Jay slid round the oak, and found a more comfortable root to sit on. She was getting confused by the way the crowd of wild dogs spoke so rapidly one after the other and she was tired out by her long run. There was simply too much to take in all at once. They were still circling restlessly around her, their tongues lolling, and she was sure they'd start their staccato chatter again at any moment. Leaning her head back against the tree, she shut her eyes and took a few deep breaths, letting each breath out slowly until she felt a little calmer. Then she sat up straight and looked into the milling pack. There was no leader that she could identify, so she just spoke into the middle of them.
“Please would you sit down and be quiet for a little while? I just need to rest and...”
They almost yelled at her.
“Nono!” “no rest!” “sun go downa”
“be darka soon” “you makea fire” “you eata” “then resta.”
They became even more agitated, circling more tightly in front of her and nudging her pack towards her feet and making high-pitched whines. Jay slumped and put her head in her hands for a moment; but the dogs were pushing at her hands with their cold noses so that she couldn't relax at all.
“But I can't make fire. How do you expect me to make a fire? I haven't got a lighter or any matches. I haven't got any idea how to light a fire.” She was exasperated with tiredness, and with frustration at the impossibility of the task.
“You no crya” “we showa” “we showa quietly” “you no worrya”
As she got up reluctantly and a bit stiffly, she realised that the sun must already be near to setting, for the sky was becoming pale and pink between the trees. Led by the strange red dogs, who began to look more purposeful and less chaotic, she went into the woodland that surrounded them. It seemed as though the clearing where they had stopped was the only flat ground anywhere around. They showed her which twigs and branches to gather, and after several forays there was quite a respectable amount of wood under the oak. Jay was impressed when she realised that the dogs had ordered the gathering so that all the wood was piled according to size, from tiny twigs up to quite large branches which they had helped her drag. Next to the smallest sticks was a small pile of moss and lichen.
“Now stones” “gotta'ave stones” “stones stoppa spread” “comenow”
Jay had expected to collect pebbles to surround the fire, but she was mistaken, for she shortly found herself staggering to the clearing with one large rock after another. In the dimming light, some of the stones on the ground seemed to have strange faces. For some reason which she couldn't fathom, Jay felt that she should collect these rather than the ones without apparent personalities. Because they seemed to have faces, she saw them as people. Reminded of what Eagle had told her, and of her experience by the lake, she decided to speak to each one quietly as she picked it up. Introducing herself, or explaining why she was moving it from one place to another, or sometimes asking permission of a particularly stern-faced one, she gradually built a circle with the stones. She courteously made sure that all the faces looked outwards, too, so that they wouldn't get sooted over.
Once the circle was complete, the dogs showed her how to place the twigs over most of the moss and lichen, then to make a pyramid of small wood.
Jay peered at what they had made in the deepening dusk.
“Thank you,” she said, “That's very neat, but there's no flame. How do we get it alight?”
“Look inna packa” “takea pot” “lookinna pot!”
She rummaged in her pack, for which she was beginning to have a great respect, and felt and took out a warm clay jar. To her astonishment, her companions did not tell her what to do next. Instead, she got a very clear picture straight into her mind of blowing on dry moss, and of it kindling into flames which she placed in the middle of the fire stack. Opening the jar she found hot charcoal, which glowed when she blew on it gently. She emptied some of the charcoal onto the moss, which she held gingerly on a piece of bark, and blew. It did indeed catch light, and she hurriedly placed it just as she had been shown. After some anxious and careful blowing the whole stack was alight, which was just as well because it was by now almost too dark to see. The pack stood around at a respectful distance while Jay learnt how to tend the new fire; then a couple of them, who Jay hadn't noticed had been missing, dragged up a thick log for her to sit on.
She looked at the fire with a great feeling of achievement, took her shoes off with relief and looked at the pack again by the light of the dancing flames. She remembered that it had seemed rather fuller than she'd expected, and was now hoping for food. As she reached for it and opened it, she was rewarded by a wonderful aroma of freshly baked bread, and unwrapped one of several leaf-wrapped packets with her mouth watering. She tore the loaf she found into hunks and then, finding that she was sitting next to a long thin stick, she jabbed the thin end into one of the hunks and propped it on a stone so that it would toast while she investigated the contents of the pack further. As she opened one packet after another, she found chunks of something that looked like raw meat. The pack edged closer until they were crowding her, nudging her elbows and neck with their cold noses.
“Okay, I get the message,” she grinned, and threw all the chunks as far away as she could from the fire. She didn't much want to hear them eating; and even at a distance their enjoyment was very obvious. Opening another parcel she found a more appealing piece of meat. Although it seemed to be already cooked, Jay decided to heat it up and pushed, it on a flat stone, as far into the fire as she could. By now she was ravenously hungry, and could hardly wait for it to heat through before she ate. She gobbled the first piece of bread before it was brown, and then settled down to watch the flames until her meat was ready. Abstractedly she rummaged in the pack again, and brought out several pieces of what might be fruit, as well as the flask, which was full again, this time with something savoury whose smell reminded her of Marmite.
This gave her a huge pang of homesickness, and she realised that she was lonely as well as hungry. Too exhausted and overcome by strangeness to stop them, she found tears trickling down her hot cheeks, and the dhole snuggled up to her one by one.
“You eata, Jay” “no be sadda” “eata food an drinka” “you sleepa soona,” they whuffed consolingly, but Jay was not really comforted. She did as she was told, though, and the bread and meat were deliciously hot and juicy. The fruit made a substantial if unfamiliar dessert, and she washed it all down with the Marmitey drink. She would have preferred the diluted wine, she thought, drowsily wiping her lips and chin with the back of her hand. She sniffed again, still wishing for human company, and got up briefly to replenish the fire, which was smoking badly. Her eyes stung with the heat and shifting smoke, and she lay down next to it on her side, her head propped up on one hand as she gazed disconsolately into the flickering flames, her pack rolled up under her armpit for support.
At some point in the night she woke briefly to find the dhole surrounding her and lying on top of her. Although the ground underneath her was hard and lumpy, she was so warm that she was asleep again almost immediately.