiously from the knots he was tying, while Fumo was shouting at a woman on the rock, telling her to tie off a line. "Off!" Jiri shouted. "Now!" She started to scramble up the slanted ribs of the boat, but she was already too late. She heard the splintering crash as the broken roots of the downed tree slammed into the ragged edge of the logjam the boat was caught in. Fumo looked back, his eyes wide, as the boat jumped beneath them like a guinea hen taking flight.
The side of the boat rose up and slapped Jiri. For a moment the world was just swirling color, bleeding toward darkness, but she wrenched her senses back. She was tumbling with the tilting boat, heading toward the water. Lashing out, her hand closed on the edge of a broken rail. The rough wood tore at her palm but she held on tight, stopping her slide. Then something smashed into her.
Heavy, it rolled over her, almost ripping her from her grip. She cursed, and the thing cursed back, and her free hand reached out and caught a handful of cloth. Hands grabbed her back, and she looked down to see Fumo gripping her leg.
"Can you hold?" he shouted.
Jiri's hand was in agony, splinters driving into it as Fumo's weight pulled at her. "Yes," she hissed between gritted teeth. Throwing her head back, she saw Hadzi clinging tightly to the ropes he had been knotting into the boat's bracing. "Help," she grated as the boat spun in sickening circles, its wood groaning and popping.
Hadzi took his rope and started crawling down the tilted hull toward them. When he moved, the boat tipped more, the edge of the hull dipping toward the swirling water.
"No!" Jiri shouted.
"Keep still, idiot boy, you'll sink us!" Fumo yelled. "Throw the rope!"
Hadzi shifted back up, the boat shifting a fraction with him, and threw the rope. It landed across Jiri's face, but with both hands full there was nothing she could do about it but curse. Then the agony in her hand diminished. Fumo had caught the rope and let go of her. Gasping in relief, Jiri almost let go, but that would still kill her, and she made her fingers hold on until Fumo pulled himself past her. He caught the collar of her shirt, jerking on it, and Jiri let go then.
Jiri slid enough to choke on the collar of her shirt, but she didn't fight. She let Fumo haul her up to where Hadzi was, and the boat tilted back a little more toward even as their weight counterbalanced some of the weight of the gem's crate, which had shifted when the tree had struck them.
"What do we do now?" Hadzi said, clinging to the braces that held up the boat's half-deck.
Jiri took hold of a brace beside him with aching arms, trying to wedge herself into place with her legs. The boat was jumping and jerking, spinning in wide circles, and over its side Jiri could see the jungle rushing past. The collision had knocked them free of the rest of the brush and out into the river, and now—
"Hold on," she gasped. The boat lurched again, the whole thing groaning, and then its spinning slowed. We're coming out of the current. Maybe we'll—
With a crunch the ship slammed to a halt. Jiri found herself tumbling again, but this time she landed on something softer. Hadzi cursed beneath her, but they weren't moving anymore. Jiri pulled herself up off him and stared over the rail.
The boat had been swept into a backwater, where it had crashed into a stand of gaboon trees, wedging its prow between their trunks. The water around them was moving slowly now, and not far away Jiri could see hummocks of earth rising out of it.
"Thank you, all my laughing ancestors," Jiri sighed.
"This is good." Fumo had climbed up onto the half-deck and was staring around. "I know this place. We're only a little farther from the village, and the boat's secure. We'll be able to get the gem back once the water's gone down."
"Is that what matters?" Jiri stared down at her hand, the palm rubbed raw and stubbled with splinters. "What about the others?"
Fumo frowned at her. "They were safe on the stone, out of the river."
"Safe, if one of your ropes didn't knock them in when it tore free. If that happened, then they're probably dead."
"What is wrong with you, girl?" Fumo pointed at the crate. The wood had split, and the gem was easy to see now, flashing in the sun like clear water. "Don't you think that's worth a little risk?"
"I don't know," Jiri said. "Because I don't know what that thing is."
"It's our treasure. Thirty Trees' treasure. We just need to wait for the others to come downstream and find us, and we can take it home." Fumo settled himself down on the deck, rubbing at the great bruise that was blossoming on his side. "It will be good, Jiri. Imagine what Oza will say."
Imagine. Jiri kept that to herself, and started to pull the splinters out of her palm.
∗ ∗ ∗
It was almost night before they finally heard voices. They drifted in from the shadows beneath the trees and echoed off the water that was slowly draining away as the river gradually shrank beside them.
"Finally," Fumo said.
Jiri peered too into the twilight-dark trees and caught a flash of light—not the flickering of a torch, but the steady glow of spell-caught light.
Is Oza back already? Can I turn this mess over to him?
The light rounded the edge of the stand of gaboons and Jiri stared at the man who held it. A heavier man than Oza, with short hair and a long beard, skin the color of sand, and the strange, layered clothes of a foreigner.
"Who are you," the man called out. "And what are you doing on my boat?"
Coming Next Week: Unexpected visitors in Chapter Three of Gary Kloster's "The Gem."
Gary Kloster is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novel Firesoul, featuring the further adventures of Jiri. His short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy, Apex, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Writers of the Future 25. Find him online at garykloster.com.
Illustration by Jasper Sandner.