/ Language: English / Genre:sf_social / Series: Eden

West of Eden

Harry Harrison

About 65 million years ago, it is supposed that dinosaurs disappeared from Earth. But what if they had not been? From a master of imaginative storytelling comes an epic tale of the world as it might have been, a world where the age of dinosaurs never ended, and their descendants clashed with the humans. The story is set in the Americas, where a clan of native humans survives by hunting and fishing. Suddenly they clash with a new race that comes from across the ocean — the lizards who are a much more advanced civilization, progressing not through technology, but through animal-breeding. They breed new kinds of animals, each one serving as a machine designed for a specific purpose. A human teenager is caught by the lizards and survives in their city, first as an animal, then as a prisoner, then as a member of society. Still, his human instincts takes over and he betrays his masters, escapes and leads the humans to destroying the lizard city and driving them back across the sea.

West of Eden

by Harry Harrison

8: And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

16: And Cain went out from the presence of the LORD, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

GENESIS

The great reptiles were the most successful life forms ever to populate this world. For 140 million years they ruled the Earth, filled the sky, swarmed in the seas. At this time the mammals, the ancestors of mankind, were only tiny, shrew-like animals that were preyed upon by the larger, faster, more intelligent saurians.

Then, 65 million years ago, this all changed. A meteor six miles in diameter struck the Earth and caused disastrous atmospheric upheavals. Within a brief span of time over seventy-five percent of all the species then existent were wiped out. The age of the dinosaurs was over; the evolution of the mammals that they had suppressed for 100 million years began.

But what if that meteor had not fallen?

What would our world be like today?

PROLOGUE: KERRICK

I have read the pages that follow here and I honestly believe them to be a true history of our world.

Not that belief was easy to come by. It might be said that my view of the world was a very restricted one. I was born in a small encampment made up of three families. During the warm seasons we stayed on the shore of a great lake rich with fish. My first memories are of that lake, looking across its still water at the high mountains beyond, seeing their peaks grow white with the first snows of winter. When the snow whitened our tents, and the grass around as well, that would be the time when the hunters went to the mountains. I was in a hurry to grow up, eager to hunt the deer, and the greatdeer, at their side.

That simple world of simple pleasures is gone forever. Everything has changed — and not for the better. At times I wake at night and wish that what happened had never happened. But these are foolish thoughts and the world is as it is, changed now in every way. What I thought was the entirety of existence has proved only to be a tiny corner of reality. My lake and my mountains are only the smallest part of a great continent that stretches between two immense oceans. I knew of the western ocean because our hunters had fished there.

I also knew about the others and learned to hate them long before I ever saw them. As our flesh is warm, so is theirs cold. We have hair upon our heads and a hunter will grow a proud beard, while the animals that we hunt have warm flesh and fur or hair, but this is not true of Yilanè. They are cold and smooth and scaled, have claws and teeth to rend and tear, are large and terrible, to be feared. And hated. I knew that they lived in the warm waters of the ocean to the south and on the warm lands to the south. They could not abide the cold so did not trouble us.

All that has changed and changed so terribly that nothing will ever be the same again. It is my unhappy knowledge that our world is only a tiny part of the Yilanè world. We live in the north of a great continent that is joined to a great southern continent. And on all of this land, from ocean to ocean, there swarm only Yilanè.

And there is even worse. Across the western ocean there are even larger continents — and there there are no hunters at all. None. But Yilanè, only Yilanè. The entire world is theirs except for our small part.

Now I will tell you the worst thing about the Yilanè. They hate us just as we hate them. This would not matter if they were only great, insensate beasts. We would stay in the cold north and avoid them in this manner.

But there are those who may be as intelligent as hunters, as fierce as hunters. And their number cannot be counted but it is enough to say that they fill all of the lands of this great globe.

What follows here is not a nice thing to tell, but it happened and it must be told.

This is the story of our world and of all of the creatures that live in it and what happened when a band of hunters ventured south along the coast and what they found there. And what happened when the Yilanè discovered that the world was not theirs alone, as they had always believed.

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER ONE

Isizzo fa klabra massik, den sa rinyur meth alpi.

Spit in the teeth of winter, for he always dies in the spring.

Amahast was already awake when the first light of approaching dawn began to spread across the ocean. Above him only the brightest stars were still visible. He knew them for what they were; the tharms of the dead hunters who climbed into the sky each night. But now even these last ones, the best trackers, the finest hunters, even they were fleeing before the rising sun. It was a fierce sun here this far south, burningly different from the northern sun that they were used to, the one that rose weakly into a pale sky above the snow-filled forests and the mountains. This could have been another sun altogether. Yet now, just before sunrise, it was almost cool here close to the water, comfortable. It would not last. With daylight the heat would come again. Amahast scratched at the insect bites on his arm and waited for dawn.

The outline of their wooden boat emerged slowly from the darkness. It had been pulled up onto the sand, well beyond the dried weed and shells that marked the reach of the highest tide. Close by it he could just make out the dark forms of the sleeping members of his sammad, the four who had come with him on this voyage. Unasked, the bitter memory returned that one of them, Diken, was dying; soon they would be only three.

One of the men was climbing to his feet, slowly and painfully, leaning heavily on his spear. That would be old Ogatyr; he had the stiffness and ache in his arms and legs that comes with age, from the dampness of the ground and the cold grip of winter. Amahast rose as well, his spear also in his hand. The two men came together as they walked towards the water holes.

“The day will be hot, kurro,” Ogatyr said.

“All of the days here are hot, old one. A child could read that fortune. The sun will cook the pain from your bones.”

They walked slowly and warily towards the black wall of the forest. The tall grass rustled in the dawn breeze; the first waking birds called in the trees above. Some forest animal had eaten the heads off the low palm trees here, then dug beside them in the soft ground to find water. The hunters had deepened the holes the evening before and now they were brimming with clear water.

“Drink your fill,” Amahast ordered, turning to face the forest. Behind him Ogatyr wheezed as he dropped to the ground, then slurped greedily.

It was possible that some of the creatures of the night might still emerge from the darkness of the trees so Amahast stood on guard, spear pointed and ready, sniffing the moist air rich with the odor of decaying vegetation, yet sweetened by the faint perfume of night-blooming flowers. When the older man had finished he stood watch while Amahast drank. Burying his face deep in the cool water, rising up gasping to splash handfuls over his bare body, washing away some of the grime and sweat of the previous day.

“Where we stop tonight, that will be our last camp. The morning after we must turn back, retrace our course,” Ogatyr said, calling over his shoulder while his eyes remained fixed on the bushes and trees before him.

“So you have told me. But I do not believe that a few days more will make any difference.”

“It is time to return. I have knotted each sunset onto my cord. The days are shorter, I have ways of knowing that. Each sunset comes more quickly, each day the sun weakens and cannot climb as high into the sky. And the wind is beginning to change, even you must have noticed that. All summer it has blown from the southeast. No longer. Do you remember last year, the storm that almost sank the boat and blew down a forest of trees? The storm came at this time. We must return. I can remember these things, knot them in my cord.”

“I know you can, old one.” Amahast ran his fingers through the wet strands of his uncut hair. It reached below his shoulders, while his full blond beard rested damply on his chest. “But you also know that our boat is not full.”

“There is much dried meat…”

“Not enough. We need more than that to last the winter. The hunting has not been good. That is why we have journeyed farther south than we ever have before. We need the meat.”

“One single day, then we must return. No more than that. The path to the mountains is long and the way hard.”

Amahast did not speak in answer. He respected Ogatyr for all the things that the old man knew, his knowledge of the correct way to make tools and find magic plants. The oldster knew the rituals needed to prepare for the hunt, as well as the chants that could ward off the spirits of the dead. He had all of the knowledge of his lifetime and of the lifetimes before him, the things that he had been told and that he remembered, that he could recite from the rising of the sun in the morning to the setting at night and still not be done. But there were new things that the old one did not know about, and these were what troubled Amahast, that demanded new answers.

It was the winters that were the cause of it, the fierce winters that would not end. Twice now there had been the promise of spring as the days had grown longer, the sun brighter — but spring had never come. The deep snows had not melted, the ice on the streams stayed frozen. Then there had been hunger. The deer and the greatdeer had moved south, away from their accustomed valleys and mountain meadows that now stayed tight-locked in winter’s unyielding grip. He had led the people of his sammad as they had followed the animals, they had to do that or starve, down from the mountains to the broad plains beyond. Yet the hunting had not been good, for the herds had been thinned out by the terrible winter. Nor was their sammad the only one that had troubles. Other sammads had been hunting there as well, not only ones that his people were joined to by marriage, but sammads they had never seen before. Men who spoke Marbak strangely, or not at all, and pointed their spears in anger. Yet all of the sammads were Tanu, and Tanu never fought Tanu. Never before had they done this. But now they did and there was Tanu blood on the sharp stone points of the spears. This troubled Amahast as much as did the endless winter. A spear for hunting, a knife for skinning, a fire for cooking. This was the way it had always been. Tanu did not kill Tanu. Rather than commit this crime himself he had taken his sammad away from the hills, marching each day towards the morning sun, not stopping until they had reached the salt waters of the great sea. He knew that the way north was closed, for the ice there came to the ocean’s edge and only the Paramutan, the skin-boat people, could live in those frozen lands. The way south was open but there, in the forests and jungles where the snow never came, were the murgu. And where they were was death.

So only the wave-filled sea remained. His sammad had long known the art of making wooden boats for summer fishing, but never before had they ventured out of sight of land or away from their camp upon the beach. This summer they must. The dried squid would not last the winter. If the hunting were as bad as that of the winter before then none of them would be alive in the spring. South, then, it must be south, and that was the way they had gone. Hunting along the shore and on the islands off the coast, in fear always of the murgu.

The others were awake now. The sun was above the horizon and the first shrieks of the animals were sounding from the depths of the jungle. It was time to put to sea.

Amahast nodded solemnly when Kerrick brought him the skin bag of ekkotaz, then dipped out a handful of the thick mass of crushed acorns and dried berries. He reached out with his other hand and ruffled the thick mat of hair on his son’s head. His firstborn. Soon to be a man and take a man’s name. But still a boy, although he was growing strong and tall. His skin, normally pale, was tanned golden now since, like all of them on this voyage, he wore only a deerskin tied at his waist. About his neck, hung from a leather thong, there was a smaller version of the skymetal knife that Amahast also wore. A knife that was not as sharp as stone but was treasured for its rarity. These two knives, the large and small, were the only skymetal the sammad possessed. Kerrick smiled up at his father. Eight years old and this was his first hunt with the men. It was the most important thing that had ever happened to him.

“Did you drink your fill?” Amahast asked. Kerrick nodded. He knew there would be no more water until nightfall. This was one of the important things that a hunter had to learn. When he had been with the women — and the children — he had drunk water whenever he had felt thirsty, or if he had been hungry he had nibbled at the berries or eaten the fresh roots as they dug them up. No more. He went with the hunters now, did what they did, went without food and drink from before sunrise until after dark. He gripped his small spear proudly and tried not to start with fright when something crashed heavily in the jungle behind him.

“Push out the boat,” Amahast ordered.

The men needed no urging; the sounds of the murgu were growing louder, more threatening. There was little enough to load into the boat, just their spears, bows and quivers of arrows, deerskins, and bags of ekkotaz. They pushed the boat into the water and big Hastila and Ogatyr held it steady while the boy climbed in carefully holding a large shell that contained glowing embers from the fire.

Behind them on the beach Diken struggled to rise, to join the others, but he was not strong enough today. His skin paled with the effort and great drops of perspiration stood out on his face. Amahast came and knelt beside him, took up a corner of the deerskin that he was lying on and wiped the wounded man’s face.

“Rest easy. We’ll put you into the boat.”

“Not today, not if I cannot climb aboard myself.” Diken’s voice was hoarse, he gasped with the effort of speech. “It will be easier if I wait here for your return. It will be easier on my hand.”

His left hand was now very bad. Two fingers had been bitten, torn away, when a large jungle creature had blundered into their camp one night, a half-seen form that they had wounded with spears and driven back into the darkness. At first Diken’s wound had not looked too serious, hunters had lived with worse, and they had done all the things for him that could be done. They had washed the wound in sea water until it bled freely, then Ogatyr had bound it up with a poultice made from the benseel moss that had been gathered in the high mountain bogs. But this time it had not been enough. The flesh had grown red, then black, and finally the blackness had spread up Diken’s arm; its smell was terrible. He would die soon. Amahast looked up from the swollen arm to the green wall of the jungle beyond.

“When the beasts come my tharm will not be here to be consumed by them,” Diken said, seeing the direction of Amahast’s gaze. His right hand was clenched into a fist; he opened and closed it briefly to disclose the flake of stone concealed there. The kind of sharp chip that was used to butcher and skin an animal. Sharp enough to open a man’s vein.

Amahast rose slowly and rubbed the sand from his bare knees. “I will look for you in the sky,” he said, his expressionless voice so low that only the dying man could hear it.

“You were always my brother,” Diken said. When Amahast left he turned his face away and closed his eyes so he would not see the others leave and perhaps give some sign to him. The boat was already in the water when Amahast reached it, bobbing slightly in the gentle swell. It was a good, solid craft that had been made from the hollowed-out trunk of a large cedar tree. Kerrick was in the bow, blowing on the small fire that rested on the rocks there. It crackled and flamed up as he added more bits of wood to it. The men had already slipped their oars between the thole pins, ready to depart. Amahast pulled himself in over the side and fitted his steering oar into place. He saw the men’s eyes move from him to the hunter who remained behind upon the beach, but nothing was said. As was proper. A hunter did not show pain — or show pity. Each man has the right to choose when he will release his tharm to rise up to erman, the night sky, to be welcomed by Ermanpadar, the sky-father who ruled there. There the tharm of the hunter would join the other tharms among the stars. Each hunter had this right and no other could speak about it or bar his way. Even Kerrick knew that and was as silent as the others. “Pull,” Amahast ordered. “To the island.”

The low, grass-covered island lay close offshore and sheltered the beach here from the strength of the ocean waves. Further to the south it rose higher, above the salt spray of the sea, and there the trees began. With grass and shelter there was the promise of good hunting. Unless the murgu were here as well.

“Look, in the water!” Kerrick called out, pointing down at the sea. An immense school of hardalt was passing beneath them, tentacles trailing, their seemingly numberless, boneless bodies protected by their shells. Hastila seized up his spear by the butt end and poised it over the water. He was a big man, taller even than Amahast, yet very quick for all of that. He waited a moment — then plunged the spear down into the sea, deep down until his arm was in the water, then heaved upward.

His point had struck true, into the soft body behind the shell, and the hardalt was pulled from the water and dumped into the bottom of the boat where it lay, tentacles writhing feebly, black dye oozing from its punctured sac. They all laughed at that. He was truly named, Hastila, spear-in-hand. A spear that did not miss.

“Good eating,” Hastila said, putting his foot on the shell and pulling his spear free of the body.

Kerrick was excited. How easy it looked. A single quick thrust — and there was a great hardalt, enough food to feed them all for a day. He took his own spear by the butt, just as Hastila had done. It was only half the length of the hunter’s spear but the point was just as sharp. The hardalt were still there, thicker than ever, one of them roiling the surface just below the bow.

Kerrick thrust down, hard. Feeling the point sink into flesh. Seizing the haft with both hands and pulling up. The wooden shaft shook and tore at his hands but he held on grimly, tugging with all of his strength.

There was a great thrashing of foam in the water as the wet-shining head rose up beside the boat. His spear tore free of the thing’s flesh and Kerrick fell backwards as the jaws opened, rows of teeth before him, a screeching roar so close the stinking breath of the creature washed over him. Sharp claws scratched at the boat, tore pieces from the wood.

Then Hastila was there, his spear plunging between those terrible jaws, once, twice. The marag screamed louder and a gush of blood spattered the boy. Then the jaws closed and, for an instant, Kerrick looked into that round unblinking eye poised before his face.

A moment later it was gone, sinking beneath the surface in a flurry of bloody foam.

“Pull for the island,” Amahast ordered. “There will be more of these beasts, bigger ones, following after the hardalt. Is the boy hurt?”

Ogatyr splashed a handful of water on Kerrick’s face and rubbed it clean. “Just frightened,” he said looking at the drawn face.

“He is lucky,” Amahast said grimly. “Luck comes only once. He will never thrust a spear into darkness again.”

Never! Kerrick thought, almost shouting the word aloud, looking at the torn wood where the thing’s claws had raked deep. He had heard about the murgu, seen their claws on a necklace, even touched a smooth and multicolored pouch made from the skin of one of them. But the stories had never really frightened him; tall as the sky, teeth like spears, eyes like stones, claws like knives. But he was frightened now. He turned to face the shore, sure that there were tears in his eyes and not wanting the others to see them, biting his lips as they slowly approached the land. The boat was suddenly a thin shell above a sea of monsters and he desperately wanted to be on solid ground again. He almost cried aloud when the prow grated against the sand. While the others pulled the boat out of the water he washed away all traces of the marag’s blood.

Amahast made a low hissing sound between his teeth, a hunter’s signal, and they all froze, silent and motionless. He lay in the grass above them, peering over the rise. He motioned them flat with his, hand, then signaled them forward to join him. Kerrick did as the others did, not rising above the grass, but carefully parting the blades with his fingers so he could look between them.

Deer. A herd of the small creatures was grazing just an arrow-shot away. Plump with the rich grass of the island, moving slowly, long ears twitching at the flies that buzzed about them. Kerrick sniffed through widened nostrils and could smell the sweetness of their hides.

“Go silently along the shore,” Amahast said. “The wind is blowing from them towards us, they will not smell us. We will get close.” He led the way, crouching as he ran, and the others followed, Kerrick bringing up the rear.

They notched their arrows while still bent low behind the bank, drew their bows, then stood and let fly together.

The flight of arrows struck true; two of the creatures were down and a third wounded. The small buck was able to stagger some distance with the arrow in its body. Amahast ran swiftly after it and closed on the creature. It turned at bay, its tiny span of horns lowered menacingly, and he laughed and jumped towards it, seized the horns in his hands and twisted. The creature snorted and swayed, then bleated as it fell. Amahast arched its neck back as Kerrick ran up.

“Use your spear, your first kill. In the throat — to one side, stab deep and twist.”

Kerrick did as he was bid and the buck bellowed in agony as the red blood burst out, drenching Kerrick’s hands and arms. Blood to be proud of. He pushed the spear deeper into the wound until the creature shuddered and died.

“A good kill,” Amahast said proudly. The way that he spoke made Kerrick hope that the marag in the boat would not be talked about again.

The hunters laughed with pleasure as they opened and gutted the carcasses. Amahast pointed south towards the higher part of the island. “Take them to the trees where we can hang them to drain.”

“Will we hunt again?” Hastila asked. Amahast shook his head.

“Not if we are to return tomorrow. It will take the day and the night to butcher and smoke what we have here.”

“And to eat,” Ogatyr said, smacking his lips loudly. “Eat our fill. The more we put into our stomachs the less we will have to carry on our backs!”

Though it was cooler under the trees they were soon crawling with biting flies. They could only beat at them and plead with Amahast for the smoke to keep them at bay.

“Skin the carcasses,” he ordered, then kicked a fallen log with his toe: it fell to pieces. “Too damp. The wood here under the trees is too wet to burn. Ogatyr, bring the fire from the boat and feed it with dry grass until we return. I will take the boy and get some driftwood from the beach.”

He left his bow and arrows behind, but took up his spear and started off through the grove towards the ocean side of the island. Kerrick did the same and hurried after him.

The beach was wide, the fine sand almost as white as snow. Offshore the waves broke into a rumble of bubbling froth that surged far up the beach towards them. At the water’s edge were bits of wood and broken sponges, endless varicolored shells, violet snails, great green lengths of seaweed with tiny crabs clinging to them. The few small pieces of driftwood here were too tiny to bother with, so they walked on to the headland that pushed a rocky peninsula out into the sea. When they had climbed the easy slope they could look out between the trees to see that the headland curved out and around to make a sheltered bay. On the sand at the far side dark forms, they might be seals, basked in the sun.

At the same moment they became aware that someone was standing under a nearby tree, also looking out over the bay. Another hunter perhaps. Amahast had opened his mouth to call out when the figure stepped forward into the sunlight. The words froze in his throat; every muscle in his body locked hard.

No hunter, no man, not this. Man-shaped but repellently different in every way.

The creature was hairless and naked, with a colored crest that ran across the top of its head and down its spine. It was bright in the sunlight, obscenely marked with a skin that was scaled and multicolored.

A marag. Smaller than the giants in the jungle, but a marag nevertheless. Like all of its kind it was motionless at rest, as though carved from stone. Then it turned its head to one side, a series of small jerking motions, until they could see its round and expressionless eye, the massive out-thrust jaw. They stood, as motionless as murgu themselves, gripping their spears tightly, unseen, for the creature had not turned far enough to notice their silent forms among the trees.

Amahast waited until its gaze went back to the ocean before he moved. Gliding forward without a sound, raising his spear. He had reached the edge of the trees before the beast heard him or sensed his approach. It snapped its head about, stared directly into his face.

The hunter plunged the stone head of his spear into one lidless eye, through the eye and deep into the brain behind. It shuddered once, a spasm that shook its entire body, then fell heavily. Dead before it hit the ground. Amahast had the spear pulled free even before that, had spun about and raked his gaze across the slope and the beach beyond. There were no more of the creatures nearby.

Kerrick joined his father, standing beside him in silence as they looked down upon the corpse.

It was a crude and disgusting parody of human form. Red blood was still seeping from the socket of the destroyed eye, while the other stared blankly up at them, its pupil a black, vertical slit. There was no nose; just flapped openings where a nose should have been. Its massive jaw had dropped open in the agony of sudden death to reveal white rows of sharp and pointed teeth.

“What is it?” Kerrick asked, almost choking on the words.

“I don’t know. A marag of some kind. A small one, I have never seen its like before.”

“It stood, it walked, like it was human, Tanu. A marag, father, but it has hands like ours.”

“Not like ours. Count. One, two, three fingers and a thumb. No, it has only two fingers — and two thumbs.”

Amahast’s lips were drawn back from his teeth as he stared down at the thing. Its legs were short and bowed, the feet flat, the toes claw-tipped. It had a stumpy tail. Now it lay curled in death, one arm beneath its body. Amahast dug at it with his toe, turned it over. More mystery, for clutched in its hand he could now see what appeared to be a length of knobbed black wood.

“Father — the beach!” Kerrick called out.

They sought shelter under the trees and watched from concealment as the creatures emerged from the sea just below the spot where they stood.

There were three of the murgu. Two of them very much like the one that had been killed. The third was bigger, fat and slow-moving. It lay half in and half out of the water, lolling on its back, eyes closed and limbs motionless. The other two pushed at if, rolling it further up on the sand. The large creature bubbled through its breathing flaps, then scratched its stomach with the claws on one foot, slowly and lazily. One of the smaller murgu thrashed its paws about in the air and made a sharp clacking sound.

Anger rose up in Amahast’s throat, choking him so that he gasped aloud. Hatred almost blinded him as, with no conscious volition, he hurled himself down the slope with his spear thrust out before him.

He was upon the creatures in a moment, stabbing at the nearest one. But it had moved aside as it turned and the stone point only tore through its side, glancing off its ribs. The beast’s mouth gaped and it hissed loudly as it tried to flee. Amahast’s next blow struck true.

Amahast pulled the spear free, and turned to see the other one splashing into the water, escaping.

It threw its arms wide and fell as the small spear hurtled through the air and caught it in the back.

“A good throw,” Amahast said, making sure the thing was dead before wrenching the spear free and handing it back to Kerrick.

Only the large marag remained. Its eyes were closed and it seemed oblivious to what was happening around it.

Amahast’s spear plunged deep into its side and it emitted an almost human groan. The creature was larded with fat and he had to stab again and again before it was still. When he was done Amahast leaned on his spear, panting heavily, looking with disgust at the slaughtered creatures, hatred still possessing him.

“Things like these, they must be destroyed. The murgu are not like us, see their skin, scales. None of them has fur, they fear the cold, they are poison to eat. When we find them we must destroy them.” He snarled out the words and Kerrick could only nod agreement, feeling the same deep and unthinking repulsion.

“Go, get the others,” Amahast said. “Quickly. See, there, on the other side of the bay, there are more of these. We must kill them all.”

A movement caught his eye and he drew back his spear thinking the creature not yet dead. It was moving its tail.

No! The tail itself was not moving, but something was writhing obscenely beneath the skin at its base. There was a slit there, an opening of some kind. A pouch in the base of the beast’s thick tail. With the point of his spear Amahast tore it open, then struggled against the desire to retch at the sight of the pallid creatures that tumbled out onto the sand.

Wrinkled, blind, tiny imitations of the adults. Their young they must be. Roaring with anger he trampled them underfoot.

“Destroyed, all of them, destroyed.” He mumbled the words over and over and Kerrick fled away among the trees.

CHAPTER TWO

Enge hantèhei, agatè embokèka lirubushei kakshèsei, hèawahei; hevai‘ihei, kaksheintè, enpelei asahen enge.

To leave father’s love and enter the embrace of the sea is the first pain of life — the first joy is the comrades who join you there.

The enteesenat cut through the waves with rhythmic motions of their great, paddle-like flippers. One of them raised its head from the ocean, water streaming higher and higher on its long neck, turning and looking backward. Only when it caught sight of the great form low in the water behind them did it drop beneath the surface once again.

There was a school of squid ahead — the other enteesenat was clicking with loud excitement, Now the massive lengths of their tails thrashed and they tore through the water, gigantic and unstoppable, their mouths gaping wide. Into the midst of the school.

Spurting out jets of water the squid fled in all directions. Most would escape behind the clouds of black dye they expelled, but many of them were snapped up by the plate-ridged jaws, caught and swallowed whole. This continued until the sea was empty again, the survivors scattered and distant. Sated, the great creatures turned about and paddled slowly back the way they had come.

Ahead of them an even larger form moved through the ocean, water surging across its back and bubbling about the great dorsal fin of the uruketo. As they neared it the enteesenat dived and turned to match its steady motion through the sea, swimming beside it close to the length of its armored beak. It must have seen them, one eye moved slowly, following their course, the blackness of the pupil framed by its bony ring. Recognition slowly penetrated the creature’s dim brain and the beak began to open, then gaped wide.

One after another they swam to the wide open mouth and pushed their heads into the cave-like opening. Once in position they regurgitated the recently caught squid. Only when their stomachs were empty did they pull back and spin about with a sideways movement of their flippers. Behind them the jaws closed as slowly as they had opened and the massive bulk of the uruketo moved steadily on its way.

Although most of the creature’s massive body was below the surface, the uruketo’s dorsal fin projected above its back, rising up above the waves. The flattened top was dried and leathery, spotted with white excrement where sea birds had perched, scarred as well where they had torn the tough hide with their sharp bills. One of these birds was dropping down towards the top of the fin now, hanging from its great white wings, webbed feet extended. It squawked suddenly, flapping as it moved off, startled by the long gash that had appeared in the top of the fin. This gap widened, then extended the length of the entire fin, a great opening in the living flesh that widened further still and emitted a puff of stale air.

The opening gaped, wider and wider, until there was more than enough room for the Yilanè to emerge. It was the second officer, in charge of this watch. She breathed deeply of the fresh sea air as she clambered onto the wide ledge of bone located inside and near the top of the fin, her head and shoulders projecting, looking about in a careful circle. Satisfied that all was well she clambered back below, past the crewmember on steering duty who was peering forward through the transparent disc before her. The officer looked over her shoulder at the glowing needle of the compass, saw it move from the coursemark. The crewmember reached out next to the compass and seized the nodule of the nerve ending between the thumbs of her left hand, squeezing it hard. A shudder passed through the vessel as the half-sentient creature responded. The officer nodded and continued her climb down into the long cavern of the interior, her pupils expanding swiftly in the half-lit darkness.

Fluorescent patches were the only illumination here in the living-walled chamber that extended almost the full length of the uruketo’s spine. To the rear, in almost complete darkness, lay the prisoners with their ankles shackled together. Cases of supplies and pods of water separated them from the crew and passengers in the front. The officer made her way forward to the commander to give her report. Erafhais looked up from the glowing chart that she held and signed agreement. Satisfied, she rolled the chart and returned it to its niche, then moved off to climb the fin herself. She shuffled when she walked, a childhood injury to her back which was still scarred and wrinkled from the same wound. Only her great ability had enabled her to rise to this high rank with such a disfiguring handicap. When she emerged on top of the fin she also breathed deep of the fresh air as she looked about her.

Behind them the coast of Maninlè was slipping out of sight. There was land barely visible on the horizon ahead, a chain of low islands stretching northwards. Satisfied, she bent over and spoke, expressing herself in the most formal way. When issuing orders she would be more direct, almost brusque. But not now. She was polite and impersonal, the accepted form of address to be used by one of lower rank to one of higher. Yet she was in command of this living vessel — so the one she spoke to must indeed be of exalted position.

“For your pleasure, there are things to be seen, Vaintè.”

Having spoken she moved to the rear, leaving the vantage point in the front clear. Vaintè clambered carefully up the ribbed interior of the fin and emerged onto the inner ledge, followed closely by two others. They stood respectfully to one side as she stepped forward. Vaintè held to the edge, opening and closing her nostrils as she smelled the sharp salt air. Erafnais looked at her with admiration, for she was indeed beautiful. Even if one did not know that she had been placed in charge of the new city , her status would have been clear in every motion of her body. Though unaware of the admiring gaze Vaintè still stood proudly, head high and jaw jutted forward, her pupils closed to narrow vertical slits in the full glare of the sun. Strong hands gripped hard while wide-spread feet balanced her; a slow ripple moved the bright orange of her handsome crest. Born to rule, it could be read in the very attitude of her body.

“Tell me what that is ahead,” Vaintè said abruptly.

“A chain of islands, Highest. Their name is their being. Alakas-aksehent, the succession of golden, tumbled stones. Their sands and the water about them are warm all the year round. The islands extend in a line until they reach the mainland. It is there, on the shore, that the new city is growing.”

“Alpèasak. The beautiful beaches,” Vaintè said, speaking to herself so that the others could not see or hear her words. “Is this my destiny?” She turned to face the commander. “When will we be there?”

“This afternoon, Highest. Certainly before dark. There is a warm current in the ocean here that carries us swiftly in that direction. The squid are plentiful so the enteesenat and the uruketo feed well. Too well sometimes. Those are some of the problems of commanding on a long voyage. We must watch them carefully or they go slowly and our arrival…”

“Silence. I wish to be alone with my efenselè.”

“A pleasure to me.” Erafhais spoke the words, backing away at the same time, vanishing below the instant she had finished.

Vaintè turned to the silent watchers with warmth in her every movement. “We are here. The struggle to reach this new world, Gendasi, is at an end. Now the greater struggle to build the new city shall begin.”

“We help, do as you bid,” Etdeerg said. Strong and solid as a rock, ready with all her strength to aid. “Command us — even unto death.” In another this might have sounded pretentious; not with Etdeerg. There was sincerity in every firm motion of her body.

“I will not ask that,” Vaintè said. “But I will ask you to serve at my side, my first aide in everything.”

“It will be my honor.”

Then Vaintè turned to Ikemend who drew herself up, ready for orders. “Yours is the most responsible position of all. Our future is between your thumbs. You will take charge of the hanalè and the males.”

Ikemend signed ready acceptance, pleasure — and firmness of endeavor. Vaintè felt the warmth of their companionship and support, then her mood changed to one of grimness. “I thank you both,” she said. “Now leave me. I will have Enge here. Alone.”

Vaintè held tight to the leathery flesh as the uruketo rode up and over a large wave. Green water surged across its back and broke against the black tower of the fin. Salt spray flew, some splashing Vaintè’s face. Transparent nictitating membranes slipped across her eyes, then slowly withdrew. She was not aware of the sting of the salt water for her thoughts were far ahead of this great beast that carried them across the sea from Inegban*. Ahead lay Alpèasak, the golden beaches of her future — or the black rocks that she would crash upon. It would be one or the other, nothing in between. In her ambition she had climbed high after leaving the oceans of her youth, leaving behind many in her efenburu, surpassing and climbing beyond efenburu many years her senior. If one wished to reach the peak one had to climb the mountain. And make enemies along the way. But Vaintè knew, as few others did, that making allies was equally important. She made it a point to remember all of the others in her efenburu, even those of lowly station, saw them when she could. Of equal, or greater importance, she had the ability to inspire respect, even admiration,among those of the younger efenburu. They were her eyes and her ears in the city, her secret strength. Without their aid she would never have been able to embark upon this voyage, her greatest gamble. Her future — or her failure. The directorship of Alpèasak, the new city , was a great step, an appointment that moved her past many others. The danger was that she might fail, for this city, the furthest ever from Entoban*, already had troubles. If there were delays in establishing the new city she was the one who would be brought low, so low she would never rise again. Like Deeste whom she was coming out to remove as Eistaa of the new city . Deeste had made mistakes, the work was going too slowly under her leadership. Vaintè was replacing her — and taking on all of the unsolved problems. If she failed — she too would be replaced in turn. It was a danger, but also a risk worth taking. For if it were the success they all hoped it would be, why then her star would be in the ascendancy and none could stop her.

Someone clambered up from below and stood beside her. A familiar presence yet a bittersweet one. Vaintè felt now the comradeship of one of her own efenburu, the greatest bond that existed. Yet it was tempered by the dark future that lay ahead. Vaintè had to make her efenselè understand what would happen to her once they were ashore. Now. For this would be the last chance that they would have to talk in private before they landed. There were too many listening ears and watching eyes below to permit her to speak her mind before this. But she would speak now, end this foolishness once and for all.

“We have made our landfall. That is Gendasi ahead. The commander has promised me that we will be in Alpèasak this afternoon.” Vaintè was watching out of the corner of her eye but Enge did not speak, merely signaled agreement with a motion of one thumb. The gesture was not insulting — nor was it revealing of any emotion. This was not going well, but Vaintè would not permit it to anger her or stop her from doing what must be done. She turned about and stood face to face with her efenselè.

“To leave father’s love and enter the embrace of the sea is the first pain of life,” Vaintè said.

“The first joy is the comrades who join you there,” Enge added, finishing the familiar phrase. “I abase myself, Vaintè, because you remind me of how my selfishness has hurt you…”

“I want no abasement or apologies — or even explanations of your extraordinary behavior. I find it inexplicable that you and your followers are not decently dead. I shall not discuss that. And I am not thinking of myself. You, just you, that is my concern. Nor do I concern myself with those misled creatures below. If they are intelligent enough to sacrifice their freedom for indecent philosophies, why then they are bright enough to make good workers. The city can use them. It can use you too — but not as a prisoner.”

“I did not ask to be unshackled.”

“You did not have to. I ordered that. I was shamed to be in the presence of one of my efenburu who was chained like a common criminal.”

“It was never my desire to shame you or our efenburu.” Enge was no longer apologetic. “I acted according to my beliefs. Beliefs so strong that they have changed my life completely — as they could change yours, efenselè. But it is pleasing to hear that you feel shame, for shame is part of self-awareness which is the essence of belief.”

“Stop. I feel shame only for our efenburu that you have demeaned. Myself, I feel only anger, nothing more. We are alone now, none can hear what I say. I am undone if you speak of it, but I know you won’t cause me injury. Hear me. Rejoin the others. You will be bound with them when you are brought ashore. But not for long. As soon as this vessel leaves I’ll have you away from them, free, working with me. This Alpèasak will be my destiny and I need your help. Extend it. You know what terrible things are happening, the cold winds blow more strongly from the north. Two cities are dead — and there is no doubt that Inegban* will be next. It is the foresight of our city’s leaders that before that happens a new and greater city will be grown on this distant shore. When Inegban* dies Alpèasak will be waiting. I have fought hard for the privilege of being Eistaa of the new city . I will shape its growth and ready it for the day when our people come. I will need help to do that. Friends around me who will work hard and rise with me. I ask you to join with me, Enge, aid me in this great work. You are my efenselè. We entered the sea together, grew together, emerged together as comrades in the same efenburu. This is a bond that is not easily broken. Join with me, rise with me, stay at my right hand. You cannot refuse. Do you agree?”

Enge had her head lowered, her wrists crossed to show that she was bound, lifting her joined hands before her face before she raised her eyes.

“I cannot. I am bound to my companions, the Daughters of Life, with a bond even stronger than that of my efenburu. They follow where I have led…”

“You have led them into wilderness and exile — and certain death.”

“I hope not. I have only spoke what is right. I have spoken of the truth revealed by Ugunenapsa, that gave her eternal life. To her, to me, to us all. It is you and the other Yilanè who are too blind to see. Only one thing can restore sight to you and to them. Awareness of the knowledge of death that will give you the knowledge of life.”

Vaintè was beside herself with anger, unable for the moment to speak, raising her hands to Enge like an infant so she could see the inflamed red of her palms, pushing them before her face in the most insulting of gestures. Growing more angry still when Enge was unmoved, ignoring her rage and speaking to her with tenderness.

“It need not be, Vaintè. You can join us, discover that which is larger than personal desires, greater than allegiance to efenburu…”

“Greater than allegiance to your city?”

“Perhaps — because it transcends everything.”

“There is no word for that which you are speaking. It is a betrayal of everything we live by and I feel only a great repulsion. Yilanè live as Yilanè, since the egg of time. Then into this order, like a parasite boring into living flesh, your despicable Farneksei appeared preaching this rebellious nonsense. Great patience was shown to her, yet she persisted and was warned, and persisted still — until there was no recourse but to expel her from her city. And she did not die, the first of the living-dead. Were it not for Olpèsaag the salvationer, she might be living and preaching dissension still.”

“Ugunenapsa was her name because through her this great truth was revealed. Olpèsaag was the destroyer who destroyed her flesh but not her revelation.”

“A name is what you are given, and she was Farneksei, inquirer-past-prudence, and she died for that crime. That is where it will end, this childish belief of yours, dirty thoughts that belong down among the corals and the kelp.” She took a deep and shuddering breath, fighting hard to get her temper under control. “Don’t you understand what I am offering you? One last chance. Life instead of death. Join with me and you will climb high. If this unsavory belief is important to you keep it, but speak to me not of it, or to any other Yilanè, keep it beneath your cloak where none can see. You will do it.”

“I cannot. The truth is there and must be spoken aloud…”

Roaring with rage, Vaintè seized Enge by the neck, her thumbs twisting cruelly at her crest, pushing her down and grinding her face into the unyielding surface of the fin.

“There is the truth!” she shouted, pulling Enge’s face about so she would understand every word clearly. “The birdshit that I grind your stupid moon-face into, that is reality and the truth. Out there is the truth of the new city at the edge of the wild jungle, hard work and filth and none of the comforts you have known. That is your fate, and certain death, I promise you if you do not abandon your superior attitude, your weak mewling…”

Vaintè spun about when she heard the tiny choking sound, to see the commander climbing up to join them, now trying to draw back out of sight.

“Get up here,” Vaintè shouted, hurling Enge down onto the ledge. “What does this interference, this spying mean?”

“I did not mean… there was no intent, Highest, I will leave.” Erafnais spoke simply, without subtlety or embellishment, so great was her embarrassment.

“What brought you here then?”

“The beaches. I just wanted to point out the white beaches, the birth beaches. Just around the point of land you see ahead.”

Vaintè was happy for the excuse to turn away from this distasteful scene. Distasteful to her because she had lost her temper. Something she rarely did because she knew that it placed weapons in others’ hands. This commander now, she would bear tales, nothing good could come of it. It was Enge’s fault, ungrateful and stupid Enge. She would be her own destiny now, get exactly the fate she deserved. Vaintè clutched hard to the edge as her anger faded, her breathing slowed, looking at the green shore so close to hand. Aware of Enge climbing to her feet, eager as they all were to see the beach.

“We will get as close as we can,” Erafnais said, “close inshore.”

Our future, Vaintè thought, the first glorious topping of the males, the first eggs laid, the first births, the first efenburu growing in the sea. Her anger was gone now and she almost smiled at the thought of the fat and torpid males lolling stupidly in the sun, the young happily secure in their tail pouches. The first births, a memorable moment for this new city .

Under the guidance of the crew the uruketo was being urged even closer inshore, almost among the breaking waves. The shore moved by, the beaches came into view. The beautiful beaches.

Enge and the commander were struck dumb by what they saw. It was Vaintè who cried aloud, a sound of terrible tortured pain.

It was drawn from deep inside her by the sight of the torn and dismembered corpses that littered the smooth sand.

CHAPTER THREE

Vaintè’s cry of pain ended abruptly. When she spoke next all complexity was gone from her words, all subtlety and form. Just the bare bones of meaning were left, a graceless and harsh urgency.

“Commander. You will lead ten of your strongest crewmembers ashore at once. Armed with hèsotsan. You will have the uruketo stand by here.” She pulled herself up and over the edge of the fin then stopped, pointing to Enge. “You will come with me.”

Vaintè kicked her toeclaws into the uruketo’s hide, her fingers found creases in the skin as she climbed down to its back and dived into the transparent sea. Enge was just behind her.

They surged up out of the surf beside the slaughtered corpse of a male. Flies were thick about the gaping wounds, covering the flesh and congealed blood. Enge swayed at the sight, as though moved by an invisible wind, winding her thumbs and fingers together, all unknowing, in infantile patterns of pain.

Not so Vaintè. Rock-hard and firm she stood, expressionless, with only her eyes moving over the scene of slaughter before her.

“I want to find the creatures that did this,” she said, her words betraying no emotion, stepping forward and bending low over the body. “They killed but did not eat. They are clawed or tusked or horned — look at those slashes. Do you see? And not only the males, but their attendants are dead too, killed the same way. Where are the guards?” She turned about to face the commander who was just emerging from the sea with the armed crewmembers, waving them forwards.

“Spread out in a line, keep your weapons ready, sweep the beach. Find the guards who should have been here — and follow those tracks and see where they lead. Go.” She watched them move out, turning about only when Enge called to her.

“Vaintè, I cannot understand what kind of creature made these wounds. They are all single cuts or punctures, as though the creature had only a single horn or claw.”

“Nenitesk have a single horn on the end of their noses, large and rough, while huruksast also have a single horn.”

“Gigantic, slow, stupid creatures, they could not have done this. You yourself warned me of the dangers of the jungles here. Unknown beasts, fast and deadly.”

“Where were the guards? They knew the dangers, why were they not doing their duty?”

“They were,” Erafnais said, walking slowly back down the beach. “All dead. Killed the same way.”

“Impossible! Their weapons?”

“Unused. Fully loaded. This creature, these creatures, so deadly…”

One of the crewmembers was calling out to them from far down the beach, her body movements unclear at this distance, the sound of her voice muffled. She ran towards them, clearly greatly agitated. She would stop, attempt to speak for an instant, then run closer until finally her meaning was finally understood.

“I have found a trail… come now… there is blood.”

There was uncontrolled terror in her voice that added grim weight to what she had said. Vaintè led the others as they moved quickly to join her.

“I followed the trail, Highest,” the crewmember said, pointing into the trees. “There was more than one of the creatures, five I think, a number of tracks. All of them end at the water’s edge. They are gone. But there is something else, something you must see!”

“What?”

“A killing place of much blood and bones. But something… else. You must see for yourself.”

They could hear the angry buzzing of the flies even before they reached the spot. There were indeed signs of great slaughter here, but something more important. Their guide pointed at the ground in silence.

Pieces of charred wood and ashes lay in a heap. From the center a gray curl of smoke lifted up.

“Fire?” Vaintè said aloud, as puzzled by its presence here as the others. She had seen it before and did not like it. “Stay back, you fool,” she ordered as the commander reached down towards the smoking ashes. “That is fire. It is very hot and it hurts.”

“I did not know,” Erafnais apologized. “I have heard of it but I have never seen it.”

“There is something else,” the crewmember said. “On the shore there is mud. It has been baked hard by the sun. There are footprints on it, very clear. I tore one free, it is there.”

Vaintè strode over and looked down at the cracked disc of mud, bending over and poking at the indentations in the hard surface.

“These creatures are small, very small, smaller than we are. These pads are soft with no marks of claws. Tso! Look there — count!”

She straightened up and spun about to face the others, extending one hand with fingers outspread, angry color rippling across her palm.

“Five toes, that’s what they have, not four. Who knows what kind of beasts have five toes?” Silence was her only answer. “There are too many mysteries here. I don’t like it. How many guards were there?”

“Three,” Erafnais said. “One at each end of the beach, the third near the center…”

She broke off as one of the crewmembers came crashing through the undergrowth behind them. “There is a small boat,” she called out. “Landing on the beach.”

When Vaintè came out from under the trees she saw that the boat was rocking in the surf, laden with containers of some kind. One of the occupants was holding on to the boat so the creature would not stray: the other two were on the beach staring at the corpses. They turned about as Vaintè approached and she saw the twisted wire necklace that one of them wore about her neck. Vaintè stared at it.

“You are the esekasak, she who defends the birth beaches — why were you not here defending your charges?”

The esekasak’s nostrils widened with rage. “Who are you to talk to me like that—”

“I am Vaintè who is now Eistaa of this city. Now answer my question, low one, for I lose patience.”

The esekasak touched her lips in supplication, stumbling backward a step as she did. “Excuse me, Highest, I didn’t know. The shock, these deaths…”

“Are your responsibility. Where were you?”

“The city, getting food and the new guard.”

“How long have you been away?”

“Just two days, Highest, as always.”

“As always!” Vaintè could feel herself swelling with rage that added harsh emphasis to her words. “I understand none of this. Why do you leave your beach to go to the city by sea? Where is the Wall of Thorns, the defenses?”

“Not yet grown, Highest, unsafe. The river is being widened and deepened and has not been cleared of the dangerous beasts yet. It was decided for safety’s sake to site the birth beach on the ocean, temporarily of course.”

“Safety’s sake!” Vaintè could no longer control her rage as she pointed at the corpses, shouting. “They are dead — all of them. Your responsibility. Would that you were dead with them. For this, the greatest of crimes, I demand the greatest of penalties. You are ejected from this city, from the society of speakers, to rejoin the speechless. You will not live long, but every moment until you die you will remember that it was your charge, your responsibility, your mistake that brought on this sentence.” Vaintè stepped forward and hooked her thumbs around the metal emblem of high office and pulled hard, tearing it free. The broken ends cutting the esekasak’s neck. She hurled it into the surf as she chanted the litany of depersonalization.

“I strip you of your charge. All of those present here strip you of your rank for your failure of responsibility. Every citizen of Inegban*, the city that is our home, every Yilanè alive joins us in stripping you of your citizenship. Now I take away your name and no one living will speak it aloud again but will speak instead of Lekmelik, darkness of evil. I return you to the nameless and speechless. Go.”

Vaintè pointed to the ocean, frightening in her wrath. The depersonalized esekasak fell to her knees, stretched full length in the sand at Vaintè’s feet. Her words were barely understandable.

“Not that, no, I beg. Not to blame, it was Deeste who ordered it, forced us. There should have been no births, she didn’t enforce sexual discipline, I cannot be blamed for that, there should have been no births. What has happened is not my fault…”

Her voice rumbled in her throat, then died away; the movement of her limbs slowed and stopped.

“Turn the creature over,” Vaintè ordered.

Erafnais signaled two of her crew members who hauled at the limp body until it flopped on its back. Lekmelik’s eyes were open and staring, her breathing already slowed. She would be dead soon. Justice had been done. Vaintè nodded approval, then dismissed the creature from her thoughts completely; there was too much to do.

“Erafnais, you will stay here and see that the bodies are disposed of,” she ordered. “Then bring the uruketo to the city. I will go now in this boat. I want to see this Eistaa Deeste who I was sent here to replace.”

As Vaintè stepped aboard the boat the guard there signaled humbly for permission to speak. She spoke slowly, with some effort. “It will not be possible for you to see Deeste. Deeste is dead. For many days now. It was the fever, she was one of the last to die.”

“Then my arrival has been delayed too long already.” Vaintè seated herself as the guard spoke commandingly into the boat’s ear. The creature’s flesh pulsed as it started forward, moved by the jet of water it expelled.

“Tell me about the city,” Vaintè said. “But first, your name.” She spoke quietly, warmly. This guard was not to blame for the killings, she had not been on duty. Now Vaintè must think of the city, find the allies she would need if the work were to be done correctly.

“I am Inlènat,” she said, no longer as fearful as she had been. “It will be a good city, we all want it that way. We work hard, though there are many difficulties and problems.”

“Was Deeste one of the problems?”

Inlènat turned her hands away to hide the color of her emotions. “It is not for me to say. I have only been a citizen for a very short time.”

“If you are in the city you are of the city. You may speak to me because I am Vaintè and I am Eistaa. Your loyalty is to me. Take your time and think of the significance of that. It is from me that authority flows. It is to me that all problems will be brought. It is from me that all decisions will radiate. So now you know your responsibilities. You will speak and answer my questions truthfully.”

“I will answer as you command, Eistaa,” Inlènat said with assurance, already settling herself into the new order of things.

Bit by bit, by careful and patient questioning, Vaintè began to build a picture of events in the city. The guard was of too low a station to have knowledge of what had happened in the higher reaches of command — but she was well aware of the results. They were not pleasing.

Deeste had not been popular, that was obvious. She had apparently surrounded herself with a group of cronies who did little or no work. There was every chance that these were the ones who had forgotten their responsibilities, had not taken the other roads of satisfaction when egg-time came, who had instead used the males despite the fact the birth beach was not ready. If this were true, and the truth could be found out easily enough, there would be no waste of a public trial. The criminals would be put to work outside the city, that was all, would work until they fell or were killed or were eaten by the wild creatures. They deserved little else.

The news wasn’t all bad though. The first fields had been cleared, while the city itself was over half grown and going according to plan. Since the fever had been countered there had been no medical problems other than normal injuries caused by the heavy work. By the time the boat had entered the river Vaintè had a clear picture of what must be done. She would check on Inlènat’s stories of course, that was natural, but her instincts told her that what the simple creature had told her held the essence of the city’s problems.

Some of her tales would be just gossip, but the body of her facts would surely stand.

The sun was setting behind a bank of clouds as the boat pulled in between the water roots of the city, where they stretched out into the harbor. Vaintè automatically pulled one of the cloaks around her as she felt the chill. The cloak was well-fed and warm. It also concealed her identity — and there was nothing wrong with that. Had it not been for the slaughter on the beach she would have insisted on a formal welcome when the uruketo had arrived. That would be unseemly to do now. She would make her way quietly into Alpèasak, so that when the news of the killing reached the city she would be there to guide them. The deaths would not be forgotten, but they would be remembered as the end of the bad period, the beginning of the good. She made solemn promise to herself that everything would be very, very different from now on.

CHAPTER FOUR

Vaintè’s arrival did not go unnoticed. As the boat drew up at the dock she saw that someone was standing there, tight-wrapped in a cloak and obviously waiting for her. arrival. “Who is that?” Vaintè asked. Inlènat followed her gaze.

“I have heard her called Vanalpè. Her rank is the highest. She has never spoken to me.”

Vaintè knew her, at least knew her reports. Business-like and formal with never a word about personalities or difficulties. She was the esekaksopa, literally she-who-changed-the-shape-of-things, for she was one of the very few who knew the art of breeding plants and beasts into new and useful forms. Now she was the one with responsibility for the design and actual growth of the city. While Vaintè was Eistaa, the leader of the new city and its inhabitants, Vanalpè had the ultimate responsibility for the physical shape of the city itself. Vaintè tried not let the sudden tension show: this first meeting was of vital importance for it could shape their entire relationship. And upon that relationship depended the fate and the future of Alpèasak itself.

“I am Vaintè,” she said as she stepped out onto the raw wood of the dock.

“I greet you and I welcome you to Alpèasak. One of the fargi saw the uruketo and the approach of this boat and reported to me. It was my greatest wish that it be you. My name is Vanalpè, one who serves,” she said formally, making the sign of submission to a superior. She did it in the old-fashioned way, the full double-hand motion, not in the usual and more modern shortened way. After that she stood square-legged and solid, waiting for orders. Vaintè warmed to her at once and on impulse seized her hand in a gesture of friendship.

“I have read your reports. You have worked hard for Alpèasak. Did the fargi tell you anything else… did she speak of the beach?”

“No, just of your arrival. What of the beach?”

Vaintè opened her mouth to speak — and realized that she could not. Since that single scream of pain she had kept her feelings under perfect control. But she felt that now, if she spoke of the slaughter of the males and the young, that her anger and horror would push through. That would not be politic nor help the image of cold efficiency that she always maintained in public.

“Inlènat,” she ordered. “Tell Vanalpè what we found on the beach.”

Vaintè paced down the length of the dock and back, not listening to the voices, planning the order of all the things that she must do. When the voices fell still she looked up and found them both waiting for her to speak.

“Now you understand,” she said.

“Monstrous. The creatures who did this must be found and destroyed.”

“Do you know what they possibly can be?”

“No, but I know one who does. Stallan, who works with me.”

“She is named huntress by design?”

“She is truly named. She alone has ventured into the jungle and forests that surround the city. She knows what is to be found there. Knowing this I have made modifications of the city design that I must give you details…”

“Later. Though I am now Eistaa the less pressing duties can wait until something is done about the killings. The city goes well — there are no immediate problems?”

“None that cannot wait. It goes as it should. The fever has been stopped. A few died.”

“Deeste died. Will she be missed?”

Vanalpè was silent, eyes lowered in thought. When she did speak it was obvious that she had considered her responsibilities and weighed her words carefully. “There has been bad-feeling in this city and many say that Deeste was responsible for that. I agree with that opinion. Very few will miss her.”

“Those few…?”

“Personal associates. You will quickly discover who they are.”

“I understand. Now send for Stallan and order her to attend me. While we wait show me your city.”

Vanalpè led the way between the high roots, then pushed aside a hanging curtain that shivered at her touch. It was warmer inside and they dropped their cloaks onto the pile beside the door. The cloaks extruded slow tentacles that probed the wall until they smelled the sweetness of the saptree and attached themselves to it.

They passed through the temporary structures close to the waterfront, translucent sheets fastened to skeletal, fast-growing trees. “This technique is new,” Vanalpè explained. “This is the first city to be founded in a very long time. Since the last founding the days were used wisely and great improvements have been made in design.” She was animated now, smiling as she slapped her hand against the brittle sheets. “I developed these myself. A modified insect pupa greatly enlarged. As long as the pupae are well fed in the larval stage they will produce large numbers of these sheets. They are peeled off and joined together while they are still soft. They harden with exposure. Nor is this resource wasted. See, we come to the city tree now.”

She pointed to the network of heavy roots that now formed the walls, where they wrapped and engulfed the translucent sheets. “The sheets are pure carbohydrate. They are absorbed by the tree and form a valuable energy input.”

“Excellent.” Vaintè stopped under a light that huddled next to a heater which had spread its membranous wings. She looked about in unfeigned admiration. “I cannot tell you how pleased I am. I have read all of your reports, I knew what you were accomplishing here, but seeing the solidity of the growth itself is a different matter. It is impressive impressive impressive.” She indicated a repetition and enlargement of the last word. “My first report to Entoban* will say just that.”

Vanalpè turned her head away in silence, not daring to speak. All of the work of her lifetime had been in city design and Alpèasak was the culmination of those labors. The new Eistaa’s unchecked enthusiasm was overpowering. Long moments passed before she was able to speak, pointing to the heater. “This is so new you won’t have seen it in the reports.” She stroked the heater which withdrew its fangs from the saptree for a moment, turned sightless eyes towards her and squeaked thinly. “I have been breeding these experimentally for years. I can truthfully report now that the experiments were successful. They are longer-lived and need no nourishment other than the sugars of the saptree. And feel the body temperature, it is certainly higher than any other.”

“I can only admire.”

Proudly, Vanalpè led the way again, between the curtains of entangled roots. She bent as she went through an opening, holding the roots up so Vaintè could enter, then pointed at the thick trunk that formed the rear wall. She laughed and held out her hand, palm upwards. “It lay there on my hand, that small, it seemed impossible to believe the days and days of labor needed to prepare the mutated gene chains that went into it. And no one was absolutely sure until it grew that our work had been successful. I had this area cleared of brush and trees, insect life as well, then I fertilized and watered the ground myself, pushed a hole into it with my thumb — then planted the seed. I slept beside it that night, I couldn’t leave. And next day there was the tiniest green shoot. I can’t describe how I felt. And now — it is this.”

With great pride and happiness Vanalpè slapped the thick bark of the great tree that rose there. Vaintè went and stood beside her, touching the wood herself and feeling the same joy. Her tree, her city.

“This is where I will stay. Tell everyone that this is my place.”

“This is your place. Walls will be planted to ring the place of the Eistaa. I will now go and wait for Stallan, then bring her here.”

When she had gone Vaintè sat in silence until a passing fargi looked her way, then sent her for meat. But when the fargi returned she was not alone.

“I am called Hèksei,” the newcomer said in the most formal manner. “Word has spread of your arrival, great Vaintè, and I have hurried to greet you and welcome you to your city.”

“What is your work in this city, Hèksei?” Vaintè asked, just as formally.

“I attempt to be of aid, to help others, to be loyal to the city…”

“You were a close friend of the now-dead Eistaa, Deeste?”

It was more of a statement than a question and the barb struck home. “I don’t know what you have heard. Some people are jealous of others, carry tales—”

Her words cut off as Vanalpè returned, followed by another who wore a sling across one shoulder from which there was suspended a hèsotsan. Vaintè glanced at it, then looked away, saying nothing although its presence here was forbidden by law.

“This is Stallan of whom I spoke,” Vanalpè said, her eyes slipping over Hèksei as though she did not exist.

Stallan made the sign of formal salutation, then stepped backwards towards the door.

“I am in error,” she said hoarsely, and Vaintè noticed for the first time the long scar that puckered her throat. “Unthinkingly, I wore my weapon. Not until I was aware of you looking at it did I realize that I should have left it behind.”

“Wait,” Vaintè said. “You wear it always?”

“Always. I am out of the city as much as I am in. This is a new city and there are dangers.”

“Then wear it still, Stallan, if you have need of it. Has Vanalpè told you about the beach?” Stallan signaled yes in grim silence. “Do you know what the creature could be?”

“Yes — and no.”

Vaintè ignored Hèksei’s gesture of disbelief and contempt. “Explain yourself,” she said.

“There are swamps and jungles in this new world, great forests and hills. To the west there is a large lake and beyond that the ocean again. To the north endless forests. And animals. Some very much like the ones we know in Entoban*. Some are very different. The difference is greater to the north. There I have found more and more ustuzou. I have killed some. They can be dangerous. Many of the fargi I took with me were injured, some died.”

“Dangerous!” This time Hèksei laughed out loud. “A mouse under the floor dangerous? We must send for an elinou to take care of your danger.”

Stallan turned slowly to face Hèksei. “You always laugh when I speak of this matter about which you know nothing. The time has come to stop that laughing.” There was a coldness in her voice that allowed no answer. They stood in silence as she went out the entrance, to return a moment later with a large, wrapped bundle.

“There are ustuzou in this land, fur-bearing creatures that are larger than the mice beneath the floor that you laugh at. Because that is the only kind of ustuzou we knew of before coming to this new shore we still think that all ustuzou must be tiny vermin. The time has now come to abandon ourselves of this idea. Things are different here. There is this nameless beast, for instance.”

She snapped the bundle open and spread it across the floor. It was the skin of an animal, a fur-animal, and it reached from wall to wall. There was only shocked silence as Stallan took up one of its limbs and pointed to the foot on its end, to the claws there, each one as long as her hand.

“I answered yes and no to your question, Eistaa, and this is why. There are five claws here. Many of the larger and most dangerous fur-creatures have five toes. I believe that the killers on the beach were ustuzou of some kind, of a species never encountered before.”

“I think you are right,” Vaintè said, kicking a corner of the thick fur aside and trying not to shudder at its soft and loathsome touch. “Do you think you can find these beasts?”

“I will track them. North. The only way they could have gone.”

“Find them. Quickly. Report to me. Then we will destroy them. You will leave at dawn?”

“With your permission — I will leave now.”

Vaintè permitted herself an expression of slight incredulity, enough to be enquiring yet not derisive or insulting. “It will be dark soon. Can you travel at night?” she asked. “How can a thing like that be possible?”

“I can only do it near the city where the coastline is most regular. There are large cloaks and I have a boat that is nocturnal. It will follow the shoreline so that by dawn we will be well on our way.”

“You are indeed a hunter. But I do not wish you to venture out alone, to face these dangers by yourself. You will need aid. Hèksei here has told me that she helps others. She will go with you, help you.”

“It will be a strenuous voyage, Eistaa,” Stallan said, her voice flat and expressionless.

“I am sure she will profit from the experience,” Vaintè said, turning away, ignoring Hèksei’s unhappiness and frantic signals for attention. “May your voyage be a successful one.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Naudinza istak ar owot at kwalaro, at etcharro — ach i marinanni terpar.

The hunter’s path is always the hardest and longest. But it ends in the stars.

Lightning flickered, low on the horizon, briefly lighting the banks of dark clouds. Long moments passed before it was followed by the distant, deep rumble of thunder. The storm was retreating, moving out to sea, taking the streaming rain and the torrential wind with it. But the high seas still broke heavily on the beach, running far up the sands and into the salt grass beyond, almost as far as the beached boat. Just beyond the boat was a small copse where a temporary shelter of skins had been lashed to oars between the trees. Smoke drifted from beneath it and hung low under the branches. Old Ogatyr leaned out from the shelter and blinked at the first rays of afternoon sunlight that pierced the receding clouds. Then he sniffed, the air.

“The storm is over,” he announced. “We can go on.”

“Not in those seas,” Amahast said, poking at the fire until it flared up. The chunks of venison smoked in the heat and dripped sizzling meat juices into the flame. “The boat would be swamped and you know it. Perhaps in the morning.”

“We are late, very late—”

“There is nothing we can do about it, old one. Ermanpadar sends his storms without worrying too much whether it suits us or not.”

He turned from the fire to the remaining deer. The hunt had been a good one with herds of deer roaming the grassy scrublands of the coast. When this last beast was butchered and smoked the boat would be full. He spread the deer’s front legs and hacked at its skin with the sharp flake of stone — but it was no longer sharp. Amahast threw it aside and called out to Ogatyr.

“This is what you can do, old one, you can make me a new blade.”

Grunting with the effort, Ogatyr pushed himself to his feet. The continual dampness made his bones ache. He walked stiffly to the boat and rooted about inside it, then returned with a stone in each hand.

“Now, boy, you will learn something,” he said, squatting down slowly onto his haunches. He held out the stones towards Kerrick. “Look. What do you see?”

“Two stones.”

“Of course. But what of these stones? What can you tell me about them?” He turned them over and over in his hands so the boy could examine them closely. Kerrick poked at them and shrugged.

“I see only stones.”

“That is because you are young and you have never been taught. You will never learn this from the women, for this is a man’s skill only. To be a hunter you must have a spear. A spear must have a point. Therefore you must learn to know one stone from another, to see the spearpoint or the blade where it hides inside the stone, learn to open the stone and find that which is hidden inside. Now your lesson begins.” He gave the rounded, water-worn rock to Kerrick. “This is the hammerstone. See how smooth it is? Feel its weight. It is a stone that will break other stones. It will open this one which is named a bladestone.”

Kerrick turned the pebble over and over in his hands, staring at it with fierce concentration, noting its rough surface and shining angles. Ogatyr sat patiently until he was done, then took it back.

“There is no spearhead trapped in here,” he said. “It is the wrong size, the wrong shape. But there are blades here, one here, see it? Feel it? I now release it.”

Ogatyr carefully placed the bladestone on the ground and struck it with the hammerstone. A sharp chip cracked off the side.

“There is the blade,” he said. “Sharp, but not sharp enough. Now watch closely and see what I do.”

He took a bit of deer antler from his bag, then placed the chip of stone on his thigh and pressed the edge carefully with the tip of the antler. Each time he did this a tiny chip was flaked off. When he had worked the length of it, the blade was sharp and true. He handed it to Amahast who had patiently watched the entire operation. Amahast bounced it in his palm and nodded with appreciation. With practiced skill he slashed an opening in the deer’s hide and cut it from neck to groin.

“No one in our sammad can make the stone yield up its blades as this one can,” Amahast said. “Let him teach you, my son, for a hunter without a blade is no hunter at all.”

Kerrick seized the stones eagerly and cracked them together. Nothing happened. He tried again, with as little success. Only when Ogatyr took hold of his hands and put them in the right position did he succeed in breaking free a ragged chip. But he was quite proud of this first effort and labored to shape it with the bit of deer horn until his fingers were sore.

Big Hastila had been gloomily watching his efforts. Now he crawled out from under the shelter, yawning and stretching, sniffing the air as Ogatyr had done, then plodded up the embankment behind them. The storm was gone, the wind growing gusty as it died down, the sun just beginning to break through. Only the white-topped waves stretching to the horizon still bore witness to the past day’s fury. On the landward side the embankment fell away again down to a grassy marsh. He saw dark forms picking their way through it; he slowly crouched and moved back to the shelter.

“More deer out there. The hunting is good in this place.”

“The boat is full,” Amahast said, slicing away a bit of smoking meat. “Any more and she will sink.”

“My bones ache from lying here all day,” Hastila grumbled, seizing up his spear. “The other thing the boy must learn is how to reach the game in order to kill it with a sharp new point. Come, Kerrick, take up your spear and follow me. If we cannot kill the deer we can at least stalk them. I will show you how to move upwind and crawl close to even the wariest prey.”

Kerrick had his spear in his hand, but looked to his father before he followed the big hunter. Amahast nodded as he chewed the tough meat. “Hastila can show you much. Go with him and learn.”

Kerrick laughed happily as he ran after Hastila, then slowed to walk at his side.

“You are too noisy, Hastila said. “All the creatures of the forest have good ears and can hear you coming long before they see you…”

Hastila stopped and held up his hand in a gesture of silence. Then he cupped his hand to his ear and pointed to a hollow in the dunes ahead. Kerrick listened carefully but could hear only the distant rumble of the surf. It slackened for a moment and the other sound was clear, a tiny crackling from the other side of the dune. Hastila raised his spear and moved forward silently. Kerrick could feel his heart beat loudly as he followed the big hunter, moving as quietly as he could; the crackling was louder now.

As they came to the base of the dune they smelled the sweet and sickening smell of rotting flesh. The remains of the butchered deer carcasses had been dumped here, well away from their camp. The crackling sound was much louder now, as well as the buzzing of countless flies. Hastila signaled Kerrick to wait while he moved up the slope and peered carefully over. He drew back and turned to Kerrick, his face twisted with disgust, and waved the boy up to join him. When they were both below the crest he raised his spear into throwing position and Kerrick did the same. What was there? What creature were they stalking? Filled with a mixture of fear and curiosity Kerrick crouched — then jumped forward just behind the hunter.

Hastila shouted loudly and three creatures looked up from their grisly work, stood motionless for an instant at his sudden appearance. The hunter’s arm snapped down, his spear flew straight, struck the nearest one between the forelegs. It fell and thrashed, screeching loudly. The others fled, hissing with fear, long legs pumping, necks and tails outstretched.

Kerrick had not moved, still stood with his spear held high, rigid with fear. Murgu. The one that was dying, clawing at the spear with sharp-clawed toes, was too much like the marag he had speared in the sea. Mouth open. Sharp teeth. Something from a nightmare.

Hastila had not looked at the boy, did not notice his open fear. He was too obsessed with his own hatred. Murgu. How he loathed them. This carrion eater, blood and bits of decay still on its head and neck, snapped feebly at him as he came up. He kicked it aside, stood on its neck while he pulled his spear free. It was scaled and green-spotted, pale gray as a corpse, as long as a man although its head was no bigger than his hand. He plunged the spear home again and it trembled and died. He waved the clouds of flies from his face as he climbed back out of the pit. Kerrick had lowered his spear and fought to control his trembling. Hastila saw this and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“Do not be afraid of them. For all their size they are cowards, carrion eaters, filth. Hate them — but do not fear them. Remember always what they are. When Ermanpadar made the Tanu from the mud of the river, he made the deer and the other animals as well for the Tanu to hunt. He put them down in the grass beside the mountains where there is clean snow and fresh water. But then he looked and saw all the emptiness to the south. But by then he was tired and far distant from the river so he did not return to it but instead dug deep into the green slime of the swamp. With this he made the murgu and they are green to this day and fit only for killing so they can decay back into the swamp from which they were born.”

While he spoke Hastila plunged his spear into the sand and twisted it to remove all the stains of the marag’s blood. When this was done he was quieter; most of Kerrick’s fear had ebbed away. The marag was dead, the others gone. Soon they would leave this shore and return to the sammad.

“Now I will show you how to stalk your prey,” Hastila said. “Those murgu were eating or they would have heard you — you sounded like a mastodon going up the slope.”

“I was quiet!” Kerrick said defensively. “I know how to walk. I stalked a squirrel once, right up so close that I was only a spear length away—”

“The squirrel is the stupidest animal, the longtooth is the smartest. The deer is not smart, but he can hear the best of all. Now I will stand here in the sand and you will go up the bank and into the deep grass. Then stalk me. In silence — for I have the ears of the deer.”

Kerrick ran happily up the slope and through the wet grass — then dropped and crawled away from the camp. He went on this way, as silently as he could, then turned towards the ocean again to work his way up behind the hunter. It was hot, wet work — and to little avail, for when he finally reached the top of the ridge again Hastila was already there waiting for him.

“You must look carefully each time before you put your foot down,” the hunter said. “Then roll it forward and do not stamp. Part the grass and do not force your way through it. Now we try again.”

There was little beach here and Hastila went down to the water’s edge and splashed his spear into the sea to wash away any remaining trace of the marag’s blood. Kerrick once more pushed his way up the slope, stopping for breath on the top. “This time you won’t hear me,” he called out, shaking his spear in defiance at the big man.

Hastila waved back and leaned forward on his spear.

Something dark surged out of the surf behind him. Kerrick called out a horrified warning and Hastila spun about, spear ready. There was a snapping sound, like the breaking of a stout branch. The hunter dropped his spear and clutched at his midriff and fell face first into the water. Wet arms pulled him under and he vanished among the foam-flecked waves.

Kerrick screamed as he ran back to the encampment, met the others running towards him. He choked out what he had seen as he led them back along the beach, to the spot where the terrifying event had taken place.

The sands were empty, the ocean as well. Amahast bent and picked the hunter’s long spear out of the surf, then looked out to sea again.

“You could not see what it looked like?”

“Just the thing’s legs, the arms,” he said through his chattering teeth. “They reached up out of the sea.”

“Their color?”

“I couldn’t see. Wet, green perhaps. Could they have been green, father?”

“They could have been anything,” Amahast said grimly.

“There are murgu of all kinds here. We will stay together now, one will be awake always while the others sleep. As soon as we can we return to the sammad. There is only death in these southern waters.”

CHAPTER SIX

Alaktenkèalaktèkan olkeset esetakolesnta* tsuntesnalak tsuntensilak satasat.

What happens now, and next to now, is of no importance as long as tomorrow’s-tomorrow is the same as yesterday’s-yesterday.

The storm had passed and the rain had stopped; the ground was steaming now in the heat of the fierce sunlight. Vaintè stood in the shade of the dead tree and looked on as the workers carefully planted the seedlings in neat rows. Vanalpè herself had marked the rows in the ground that the others were to follow. She came up to Vaintè now, moving slowly with her mouth gaping wide in the heat, to stand at her side in the shade.

“Are the seedlings dangerous to handle?” Vaintè asked. Vanalpè, still breathing heavily, signaled a negative.

“Only when the thorns begin to grow, and that is only after eighty days. Some of the animals will still graze them then, but not after the thorns begin to exude the toxins. The taste is bitter to the ruminants, deadly to anything smaller.”

“Is this one of your new modifications?” Vaintè asked, moving out into the sun.

“Yes. It was developed in Inegban* so we could bring the seed with us. We are so familiar with the thorn hedges around the city fields, always far higher than our heads, that we might forget that they have not been there since the egg of time. They were planted once, were small before they grew large and spread. Now the young branches grow over the old to make an impenetrable barrier. But a new hedge in a new city asks for a new answer.” She was speaking easier now with her mouth no longer gaping. Cool enough to move until part of her body was in the sun. “This new hedge I have developed is fast growing, short lived — and toxic. But before it dies we will have seeded the usual thorn hedge to grow and eventually take its place.”

“And the trees?” Vaintè asked, looking in the direction of the leafless dead trees that stood gauntly about the new field.

“They are already being destroyed — see where the limbs have fallen from that large one. They are riddled with wood-consuming beetles, most voracious. When the supply of wood is gone the beetles will enter a larval stage. Then we can gather the coarctate pupae which preserve themselves in hardened cuticula. They can be stored until needed again.”

Vaintè had moved back into the shade and she noticed that most of the workers had done the same. The afternoon was hot and comfortable, but not a time for getting any work done.

“When these seedlings have been planted send the workers back to the city,” Vaintè said.

Enge was working alongside the others; Vaintè waited until she caught her eye, then signaled her over. Enge expressed gratitude before she spoke.

“You have taken the shackles off your prisoners. We are most thankful.”

“Don’t be. The reason that I had them shackled on the uruketo was so they could not attempt to seize the craft and escape.”

“You don’t understand the Daughters of Life, do you? Violence is not our way…”

“I’m pleased to hear that,” Vaintè said dryly. “My way is to take no chances. Now that the uruketo has gone there are only forests and jungle to escape to should anyone not be satisfied with her lot. Not only that, your companions will work better unshackled.”

“Yet we are still prisoners.”

“No,” Vaintè said firmly, “you are not. You are free citizens of Alpèasak with all the rights and duties of other citizens. Do not confuse what happened with what will happen. The council of Inegban* deemed you unworthy of citizenship in that city and sent you here. To make new lives in a new city . I hope you will not repeat the same mistakes here that you did there.

“Is that a threat, Vaintè? Does the Eistaa of Alpèasak think that we are different from other citizens here — that we will be treated differently?”

“It is not a threat, but a warning, my efenselè. Learn by what happened. Believe what you will among yourselves — but keep your secrets to yourselves. You are forbidden to talk of these matters to others. The rest of us do not wish to know.”

“You can be that sure?” Enge asked sternly. “You are that wise?”

“Wise enough to know that you are trouble-makers, Vaintè snapped. “Sure enough of that fact to take the precaution that you shall be watched closely. You’ll not make the trouble here that you did in Inegban*. I shall not be as patient as the council there.”

Enge’s body scarcely moved while she spoke, her words neutral and unoffensive. “We make no trouble, intend no trouble. We just believe…”

“Fine. Just as long as you do your believing in dark places where others cannot hear. I will brook no subversion in my city.”

Vaintè knew that she was beginning to lose her temper, as she always did when faced with the rock-like immobility of Enge’s strange beliefs. She therefore welcomed the sight of the fargi hurrying towards her with a message. Though the youngster did not speak very well her memory was good.

“The city… comes one… name of Stallan. Things of importance to be said… presence requested.”

Vaintè waved her off, then turned her back rudely on Enge and made her way into the city. Stallan was there, awaiting her arrival, success obvious in every attitude of her hard body.

“You have done that which I asked you to do?” Vaintè said.

“I have, Eistaa. I followed the killer-beasts until I came upon them. Then I shot and killed one myself and have returned with the body. It is close by. I left the worthless one Hèksei to look after it. There are strange things about this ustuzou that I find disturbing.”

“Strange? What? You must tell me.”

“I must show you so that you will understand.”

Stallan led the way in silence to that part of the city closest to the river. Hèksei waited here, standing watch over a tightly wrapped bundle. Her skin was filthy and scratched and she began to wail in protest as soon as they appeared. Before the first words had been spoken Stallan struck her on the head and hurled her to the ground.

“Worse than useless,” Stallan hissed. “Lazy, noisy on the hunt, filled with fear. Slowed me down and almost got us both killed. I want nothing more to do with her.”

“Nor does Alpèasak,” Vaintè said in quick judgement. “Leave us. Leave the city. Join the ambenin.”

Hèksei started to protest, but Stallan kicked her cruelly in the mouth. Hèksei fled, her screeches of agony rebounding from the aerial roots and leaves overhead. Vaintè put the worthless creature instantly from her mind and pointed at the bundle.

“Is this the killer animal?”

“It is.”

Stallan pulled at the covering and Hastila’s corpse rolled out onto the damp earth.

At the sight of it Vaintè spoke wordlessly of horror and amazement. Controlling her feeling of revulsion she stepped forward slowly, then prodded it with her foot.

“There were four of the creatures,” Stallan said. “All smaller than this one. I found them and I followed them. They did not walk on the shore but were in the ocean. Nor did they have a boat. Instead they sat on a tree in the water and pushed it forward with bits of wood. I watched them kill other fur animals, just as they must have killed the males and their guards on the beach. They do not use teeth or claws or horns because they are hornless as you can see, while their teeth and claws are small and weak. Instead they do their killing with a thing like a sharp tooth fixed to a length of wood.”

“They do many tricks, these fur animals. They have brains.”

“All creatures have brains, even a primitive hèsotsan like this,” Stallan tapped the weapon hanging from her shoulder.

“But this hèsotsan is not dangerous by itself if handled correctly. These things are. Now, if you would, look closely at the beast. They have much fur here, as you can see, on the top of their bodies about the head. But this other fur, lower down, does not belong to the creature but is bound about it. It bears a pouch, and in the pouch I found this. What appears to be a shaped piece of stone with a sharp edge. See, this bound-about skin comes away and the creature has its own fur beneath.”

“It is a male!” Vaintè shouted. “A male fur-creature with a dim and bestial brain that now is bold enough to threaten us, the Yilanè. Is that what you are trying to tell me? That these ugly beasts are a danger to us?”

“I believe so, Vaintè. But you are Eistaa and you are the one who decides what thing is what thing. I have merely told you what I have seen, shown you what I have found.”

Vaintè held the hard sharpness of the stone between her thumbs, stared down at the corpse for a long time before she spoke again.

“I believe that it is possible that even a ustuzou might grow to have a low kind of intelligence and cunning. Our boats understand a few instructions. All animals have brains of some kind. Enteesenat can be trained to search out food in the sea. In this savage part of the world so far from our own, who can possibly say what strange things have happened since the egg of time? Now we are beginning to find out. There are no Yilanè here to order and control things. It is therefore possible, and hard to deny since the evidence is here before our eyes, that a species of disgusting mammal has attained some form of perverted intelligence. Enough to find bits of stone and learn to kill with them. Yes, it is possible. But they should have remained in their jungle, killing and eating each other. They mistakenly ventured forth. Vermin like these, male vermin, and they have killed our males. So understand now what we must do. We must seek them out and slaughter them all. We have no choice if our city is to live on these beaches. Can we do that?”

“We must do that. But we must go in strength, taking everyone who can be spared from the city. All of them armed with hèsotsan.”

“But you said there were only four of the beasts? And only three of them remain alive now…”

Realization came to Vaintè as it had come to Stallan when she had found the small group moving north. “Could there be others? More of these?”

“There must be. These few must have voyaged away from the main pack for some reason. Now they return to it. I am sure of that. We must move in force and find them all.”

“And kill them all. Of course. I will issue the orders so we can leave at once.”

“That would not be wise since the day is long advanced and there will be many of us. If we leave at dawn, take only the best fed and fastest boats, we will easily catch them because they move slowly. Follow them and find the others.”

“And butcher them as they butchered the males. It is a good plan. Have this creature taken to the ambesed and spread out for all to see. We will want supplies, fresh water, enough to last a few days at least so we won’t have to stop.”

Fargi were sent hurrying to all parts of the city, spreading the word, ordering the citizens to gather in the ambesed until it was crowded as it had never been before. An angry murmur rose from the mass of Yilanè as they pushed each other for a chance to see the body. Vaintè herself was entering the ambesed when her eye was caught by Ikemend signaling for attention; she stopped instantly.

“A few words, please, Eistaa.”

“There is no trouble with your charges?” Vaintè asked in sudden fear. Ikemend, her efenselè, had been appointed to the vital position of guarding and sheltering the males. After the briefest session of questioning the previous guardian had revealed that it was her lack of control that had resulted in all the deaths on the beach. She had sickened and died when Vaintè had stripped her of her name.

“All is well. But the males have heard about the dead ustuzou and want to see it. Should they be permitted?”

“Of course — they are not children. Let them think about their responsibilities. But not until the ambesed is clear. We don’t want any hysterical scenes.”

Ikemend was not the only one seeking her attention. Enge blocked her way, nor would she move when ordered aside.

“I have heard what you plan to do, follow and kill the fur-beasts.”

“What you have heard is correct. I am going to make the public announcement now.”

“Before you do that — there is something that I must tell you. I cannot support you. None of the Daughters of Life can. It goes contrary to everything that we believe in. We cannot be a part of this killing. Base animals are as they are because they lack the knowledge of death. To destroy them because of this is not possible. We kill when we must eat. All other killing is forbidden. Therefore you understand that we cannot…”

“Silence! You will do as I order. Anything else will be treason.”

Enge answered her rage with cold reason. “What you call treason we call the gift of life. We have no recourse.”

“I do. I can have you all killed at once.”

“You can. Then you will be the murderess and the guilty one as well.”

“I have no guilt — just anger. And hatred and loathing that an efenselè of mine could betray her race in this manner. I won’t kill you because I need your bodies for hard work. Your people will be chained together until we return. You will be chained with them. You have no more special privileges. I disown you as an efenselè. You will work with them and die with them. Disowned and loathed for your treachery. That is your fate.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

Alitha thurlastar, hannas audim senstar, sammad deinarmal na mer ensi edo.

The deer is killed, a man may die, a woman grows old — only the sammad endures.

Kerrick was in his usual position in the prow of the boat, tending the fire. But this was a boy’s work and he had wanted to row with the others. Amahast had permitted him to try but he was too small, the great oar too clumsy for him to handle. He leaned forward now, squinting his eyes to see through the fog, but nothing was visible. Unseen seabirds cried out with the voices of wailing children, invisible in the mist. Only the crash of breaking waves off to the left gave them any guide. Normally they would have waited until the fog had lifted, but not this day. The memory of Hastila being pulled forever beneath the sea was with all of them. They moved as fast as they could: they wanted this voyage over and finished with. Kerrick sniffed the air, raised his head and sniffed again.

“Father,” he called out. “Smoke — I can smell smoke!”

“There is smoke on us and on the meat,” Amahast said, yet he paddled a little faster at the thought. Could the sammad be that close?

“No, this is not old smoke. This is fresh-on the wind from ahead. And listen to the waves. Are they not different?”

They were indeed. With the reek of the skins and the meat there may have been some doubt about the smoke. But not the waves. Their sound was growing fainter, falling behind them. Many of the tents of the sammad had been pitched on the banks of a great river, where it ran into the sea. The waves might very well be going up this estuary now, dying away in the flow of fresh water there.

“Pull towards shore!” Amahast ordered, leaning hard into his own oar.

The sky was growing lighter now: the mist was lifting. Above the screams of the gulls they heard a woman calling out and they shouted in answer.

Once the sun began burning through the fog it began to lift faster and faster. It still lay close to the surface of the water, but beyond it was the shore and the waiting tents, smoking fires, piles of debris — all of the familiar bustle of their encampment. The boat was seen now and a great shout went up and people rushed from the tents to the water’s edge. Everyone was crying out with happiness and there were echoing trumpetings from the meadow where the mastodons were grazing. They were home.

Men and women both were splashing into the water, calling out — but their shouts of welcome died away as they counted the places in the boat. Five had left on the hunting expedition. Just three had returned. As the boat grated against the sandy bottom it was seized and pulled up onto the beach. Nothing was said but the woman of Hastila suddenly screamed with horror as she realized he was missing, as did the woman of Diken and his children.

“Both dead,” were Amahast’s first words, lest they have false hopes that the others were following behind. “Diken and Hastila. They are among the stars. Are there many away from the encampment?”

“Alkos and Kassis have gone up the river, to get fish,” Aleth said. “They are the only ones not close by.”

“Go after them,” Amahast ordered. “Bring them back at once. Strike the tents, load the beasts. We leave today for the mountains.”

There were shouts and cries of protest at this because they were not prepared for this sudden departure. While on the move they would break camp every morning: they did this easily because just the essentials were unpacked. This was not true now. The summer encampment sprawled along both sides of the small river, while in the tents all their baskets, furs, everything were spread about in confusion.

Ogatyr shouted at them, his voice rising over the women’s wails of distress. “Do as Amahast says or you will die in the snows. The season is late, the path long.”

Amahast said nothing more. This reason was as good as any. Perhaps even better than the real reason, for which he could give no evidence. Despite this lack he was sure that he was being watched. He, a hunter, knew when he was being hunted in turn. For all of this day, and the day before, he had felt eyes upon him. He had seen nothing, the sea had always been empty when he looked. Yet something was out there, he knew it. He could not forget that Hastila had been pulled beneath the ocean and had not returned. Now Amahast wanted them to leave, this day, pack the travois and lash them behind the mastodons and turn their faces away from the sea and what lay beneath it. Not until they were back among the familiar mountains would he feel safe.

Although he worked them until they ran with sweat, it still took the entire day to break camp. He shouted at the women and beat the youths when they slowed down. It was no easy thing to leave a summer camp. Scattered goods had to be brought together and packed, the tentacles of hardalt from the drying racks loaded into baskets as well. Nor were there enough baskets for all the hardalt and there was wailing and complaining when he ordered that some of the catch be left behind. There was not even time to mourn the dead; that would come later. Now they must leave.

The sun was dropping behind the hills before they were ready. They would have to travel by night, but they had done that before. The skies were clear, the new moon just a crescent of light, the tharms of warriors were bright above and would guide them on their way. There was much trumpeting and waving of trunks as the mastodons, long unharnessed, bellowed their protests. Yet they permitted the boys to climb up to their backs, and watched with rolling eyes as the great poles were lashed into place. Two to each beast, trailing behind on both sides, making a frame to which the crosspieces were tied, then the tents and stores were loaded on top.

Kerrick sat on the neck of the great bull, Karu, tired as they all were, but still pleased that the sammad was leaving. He wanted to be away from the ocean as soon as it was possible. He was afraid of the sea and of the creatures in it. Out of the entire sammad he was the only one who had seen the arms rise from the sea to pull Hastila down. Dark arms in the ocean, dark forms in the sea.

He looked out at the sea and his screams, over and over again, cut through the voices, silencing them, drawing every eye to the ocean where he pointed and screamed and pointed again.

Out of the evening darkness even darker forms were emerging. Low, black boats that had no oars yet moved more swiftly than any Tanu boat, rushing forward in a line as straight as a breaking wave. Nor did they stop until they were in the surf and rasping on the shore. From them came the murgu, clearly seen despite the failing light.

Ogatyr was close to the water when they landed, could see them clearly. He knew them for what they were.

“The ones we killed, on the beach…”

The nearest marag raised the length of stick and squeezed with both hands. It made a loud crack and pain struck Ogatyr’s chest and he fell.

Other sticks were cracking now and above the sound were the human cries of pain and terror.

“They flee!” Vaintè shouted, waving the attackers forward. “After them. None shall escape.”

She had been the first ashore, had fired the first hèsotsan, had killed the first ustuzou. Now she wanted to kill more.

It was not a battle but a massacre. The Yilanè butchered all the living creatures indiscriminately: men, women, children, animals. Their casualties were few. The hunters had no time to find their bows. They had their spears, but while a thrown spear could wound or kill, most of the hunters held their spears as they rushed in and were shot down before they could use them.

All that the Tanu could do was flee — followed by the killers from the sea. Frightened women and children ran past Karu and the mastodon raised his head high, trumpeting in fear as well. Kerrick seized handfuls of the beast’s thick hair so he wouldn’t be hurled off, then climbed down the wooden shaft to the ground, running to grab up his spear. A strong hand seized his shoulder and spun him about.

“Run!” his father ordered. “Escape to the hills!”

Amahast turned about swiftly as the first of the murgu came around the bulk of the mastodon, jumping over the wooden pole. Before it could aim its weapon Amahast pierced it through with his spear, wrenched it free.

Vaintè saw the murdered fargi fall and was shaken by the need for vengeance. The blood-dripping point was swinging towards her — but she did not flinch away. She stood her ground, raising the hèsotsan, squeezing off quick explosions, dropping the ustuzou before it could reach her. She had not noticed the small one, didn’t know it was there until pain lanced through her leg. Roaring with agony she struck the creature down with the butt end of the hèsotsan.

The wound was bloody and painful — but not serious, she could see that now. Her rage died away as she examined it, then turned her attention to the battle raging around her.

It was almost over. Few if any of the ustuzou remained alive. They lay in tumbled heaps among the baskets, limp corpses on the skins and poles. The attackers from the sea were now meeting up with the others who had moved up the river to attack from behind, an encircling movement they had used in their youth to catch their prey in the sea. It had worked as well on land.

“Stop the killing at once,” Vaintè ordered, calling out to those nearest her. “Tell the others. Stop now. I want some survivors. I want to know more about these fur beasts.”

They were just animals who used sharp bits of stones, she could see that now. They had a crude social organization, rough stone artifacts, and even made use of the larger animals that were now being killed as they fled in panic. All of this indicated that if there was one group this size — why then there might very well be others. If that were so then she needed to find out everything she could about the creatures.

At her feet the small one she had struck down stirred and whimpered. She called out to Stallan who was near by.

“Hunter — tie this one so it cannot escape. Throw it into a boat.”

There were more darts in the container suspended from the harness she wore. The ones she had expended in the battle must be replaced. The hèsotsan had been well-fed and should be able to fire for some time yet. She prodded it with her finger until the loading orifice dilated, then pushed the darts into their correct positions inside.

The first stars were appearing now, the last red of the sky fading behind the hills. She needed a cloak from the boat. She signaled a fargi to bring one to her and was wrapping herself in its warm embrace when the survivors were brought before her.

“This is all?” she asked.

“Our warriors were hard to control,” Stallan said. “Once you start killing these creatures it is hard to stop.”

“Full well I know that myself. The adult ones — all dead?”

“All dead. This small one I found hiding and brought it out.” She held the thing by its long hair, shaking it back and forth so it wailed with pain. “This very young one I found inside another’s coverings.” She held out the infant, a few-months-old baby that she had pulled from its wrappings, that had been held tight in its mother’s dead arms.

Vaintè looked at the tiny hairless thing with disgust as Stallan held it towards her. The hunter was used to touching and handling all kinds of repulsive creatures; the thought of doing it herself sickened her. Yet she was Vaintè, Eistaa, and she could do anything any other citizen could do. She reached out slowly and took the wriggling thing in both hands. It was warm, warmer than a cloak, almost hot. Her disgust ebbed for a moment as she felt the pleasant heat. When she turned it over and over it opened a red and toothless mouth and wailed. A jet of hot excrement from it ran down Vaintè’s arm. The instant pleasure of the heat was replaced by a wave of disgust.

It was too much, too revolting. She hurled the creature, as hard as she could, against a nearby boulder. It became silent as she went quickly to the water to scrub herself clean, calling back to Stallan.

“It is enough. Tell the others to return to the boats after they have made sure that none live.”

“It will be done, Highest. All dead. The end of them.”

Is it? Vaintè thought as she plunged her arms into the water. Is it the end? Instead of elation at the victory she found herself sinking into a dark depression.

The end — or just the beginning?

CHAPTER EIGHT

Enge moved close to the wall and leaned against it so she could feel the warmth of the heater. Though the sun had risen, the city still held some of the chill of the night. Around her the varied animals and plants of Alpèasak stirred to life, but this was so normal that she took no heed. Beneath her feet was the latticework of the floor that rested on the thick layers of dried leaves below. Within the leaves there was the rustle of large beetles and the other insects that cleared away debris, even the movements, had she listened, of a scurrying mouse. All around her there were stirrings as the ebb of life accelerated with the coming of day. High above, the sun was already shining on the leaves of the great tree, as well as on the many other plants that made up this living city. Water vapor was now being drawn from the stomata of these leaves, to be replaced by water that moved slowly upwards through the vessels of the trees, vines, creepers, water brought into the living system by the millions of root hairs beneath the ground. At Enge’s side, unheeded, the tendril of her discarded cloak twitched as it sucked at the saptree.

To Enge all of this was as natural as the air she breathed, the richness of the intertwined and interdependent life forms that existed on all sides of her. Occasionally she thought about it and all of its moral implications. But not today, not after what she had heard. Boasting of murdering another species! How she longed to talk to these innocent braggarts, to explain to them about the meaning of life, to force them to understand the terrible crime that they had committed. Life was the balance of death, as sea was the balance of sky. If one killed life — why, one was killing oneself.

Her attention was drawn as one of the fargi pulled at her manacled hands, confused by her status and unsure how to address her. The young fargi knew that Enge was one of the highest — yet her wrists were bound like one of the lowest. Lacking the words she could only touch Enge to draw her attention.

“The Eistaa wants you to come now,” the fargi said.

Vaintè was sitting in her place of power when Enge entered, the seat formed by the living bark of the city tree. There were memory creatures on the table beside her and one of them had the tendril above its withered eyes pressed into a fold of the ugunkshaa, the memory-speaker. The ugunkshaa spoke quietly while at the same time its organic molecule lens flickered with motion, a black and white picture of the Yilanè who had originally spoken to the memory-creature. Vaintè silenced the ugunkshaa when Enge entered and picked up the stone spearpoint that was lying next to it.

“Approach,” she ordered, and Enge did so. Vaintè clasped the stone blade in her hand and raised it; Enge did not quail or pull away. Vaintè seized her by the arm.

“You have no fear,” Vaintè said. “Even though you can see how sharp this scrap of stone is, as good as any of our string-knives.”

She sawed through the bindings and Enge’s hands were free. Enge rubbed gently at her skin where it had been irritated by the bonds. “ — You are freeing us all?” she asked.

“Do not be too greedy. Just you — since I have need of your knowledge.”

“I will not aid you in murder.”

“There is no need to. The killing is over.” For the time being, she thought to herself, knowing better than to mention it aloud. If she did speak, whatever she said would reveal her thoughts completely. Not only was she unable to tell a lie but the very concept of a lie was completely alien to her. It was impossible to tell a lie when every movement of one’s body revealed a meaning. The only way for a Yilanè to keep her thoughts secret was not to speak of them. Vaintè was most adept at this form of concealment. She practiced it now since she needed Enge’s help. “We have come to the time for learning. Did you not study the use of language at one time?”

“You know that I did, with Yilespei. I was her first student.”

“You were. Her first and best. Before the rot ate into your brain. You did all sorts of foolish things as I remember, watching the way that children communicate with each other, sometimes doing it yourself to draw their attention. I understand that you even eavesdropped on the males. That puzzles me. Why those stupid creatures of all things? What could one possibly learn from them?”

“They have a way of talking among themselves when we are not about, a way of saying things in a different manner…”

“I’m not talking about that. I mean why study such things? Of what importance can it be how others speak?”

“Of greatest importance. We are language, language is us. When we lack it we are mutes and no better than animals. It was thoughts and studies like these that led me to the great Ugunenapsa and her teachings.”

“You would have been far better off to have continued with your language studies and kept yourself out of trouble. Those of us who will become Yilanè must learn to speak as we grow up — that is a fact or you and I would not be here. But can a young one be taught to speak? It seems like a stupid and repellent idea. Can it be done?”

“It can,” Enge said. “I have done it myself. It is not easy, most young ones don’t want to listen, but it can be done. I used the training techniques the boatmasters use.”

“But boats are almost as stupid as cloaks. All they ever learn to understand are just a few commands.”

“The technique is the same.”

“Good.” Vaintè looked shrewdly out of the corner of her eyes and chose her words carefully. “Then you could teach an animal to understand and to speak?”

“No, not to speak. To understand, yes, a few simple commands if the brain is big enough. But speaking requires vocal apparatus and areas of the brain that animals do not possess.”

“But I have heard animals talking.”

“Not talking, repeating sound patterns they have learned. Birds can do this.”

“No. I mean talking. Communicating with each other.”

“Impossible.”

“I am talking about fur animals. Filthy ustuzou.”

Enge began to understand the point that Vaintè was making and she signed her understanding. “Of course. If these creatures have some degree of intelligence — the fact that they use crude artifacts suggests that — why then, they might very well talk to each other. What an extraordinary thought. You have heard them talk?”

“I have. And so can you if you wish. We have two of them here.” She waved over a passing fargi. “Find the hunter Stallan. Bring her to me at once.”

“How are the animals faring?” Vaintè asked when Stallan appeared.

“I have had them washed, then I examined their injuries. Bruises, no more. I have also had the filth-ridden fur removed from their heads. The larger one is female, the smaller one a male. They drink water, but will eat nothing I have provided so far. But you must be careful if you get close to them.”

“I have no intention of doing that,” Vaintè said, shivering with disgust. “It is Enge here who will approach them.” Stallan turned to her.

“You must face them at all times. Never turn your back on a wild animal. The small one bites, and they have claws, so I have manacled them for safety.”

“I will do as you say.”

“One other thing,” Stallan said, taking a small sack from her harness and opening it. “When I cleaned the beasts I found this hung about the male’s neck.” She placed a small object on the table beside Vaintè.

It was a blade of some kind, made of metal. There was an opening pierced at one end, while simple patterns had been scratched upon it. Vaintè poked at it with a tentative thumb.

“It has been thoroughly cleaned,” Stallan said. Vaintè picked it up and examined it closely.

“The patterns are unfamiliar, as is the metal,” she said, not liking what she saw. “Where did the animals find this? Who made the design? And the metal, where did they get that from? Do not try to tell me that they have the science to grow metal.” She tested the edge against her skin. “Not sharp at all. What can it possibly mean?”

There were no answers to these disturbing questions — nor had she expected any. She handed the bit of metal to Enge. “Another mystery for you to solve when you learn to speak to the creatures.” Enge examined it and handed it back.

“When may I see them?” she asked.

“Now,” Vaintè said. She signaled Stallan. “Take us to them.”

Stallan led the way through the corridors of the city, to a high, dark passage. Signaling for continuing silence, she swung open a hatch set into the wall. Vaintè and Enge looked through into the chamber beyond. They could see that it was sealed by a single heavy door. There were no other openings and the only illumination was the feeble light that filtered down through a tough transparent sheet high above.

Two repellent little creatures lay on the floor below. Tiny versions of the mutilated corpse that Enge had been forced to look at in the ambesed. Their skulls were bare and scratched where their fur had been removed. With the fur gone, and deprived of the stinking bits of skin that they had been bound about with, it could be seen that they were completely covered with repulsive, single-colored and waxy skin. The larger one, the female, was lying flat and making a repetitive wailing noise. The male squatted beside the female and emitted varied grunting sounds. This went on for a long time, until the wailing stopped. Then the female made other sounds as well. Vaintè signaled Stallan to close the hatch and leave.

“It might be a kind of talking,” Enge said, excited despite herself. “But they move very little when they make the sounds, which is very confusing. It will take much study. The whole concept is a novel one, a different language, the language of ustuzou, a different type of creature from any of those we have ever studied. It is a tremendous and exciting idea.”

“Indeed. So exciting that I command you to learn their way of speaking so you can converse with them.”

Enge made a sign of submission. “You cannot command me to think, Eistaa. Even your great power does not extend into another’s skull. I will study the talk of the animals because I wish to.”

“I do not care about your reasons — as long as you obey my commands.”

“Why do you wish to understand them?” Enge asked.

Vaintè chose her expressions carefully so as not to reveal all of her motives. “Like you, I am challenged by the thought that an animal might speak. Don’t you believe that I am capable of intellectual pursuits?”

“Forgive the negative thought, Vaintè. You were always first in our efenburu. You led then because you understood when we didn’t. When do I begin?”

“Now. This instant. How will you go about it?”

“I have no idea for it has never been done before. Let me return to the hatch and listen to the sounds. While I do this I will make a plan.”

Vaintè left silently, immensely pleased with what she had accomplished. It had been imperative to get Enge’s cooperation, for if she had refused it would have meant messages back to Inegban*, to then suffer the long wait while someone was located and sent out to investigate the talking beasts. If they really were talking and not just making noises. Vaintè needed that information at once since there might be more of the creatures about that could be a menace. She needed information for the safety of the city.

First she must learn all she could about these fur-animals, find out where they lived and how they lived. How they bred. That would be the first step.

The second would be to kill them. All of them. Exterminate them completely from the face of the earth. For even with their low cunning arid crude stone artifacts they were still just miserable animals. Deadly animals who had slaughtered the males and the young without mercy. That would be their ruin.

Enge watched from the darkness, studying the creatures, deep in thought. Had she had a single clue to Vaintè’s real motives she would, of course, have refused to cooperate. Even if she had stopped to think for a moment she might have realized Vaintè’s concealed intentions. She had not done this because her thoughts were entirely on this fascinating linguistic problem.

She stood observing in silence for almost half a day, listening and watching and trying to understand. In the end she understood nothing of what she had heard, but she did have the glimmerings of a plan where she should begin. She silently closed the hatch and went in search of Stallan.

“I’ll stay with you,” the huntress said as she unbarred the door. “They can be dangerous.”

“Just for a short time. As soon as they quiet down I will need to be alone with them. But then you will stand by outside. If there is any need I will call for you.”

An uncontrollable shiver rippled Enge’s crest as Stallan opened the door and she stepped through. The coarse smell of the beasts struck her. It was too much like entering an animal’s lair. But intelligence overcame physical revulsion and she stood firm as the door closed behind her.

CHAPTER NINE

Kennep at halikaro, kennep at hargoro, ensi naudin ar san eret skarpa tharm senstar et sano lawali.

A boy can be fleet of foot and strong of arm — but he is a hunter only when there is a beast’s tharm upon his spearpoint.

“They killed my mother, then my brother, right beside me,” Ysel said. She had stopped the shrieking and crying now, but tears still filled her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. She wiped them away with the back of her hand, then went back to rubbing her shaved head.

“They killed everyone,” Kerrick said.

He had not cried, not once since he had been brought to this place. Perhaps it was the way the girl carried on, wailing and screaming all the time. She was older than he was, five or even six years older, yet she shrieked like an infant. Kerrick understood that, knew it was easy enough to do. All you had to do was give in. But he wouldn’t. A hunter does not cry — and he had been on a hunt. With his father. Amahast the greatest hunter. Now dead like all of the rest of the sammad. There was a swelling in his throat at the thought, but he fought it down. A hunter does not cry.

“Will they kill us, Kerrick? They won’t kill us, will they?” she asked.

“Yes.”

Ysel started to wail again and threw her arms about him, pulling his body tight against hers. This wasn’t right; only small children touched each other. But even though he knew that it was not permitted he still enjoyed the feel of her flesh against his. Her breasts were small and hard and he liked to touch them. But when he did this now she pushed him from her and cried even louder. He stood and walked away in disgust. She was stupid and he didn’t like her. She had never talked to him before they had been brought to this place. But now that there were just the two of them it was different for her. Not for him. It would have been better if one of his friends were here instead. But they were all dead; a pang of fear went through at the memory. No one else from the sammad left alive. They would be next. Ysel didn’t seem to understand that, she could not bring herself to believe that there was nothing they could do to save themselves. He had searched carefully, over and over again, but there wasn’t a thing in the wooden chamber that could be used for a weapon. Nor was there any way to escape. The gourds were too light to harm even a child. Much less one of the murgu who had brought them here. He picked up the gourd of water and sipped at it; his empty stomach rumbled. He was hungry — but not hungry enough to eat the meat they had brought. Just looking at it made him want to vomit. It wasn’t cooked — nor was it raw. Something had been done to it so that it hung from the bone like cold jelly. He poked at it with his finger and shuddered. The door creaked, then opened.

Ysel pressed her face to the base of the wall and screamed, her eyes closed, not wanting to see what came through. Kerrick stood, facing the opening, his fists clenched and empty. Thinking about his spear. What he would do to them if he only had his spear.

There were two of the murgu creatures this time. He might have seen them before, he might not. It made no difference, they all looked, alike. Bumpy, scaly, thick-tailed, blotched with different colors, with those ugly things sticking out behind their heads. Murgu that walked like men and grabbed things with their deformed two-thumbed hands. Kerrick moved slowly back as they entered, until his shoulders were against the wall and he could go no further. They stared at him with expressionless eyes and he wished again for his spear. One of them twitched and moved its limbs, making mewling noises at the same time. The wood was hard against his shoulders.

“Have they eaten anything yet?” Enge asked. Stallan signified negative, then pointed to the gourd.

“That’s good meat, enzyme-treated and ready to eat. They use fire to burn their own meat before they eat it, so I knew they wouldn’t want to have it raw.”

“Have you put some fruit out for them?”

“No. They are meat eaters.”

“They may be omnivores. We know little about their habits. Get some fruit.”

“I cannot leave you here alone. Vaintè herself ordered me to guard you.” There was a tremble of dismay to the hunter’s words caused by the conflicting orders.

“I can defend myself against these small creatures if I have to. Have they attacked anyone before this?”

“Just when we brought them in. The male is vicious. We beat him until he stopped. He hasn’t done it since then.”

“I shall be safe. You have followed your instructions. Now obey mine.”

Stallan had no choice. She left, reluctantly but quickly, and Enge waited in silence, searching for a way to open communication with the creatures. The female still lay facing the wall, once more making the high-pitched sound. The small male was silent, undoubtedly as stupid as all males. She reached down and took the female by the shoulder, pulled at her to turn her around. The creature’s skin was warm and not unpleasant to touch. The wailing sound grew louder — and sudden agony lanced through her arm.

Enge bellowed with pain and lashed out, knocking the male to the ground. The thing’s teeth had broken her skin, drawn blood. She arched her clawed fingers and hissed in anger. The creature scrabbled away from her and she followed. Then stopped. And felt guilt.

“We are at fault,” she said, anger ebbing away. “We killed the rest of your pack. You cannot be blamed for doing what you did.” She rubbed at her sore arm, then looked at the bright stain of blood on her palm. The door opened and Stallan came in, carrying a gourd of orange fruit.

“The male creature bit me,” Enge said calmly. “Are they poisonous?”

Stallan hurled the gourd aside and rushed to her side, glanced at the wound — then raised a hard fist to strike the cowering male. Enge restrained her with a light touch.

“No. The fault was mine. Now, what about the bite?”

“Not dangerous if it is cleaned well. You must come with me so I can treat it.”

“No, I shall wait here. I don t want to show fear to these animals. I will be all right.”

Stallan moved with disapproval, but could do nothing. She hurried out, was gone for only a brief time before returning with a wooden chest. From it she took a container of water and used it to cleanse the bite, then stripped the cover from a nefmakel and put it into position. Enge’s moist skin stirred the dormant creature to life and it adhered to her flesh, already beginning to secrete antibacterial fluid. As soon as this was done Stallan took two knotted black lumps from the box.

“I’m going to secure the male’s legs and arms. It won’t be the first time. The creature is vicious.”

The small male fought to escape but Stallan seized it and hurled it to the floor, then knelt on its back, holding it still with one hand. With the other she seized one of the bindings and wrapped it around the beast’s ankles, then inserted the binding’s tail into its mouth. The binding swallowed by reflex, drawing its body tight. Only when it was well-secured did Stallan throw the creature aside.

“I will remain and guard you,” she said. “I must. Vaintè ordered your protection. I have been remiss once and you have been injured. I cannot permit it to happen again.”

Enge indicated begrudging agreement, then looked at the discarded gourd and the fruit tumbled on the floor. She pointed at the prostrate female.

“I’ll get the round-sweet-eating-things. Turn that one over so she can see me.”

Ysel screamed hoarsely when the cold hands grabbed her, lifted her roughly, and pushed her back against the wall. She chewed at her knuckles and sobbed as the other marag stamped towards her,, stopped, then held up an orange. Its mouth slowly opened to reveal rows of pointed white teeth. It uttered an animal’s screech as it waved the orange, scratching its claws on the floor when it did this. Ysel could only moan with fear, unaware that she had bitten into the flesh of her fingers and that blood was running down her chin.

“Fruit,” Enge said. “Round, sweet good things that you eat. Fill your stomach, make you happy. Eating makes one strong. Now do as I command.” She spoke temptingly at first, then commanding. “You will take this fruit. You will eat at once!”

Then she saw the blood where the creature had injured itself and she turned away in disgust. She put the gourd of fruit onto the floor and signaled Stallan to join her by the door.

“They have crude tools,” Enge said. “You said they had shelters of some kind, as well as large animals to serve them?” Stallan nodded. “Then they must have some degree of intelligence.”

“That doesn’t mean that they can talk.”

“A well-made point, hunter. But for the moment we shall just have to assume that they do have a language that they use to communicate with one another. I must not let a single failure stop me — look, the male is moving! It must have smelled the fruit. Masculine reactions are coarser, it cares more for its hunger than our possible threat. But it still watches us, still a wild animal. Look!” She cried out with triumph. “It is eating the fruit. A first success. We can at least feed them now. And there, see that, it is bringing fruit to the female. Altruism — that must denote intelligence.”

Stallan was not convinced. “Wild animals feed their young. I have seen them work together on the hunt. I have seen it. That is no proof.”

“Perhaps not — but I will not permit myself to be dissuaded so quickly. If boats can understand simple commands, why, then creatures like these should at least be able to do the same.”

“You will teach them then, in the same manner that boats are taught?”

“No. I considered that at first, but I want to obtain a better level of communication. Teaching boats involves positive and negative reinforcement of a few commands. An electric shock indicates a wrong action, while a bit of food rewards success. That is good for training boats, but I am not trying to train these animals. I want to talk with them, communicate with them.”

“Talking is a very difficult thing to do. Many of those who emerge from the sea never do learn.”

“You are correct, hunter, but that is a matter of degree. The young may have difficulty in talking as adults, but you must remember that all of the young talk together when they are in the sea.”

“Then teach these beasts the children’s language. They might be able to master that.”

Enge smiled. “It has been many years since you spoke as a child. Do you remember what this means?”

She raised her hand and the palm changed from green to red, then back to green again as she made a signal with her fingers. Stallan smiled.

“Squid — a lot of them.”

“You do remember. But do you notice how important the color of my hand is? What I said would be incomprehensible without that. Can these fur creatures change the color of their palms?”

“I don’t think so. I have never seen them do it. Though their bodies have red and white colors.”

“That may be an important part of their speech—”

“If they have one.”

“Agreed, if they have one. I must watch them more closely when they make their sounds again. But the greater urgency is to have them speak like Yilanè. Beginning with the simplest of expressions. They must learn the completeness of communication.”

Stallan made a gesture of incomprehension. “I do not know what that means.”

“Then I will demonstrate to make my meaning clear. Listen carefully to what I say. Ready? Now — I am warm. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I am warm, that is a statement. The completeness is made clear in the union of the parts of the statement. I now say it again even more slowly. I… am… warm… I move my thumb in this manner, looking upward a little at the same time, say warm as I lift my tail slightly. All of that, the sounds spoken aloud and the correct motions are all combined together to form the complete expression.”

“I have never considered such matters — and I find that my head hurts when I do.”

Enge laughed and indicated appreciation of the attempt at humor. “I would fare as badly in the jungle outside as you do in the jungle of language. Very few make a study of it, perhaps because it is so complex and difficult. I believe that the first step in understanding is to consider that our language recapitulates phylogeny.”

“Now my head does ache. And you think beasts like these can understand that — when even I have no idea of what you are talking about?” Stallan indicated the creatures, now quiescent against the wall, the gourd empty of its fruit, bits of skin littering the floor around them.

“I will not attempt anything that complex. What I meant was that the history of our language is matched by our development in life. When we are young and first enter the sea we do not yet speak, but we do seek the protection and comfort of the others in our efenburu who enter the water at the same time. As our intelligence grows we see older ones talking to each other. Simple motions of the hand or leg, a color change of the palm. We learn more and more as we grow older, and when we emerge from the sea we add spoken sounds to the other things that we have learned until we become Yilanè in the completeness of our communications. That brings me to my problem here. How do I teach our language to these creatures who do not share our cycle of life? Or do they? Do they pass through an aquatic period after birth?”

“My knowledge of these matters is far from complete — and you must remember that this species of ustuzou is new to us. But I doubt strongly if they were ever aquatic. I have captured and bred some of the more common and smaller wild species that abound in the jungle. They all seem to have certain things in common. They are very warm, all of the time.”

“I have noticed that. It seems quite strange.”

“Other things are equally strange. Look at that male there. You will see that he hast only a single penis that cannot be decently retracted. None of the species of ustuzou I have captured has a normal double penis. Not only that, but I have studied their mating habits and they are disgusting.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that after impregnation of the egg the females carry the young. And when they are born they still keep them close about their bodies and feed them with soft organs that grow on their torsos. You can see them, there, on the young female.”

“How very unusual. Then you believe that the young stay on land? They do not go properly into the sea?”

“That is correct. It is a trait that is common to all the different ustuzou species I have observed. Their life cycles appear to be different from ours in every way.”

“Then do you appreciate the import of your observations? If they do have a language of their own they can’t possibly learn it in the same way that we learn ours.”

Stallan signed agreement. “I appreciate that now, and thank you for the explanation. But does that not raise a most important question? If they have a language — how do they learn to speak it?”

That is indeed the most important question, and I must attempt to find the answer to it. But I can tell you truthfully now that I have not the slightest idea.”

Enge looked at the wild creatures, their faces sticky with the juice of the fruit they had eaten; they stared back at her. How could she possibly find a way to communicate with them?

“Leave me now, Stallan. The male is securely bound, the female shows no signs of violence. If I am alone they will have only me to watch without their attention being distracted.”

Stallan considered this for a long moment before signing reluctant agreement. “It shall be as you request. I agree that the danger is not great now. But I shall remain just outside the door which will be slightly open and unlocked. You must call to me if they threaten you in any way.”

“I will. You have my promise. Now my work must begin.”

CHAPTER TEN

There was much work to be done in establishing this new city . Much extra work needed to put right the errors perpetrated by the former Eistaa, the justifiably dead Deeste, and with all this Vaintè found her days filled from first light to the coming of dark. As she sank into sleep she sometimes envied the nocturnal boats and other creatures that moved by night. If she could remain awake, just for a short time longer each day, so much more could be accomplished. It was an unnatural idea, but was still the last thing that occupied her thoughts many nights before she slept. These thoughts, of course, did not interfere with her sleep, because disturbed sleep was a physical impossibility for the Yilanè. When she closed her eyes, she slept — a motionless sleep that, to an outsider, had a disturbing resemblance to death. Yet this sleep was so light that it was easily broken by something unusual. Many times during the dark hours of the night, animal cries would lift Vaintè gently awake. Her eyes would open and she would listen for a moment. Hearing nothing more her eyes would close and she would be asleep again.

Only the gray light of dawn woke her completely. This morning — as all other mornings — she stepped from the warm bed to the floor, then prodded the bed with her toe. As it stirred she turned to the place where one of the countless trunks and stems of the living city bulged out into a gourd-like growth filled with water. Vaintè placed her lips over its orifice and sucked in sweetened water until she had drunk her fill. Behind her the bed quivered with slow spasms as it curled itself into a long bundle against the wall; its body cooled as it sank into a comatose state until it was needed again.

It had rained during the night and the dampness of the woven floor was uncomfortably cool on the soles of Vaintè’s feet as she crossed an open area. After that she stayed under shelter as she made her way to the ambesed, fargi after fargi assembling in the train behind her as she went.

Each morning, before the work began, the project leaders, like all of the other citizens of the city, would be sure to pass through the ambesed. There they would stop for awhile and talk to one another. This large, open area in the heart of the city was the hub around which all of its varied activities revolved. Vaintè went to her favored spot on the west side where the rising sun struck first, deep in thought and unaware of the citizens who moved aside to let her pass. She was the Eistaa, the one who always walked in a straight line. The bark of the tree was already warm and she leaned against it with satisfaction, her pupils contracting to narrow slits as the rising sun washed over her. She looked on with great satisfaction as Alpèasak stirred to life. This brought her a different warmth that was even more enjoyable. Pride of place, the highest place, for this was her city. Hers to grow, to build, to expand, to create out of a wilderness on this hostile shore. She would build well. When the cold winds swept over distant Inegban* this new city would be ready. Then her people would come and live here and honor her for what she had accomplished. When she thought of this there was always the small irritating memory in the back of her mind that on the day when this happened she would no longer be Eistaa here. Malsas‹ would come with the others, Malsas‹, Eistaa of Inegban*, and destined to rule the new city as well. Perhaps. Vaintè kept that word most secret and never spoke it aloud. Perhaps. Many things happened in the course of time. Malsas‹ was no longer young, there were those who pushed from below; everything changes with time. Vaintè would cross that river when she came to it. It was enough for now to build the new city — and build well.

Etdeerg caught Vaintè’s eye and came at once at her gesture.

“Have you found what was killing the food animals?” Vaintè asked.

“We have, Eistaa. A large ustuzou, black in color, with deadly claws and long sharp teeth — teeth so long that they project from the creature’s mouth even when the mouth is closed. Stallan had traps set near the opening that it had torn in the fence. We found it there, dead, this morning. It was held by the traps on its legs so it could not flee, while one of them had circled its neck and had strangled the beast.”

“Decapitate it. When the skull is cleaned bring it to me.”

Vaintè signaled dismissal and caught Vanalpè’s attention at the same time. The biologist left the group she was talking to and came to join her.

“You will report on the new beach,” Vaintè said.

“Close to completion, Eistaa. The ground has been cleared, the thorn barrier is high, the coral offshore growing well — considering that it has only been there a short time.”

“Splendid. Then we can look forward to the new births. Births that will wipe away forever all memory of the deaths on the old beach.”

Vanalpè agreed, but also expressed guilty doubt. “Though the beach is ready — it is not safe.”

“Still the same problem?”

“It will be resolved in time. I am working closely with Stallan and we now believe a solution is close to hand. The beasts will be destroyed.”

“They must be. The males will be safe. What happened before will never happen again.”

The dark mood slowly passed as Vaintè talked to others, became involved in the vast work that was the new city . But her thoughts were never far from the hunter. When some time had passed and Stallan had not appeared she signaled to a fargi and ordered her to look for the hunter. It was close to midday before Stallan arrived and joined Vaintè in the leafy shade.

“I bring you good news, Eistaa. The beach will soon be safe.”

“If that is true then the shame of the city is at an end.”

“So are the alligators. We have found where they breed. I have fargi bringing all the eggs here, capturing all the young. They are delicious.”

“I have eaten them and I agree. Then you will raise them with the other meat herds?”

“No, they are too vicious for that. Special pens are being built for them beside the river.”

“Very good. But what are you doing with the fully grown adults?”

“The ones that are too big to trap are being killed. It is a waste of good meat, but we have no choice. Using nocturnal boats we approach them before they stir for the day, then kill them on the spot.”

“Show me where they breed. I wish to see for myself.” Vaintè had had enough of the ambesed. As the heat increased those around her grew torpid and dozed in the shade. But she did not want to rest; there was too much to be done.

A group of fargi followed after them as they walked slowly towards the shore. It was hot even beneath the trees and more than once they sank into the pools that had been dug for cooling purposes beside the path. Most of the swamp that they passed through had not been cleared yet. It was a tangle of heavy undergrowth and plants, foul-smelling, thick with small biting insects. It gave way at last to a sandy shore with dense brush beside it. There was tall grass and small palms, as well as strange, flattened plants each armed with immensely long needles. This land of Gendasi was a very different world from the one they knew. It was filled with an endless variety of new things to see. And to be wary of.

Ahead was the river, a slow-moving and deep stream. The boats were drawn up there and were just being fed by the attendant fargi. Blood trickled from their tiny mouths as the fargi pushed in gobbets of red meat.

“Alligator,” Stallan said. “It is better than wasting it. The boats are so well fed I think they are ready to breed.”

“Then starve them a bit. We need all of them in operating condition now.”

A multitude of trees grew along the riverbanks, rising up in thick profusion. There were gray ones with massive trunks, while close beside them grew high green trees covered with fine needles, as well as even higher red ones with roots arching out in all directions. Between the trees the ground was blanketed with purple and pink flowers, while even more plants grew above them along the branches. Great blooms of many colors. The jungle was bursting with life. Birds cried in its darkness and red-striped snails oozed along the tree trunks.

“It is a rich land,” Vaintè said.

“Entoban* must have been this way at one time,” Stallan said, nostril flaps opened wide as she sniffed the air. “Before the cities spread and covered the land from one ocean to the other.”

“Do you think it was really like that?” Vaintè struggled to understand this new idea. “It is a difficult concept to contain. One always thinks of the cities as having been there since the egg of time.”

“I have talked with Vanalpè about this on more than one occasion. She has explained it to me. What we see here in this new land of Gendasi might very well be what you could have seen in Entoban* at one time very long ago. Before the Yilanè grew the cities.”

“You are right, of course. If we grow our cities there must have been a time when there was but a single city. Which leads to the disconcerting thought that there may have been a time when there were no cities at all. Is such a thing possible?”

“I do not know. You must talk of this to Vanalpè who has mastered such head-disturbing concepts.”

“You are right. I will ask her.” She realized then that the fargi were pressing too close about them, their mouths gaping open as they labored to understand the conversation. Vaintè moved them back with a quick gesture.

They were approaching the alligator breeding grounds, although by this time most of the great creatures had been cleared from the banks. The survivors were wary, sinking into the water and vanishing from sight when the boats appeared. The females were the last to leave, for surprisingly enough these primitive and unintelligent beasts cared for their eggs and their young. Boats were pulled up on the shore ahead where a working party of fargi labored in the sun. They drew up their own boats beside them and Vaintè turned to the supervisor, Zhekakot, who watched from the shelter of a large tree.

“Tell me of your work,” Vaintè said.

“Much progress is being made, Eistaa. Two boatloads of eggs have been sent to the city. We are netting all the young we can. They are very stupid and easy to catch.”

She leaned over the pen at her side and made a quick grab, then straightened up, holding out at arm’s length the baby alligator suspended by its tail. It twisted and hissed and tried to reach her with its tiny teeth.

Vaintè nodded approval. “Good, very good. A menace removed and our stomachs full. I wish all of our problems had such an agreeable solution.” She turned to Stallan. “Are there other breeding grounds?”

“None between this place and the city. When we have cleared here we will work upriver and out into the swamps. It will take time, but it must be thorough.”

“Good. Now we will look at the new fields before we return to the city.”

“I must return to the other hunters, Eistaa. Zhekakot will be able to show you the way if that is agreeable.”

“Agreeable,” Vaintè said.

The air had become wonderfully stifling hot as the wind died away completely. The boats pulled out into the river and Vaintè noticed that the sky had an odd yellow color to it that she had never seen before. Even the weather was different here in this strange part of the world. As they moved back downstream the wind began to rise again — but it had changed direction and was blowing from behind them. Vaintè twisted about and saw the dark line that had appeared on the horizon. She pointed.

“Zhekakot, what is the significance of that?”

“I do not know. Clouds of some kind. I have never seen anything like it before.”

The black clouds rushed towards them at unbelievable speed. One moment they had just been a smear above the trees, then they rose up, came closer, darkening the sky. And with them came the wind. It struck like a sudden fist and one of the boats, caught sideways, overturned.

There were cries, suddenly cut off, as its occupants were hurled into the choppy water. The boat dived and splashed and managed to right itself, while the Yilanè in the water swam away in all directions to avoid the boat’s thrashing. None of them appeared to be injured as, with great difficulty, they were dragged from the choppy water and helped aboard the other boats. All were many years from the oceans of their youth and swam awkwardly. Vaintè shouted instructions until one of the more adventurous fargi, eager for higher status even if it meant risking injury, swam over to the still agitated boat and managed to clamber aboard. She spoke to it sharply, kicking it in a tender spot, and finally managed to get it back under control.

The wind howled viciously about them, threatening to swamp the other boats. All of the Yilanè now had their membranes drawn over their eyes and their nostril flaps closed against the driving rain. Then, audible even over the screaming wind, was the sound of a great crackling from the forest as a giant tree blew down, taking smaller ones with it.

Vaintè’s voice could not be heard above the wind, but they understood her instructions to keep the boats away from the river banks lest they be crushed by any more falling trees.

The boats bobbed wildly in the breaking waves; the Yilanè huddling close together in an attempt to keep warm under the cold, driving rain. It seemed a very long time before the wind began to be gusty, then lessened a slight bit. The worst of the storm appeared to have passed.

“Back to the city!” Vaintè ordered. “As fast as possible.”

The unbelievable wind had torn a track through the jungle, toppling even the largest trees. How widespread was this destruction? Had the wind struck the city? It must have. And the trees that formed the city were still young, still growing. But were they well-rooted? How much damage might have occurred! It was a terrifying thought yet one that could not be escaped. Vaintè had a terrible vision of destruction before her eyes as she kicked her boat into ever greater speed.

Stallan held the bound animal by the neck as she released the trap that secured its kicking limbs, then dropped it into the cage. So intent had she been on this operation that she did not notice the change in the weather until she straightened up. Her nostril flaps opened as she sniffed at the air. Something was familiar — and wrong. She had been with the first exploring party that had crossed the ocean to Gendasi, when they came seeking a site for the new city . When they had agreed on the shores of Alpèasak she had been one of the group that had remained behind when the uruketo had returned to Inegban*. They were armed and strong and well aware of the dangers hidden in the unexplored jungle. But it was the unknown danger that had almost destroyed them, wiping out their supplies of food and forcing them to either hunt or starve. It had been a storm of wind and rain of a ferocity they had never known before.

And it had begun in just this manner with yellow sky, the air unmoving and close. Stallan sealed the animal cage and called out “Danger!” as loud as she could. All the nearby fargi spun about at the sound, for it was one of the first words they learned.

“You, to the ambesed, you others spread out. Tell everyone. A storm with high winds is almost here. To the beaches, open fields, the water — away from the trees!”

They ran, none faster than Stallan. As the first gusts of wind hit, Yilanè by the hundreds were hurrying to safety in the open. Then the storm struck with its full fury and the driving sheets of rain hid the city from sight.

Stallan found a group of fargi huddled together on the riverbank and she pushed in among them to escape the cold rain. They stayed like that as the wind burst upon them, some of the younger ones hissing with fear until Stallan’s sharp command silenced them. Stallan’s authority kept them there while the storm raged about them, forcing them to wait until it had passed before she ordered them back into the city.

When Vaintè’s tired boat drifted up the debris-strewn shore Stallan was there waiting for her. Long before words could be spoken she signaled that things were good. Not perfect, but good.

“Tell me of the damage,” Vaintè called out as she jumped ashore.

“Two fargi dead and…”

Vaintè silenced her with an angry gesture. “The city, not the citizens.”

“Nothing major has been reported yet. A good deal of minor damage, branches torn down, some parts of the city blown to the ground. Fargi have been sent to inspect the new fields and the herds but none have returned yet.”

“Far better than I hoped. Reports will be coming to the ambesed.”

The damage was obvious as they pushed their way through the city. The living roofing had blown down in many places and the walkways were strewn with the broad leaves. There was a wailing from a foodpen as they passed and Stallan saw that one of the deer had broken its leg in panic during the storm. A single dart from her ever-present hèsotsan silenced it.

“It is bad, but not as bad as it could have been,” Vaintè said. “This is a strong city and growing well. Will the windstorm strike again?”

“Probably not — at least not until next year. There is wind and rain at other times, but only at this time of year does the windstorm blow.”

“A year is all that we need. The damage will be repaired and Vanalpè will see that all the growth is strengthened. This new world is cruel and hard — but we can be just as cruel and hard.”

“It will be as you say, Eistaa,” Stallan said, and her words were not simple agreement but were strongly colored with the knowledge that Vaintè meant exactly what she said — and would accomplish what she set out to do.

At any cost.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Alpèasak grew — and healed its wounds at the same time. For days Vanalpè and her assistants had clambered about the city making careful records of the damage done by the storm. Hormone applications speeded the new growth until the roofing leaves spread their overlapping patterns anew, while additional tree trunks and aerial roots strengthened the walls. But simple rebuilding was not enough for Vanalpè. Sturdy vines, tough and elastic, now twined up through the walls and across the roofing.

Not only was the city stronger, but it was growing safer with every passing day as the cleared fields bit into the surrounding jungle. This expansion, although it looked haphazard, was silent and efficient, carefully planned. The most dangerous part, the spreading of the larvae in wild jungle, was done by the Daughters of Death. Though they were protected from most of the wild creatures by armed fargi, there was no protection from bruises and accidents, wounds from the thorns — or snakebite from the serpents hidden there. Many were injured, some radically, a few died. The city was as uncaring as Vaintè at their fate. The city came first.

Once the larvae had been sown the death of the jungle was certain. The voracious caterpillars that emerged had been crafted for this single purpose. Birds and animals found their taste bitter and repellent; the caterpillars found all vegetable matter to their liking. Blind and insatiable they crawled up the tree trunks and through the grass, destroying everything in their path. Only the skeletons of trees remained after they had passed while the ground was foul with their droppings. As they ate they grew until the repulsive, bristle-covered creatures were as long as a Yilanè arm.

And then they died, for death was there waiting in their genes, carefully planted to assure that these creatures did not devour the world. They died and rotted into the bed of their own excreta. The cunning design of Vanalpè and the other gene engineers was evident even here. Nematode worms were already turning the repulsive mass into fertilized soil, aided by the bacteria in their gut. Even before the beetles had devoured the dead trees, grass had been sown and the thorn barriers planted. A new field had been eaten from the jungle, pushing it further away from the city, forming yet another barrier to the dangers hidden there.

Yet there was nothing unnatural or harsh about this slow advance. The Yilanè lived as one with their surroundings, were part of the environment and inextricably entwined with it: anything else would have been unthinkable. The fields themselves had no regularity of plan or design. Their shapes and sizes depended only upon the resistance of the foliage and the appetite of the caterpillars. The thornbushes formed a protecting barrier of varying thickness while many patches of the original jungle still remained to add variety to the landscape.

The grazing herds were just as varied. Each time the uruketo returned from Inegban* it brought fertilized eggs or newly born young. The more defenseless species were in the fields nearest the city center, the original fields where the urukub and onetsensast had grown to maturity. These armored — but placid — omnivores now grazed in mindless security at the jungle’s edge, twice the size of a mammoth and still growing, their great horns and armored hides rendering them immune to all dangers.

Vaintè was pleased with the progress that had been made. When she went daily to the ambesed she went with the security that no problems would arise that she could not solve. But this morning she had a hint that all was not well when the fargi hurried up to her with a message, pushing others aside rudely to indicate the importance of the tidings she bore.

“Eistaa, the uruketo has returned. I was in a fishing boat, I saw it myself…”

Vaintè silenced the stupid creature with a curt signal, then signaled to her aides. “We meet them at the pier. I want the news of Inegban*.”

She walked in stately silence down the path, her friends and aides behind her, a rabble of fargi bringing up the rear. Though it was never cold in Alpèasak, there was much rain and dampness at this time of year so that she, like many of the others, walked with a cloak draped about her both for warmth and protection from the drizzling rain.

Slow dredging by the clawed paddle-feet of eisekol had deepened the river and adjoining harbor. The uruketo’s cargo no longer had to be transhipped by boats, since the giant creature could now nestle up against the shore. It was just emerging from the rainswept ocean when Vaintè and her entourage arrived at the docking place. The harbor leader was directing the fargi who were putting fresh fish onto the underwater ledge to feed the uruketo. The dimwitted creature took this offering, berthing itself in the correct position to be secured to the dock. Vaintè watched the efficiency of the operation with satisfaction. A good city was an efficient city. Hers was a good city. Her eyes traveled along the immensity of the great black form, up to the fin where Erafnais stood directing the operation.

Next to the commander stood Malsas‹.

Vaintè stood rigid at the sight because she had put the existence of the other Eistaa completely from her mind. But memory and realization gripped her now, sending a knife of pain through her sharper than any physical blade.

Malsas‹, Eistaa of Inegban*. For whom this city was being built. Who would bring her people here upon its completion and rule in Vaintè’s place. Malsas‹, erect and alert with the look of certain authority in her eye. She was not ill nor was she old. She would be Eistaa of Alpèasak.

Vaintè remained frozen, so her thoughts would not be revealed in her movements, as Malsas‹, her followers and assistants, emerged from the uruketo and came towards her. Vaintè could only hope that formality might mask her true feelings.

“Welcome to Gendasi, Eistaa, welcome to Alpèasak,” Vaintè said, pleasure at the Eistaa’s presence as well as gratitude emotionally coloring her words of welcome.

“It is my pleasure to be in Alpèasak,” Malsas‹ answered, just as formally. But the last syllable of pleasure required an opening of the mouth to reveal her teeth — and she did not close her mouth after this for long seconds. This slight indication of displeasure was warning enough for Vaintè and would not be repeated. Vaintè was respected for the work she was doing — but she could be quickly replaced. Vaintè forced all thoughts of jealousy and treachery from her mind and lowered her eyes briefly in acceptance of the warning.

This brief exchange was so subtle that it went unnoticed by the other Yilanè. Affairs at this level were not their concern. Malsas‹ moved the aides and fargi even further away with a motion of rejection before she spoke again, so their future conversation could not be overseen or overheard as they walked back to the city.

“Last winter was cold and this one is colder. This summer there were no youths or fargi from Soromset seeking admission to Inegban*. When the weather was warmest I sent a party of hunters to see how the city was. It was dead. Soromset does no longer exist. It died just as Ergetpe died. The leaves of the city are dead, carrion crows peck the bones of the Yilanè who lived there. On the beaches and the warm waters of the landlocked Isegenet sea the Yilanè lived in three great cities…”

She broke the thought off there and Vaintè finished it for her.

“Ergetpe is dead of the cold. Soromset has followed her way. Only Inegban* remains.”

“Only Inegban* remains and each winter the cold draws closer. Our herds grow small and soon there will be hunger.”

“Alpèasak awaits.”

“Indeed it must — when the time comes. But now there is greater need to broaden the fields and increase the breeding of the animals. For our part we must breed more uruketo, but it is a slow labor that we were too late in starting. But there is hope now that the new strain will be successful. They are smaller than the creature I came in, but develop much faster. We must have enough of them to move the entire city in one summer. Now show me what they will find when they arrive in Alpèasak.”

“They will find this,” Vaintè said, indicating the trunks and veined walls and latticed floors of the city that stretched away on all sides of them. The rain had stopped, the sun emerged and glinted from the raindrops on the foliage. Malsas‹ signaled approval. Vaintè moved her arm in a circle.

“Beyond the city — the fields. Already filling with beasts of all kinds that please the eye and stomach.”

Vaintè signaled armed guards to precede them as they passed through meadows of grazing animals towards the outermost fields. Through the high-arched wall of thick trunks and thorns they could see the giant forms of the urukub eating green leaves at the jungle’s edge, while even at this distance they could hear the rumbling of the large rocks in their second stomachs that ground up and aided in the digestion of the immense amounts of food they consumed. Malsas‹ admired the sight in silence for some time before turning away and beginning the return to the heart of the city.

“You have builded well, Vaintè,” she said when their followers could hear them again. “You have all done well.”

Vaintè’s gesture of thankful acceptance was filled with sincerity behind the ritual movements. The acceptance and praise from the Eistaa, before all the others, was a mark of such distinction that no thoughts of jealousy or rebellion could possibly be in her head. At that moment she would have sincerely followed Malsas‹ to certain death. They let the others crowd close now as they walked, to listen and learn, for that was the only way to learn and remember. Only when they went through the opening in the Wall of History did their talk once again turn to darker things since the history in the wall is that of death.

Between the circle of the ambesed and the circle of the birth beaches stood the thorny Wall of History. Embedded in it were the symbolic defenses that once had meaning and importance. Could the Yilanè once have really brandished giant crabs such as the ones preserved here, held them in the ocean as weapons to defend the breeding males? It was said to be true, but not since the egg of time could it have been known to be true. The sharp nettles, the thorns themselves, these had been surely used in the past as they were used now. But what of these shells of giant scorpions? No one really knew any more — yet these ancient exoskeletons were carefully preserved and admired, had been taken with great delicacy from the wall of Inegban* and brought here as a sign of the city’s continuity.

Since the wall was living history as well, in the entrance, nearest to the beaches, were woven the preserved bodies of dead hèsotsan. Next to them the fanged skulls of the attackers they had killed.

At the very end was a round-domed skull, blank-eyed and bleached by the sun. It was surrounded by spear points and sharp blades of stone. Malsas‹ stopped before it and indicated curiosity and need for an explanation.

“One of the ustuzou that befoul this land. All of the skulls that you see here are from lice-ridden, fur-bearing, warm-stinking ustuzou that have threatened us and that we have killed. But this nameless species was the worst of all. With those sharp-edged stones they committed the deed that is worse than all other deeds.”

“They murdered the males and the children.” Malsas‹ spoke the words with the coldness of death itself.

“They did. We found them and killed them.”

“Of course. You are no longer troubled by them?”

“No. All safely dead. This species is not local but came from the north. We tracked and killed them, every one of them.”

“Then the beaches are now secure?”

“In every way except for the coral reefs. But they grow fast and when they are high enough there will be the first births. Then the birth beaches will be safe in every way.” Vaintè drew the claws of one hand over the whiteness of the skull. “Safe in particular from these infant killers.

“We shall never be bothered by them again.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

The eating that afternoon was special, a formal occasion to welcome Malsas‹ and her staff. Events of this kind were so rare that most of the younger fargi had never watched one before; they moved about with excitement all that day talking excitedly to each other — though few were listening. This was a very new and unusual thing to them. In their day-to-day existence the Yilanè, although they enjoyed their food, looking forward with anticipation to sleeping with stomachs full, the consuming of the meat itself was a solitary act. Each would present a broad leaf to one of the meat-preparers and receive a portion of deliciously enzymed meat which they would eat in some quiet spot. This was the way food was taken and they could not imagine how it might be otherwise. Very little work was done this day as the inhabitants of the city filled the ambesed, pressed tight against its walls, climbed into the lower branches of the palisade in their eagerness to watch.

After their inspection of the city and the fields, Vaintè and Malsas‹ made their way to the ambesed. There Malsas‹ met with one after the other of those responsible for the growth of Alpèasak, spending most of the time with Vanalpè. When she was satisfied with what she had heard Malsas‹ dismissed them all and spoke to Vaintè.

“The warmth of the sun and the growth of this city has taken the winter from behind my eyes. I will return to Inegban* with this news. It will make the coming winter less cold for our citizens there. Eremais reports that the uruketo has been loaded and is well-fed and ready to swim at any time. We will eat, then I will leave.”

Vaintè communicated her grief at the sudden parting. Malsas‹ thanked her, but dismissed any thought of staying longer.

“I understand your feelings. But I have seen enough to know that the work here is in good hands. But the uruketo is slow: we must not waste a single day. Let us eat. You know Alakensi, my first advisor and efenselè. She will serve you meat at this time.”

“I am honored, highly honored,” Vaintè said, thinking only about the privilege of this offer, not letting her thoughts dwell at all on Alakensi whom she knew of old. A creature of devious mind and unkind plots.

“Good.” Malsas‹ gestured Vanalpè over. “Now we will eat. Alakensi, who is closest to me in all things, will serve Vaintè meat. You, Vanalpè, for what you have done in growing this city, in designing and expanding it so well, you are chosen to serve me.”

Vanalpè was as speechless as a youngster fresh from the ocean at this, radiating pride with every movement of her body.

“For this special occasion there are two meats,” Vaintè said. “One from the old world, one from the new.”

“Old and new shall blend in our interiors the way Inegban* shall blend into Alpèasak,” Malsas‹ said.

There were cries of appreciation at this from those who stood close, for she had spoken so well and the idea was so novel that they would tell each other about it and talk about it for some time. Vaintè did not speak again until those closest had repeated what Malsas‹ had said so that everyone would know.

“The meat from Entoban* is urukub, grown from the egg brought carefully to these shores, hatched in the Gendasi sun, grown large on Gendasi herbiage. There are others, but this one is the biggest, you have all seen it when you have passed the pasture at the swamp. You have all admired the sleekness of its hide, the arched length of its neck, the full-flesh of its flanks. You have seen it.”

There were murmurs of appreciation at this, for they all had seen the tiny head at the end of that long neck rising high up from the water with a great mouthful of dripping green vegetation.

“The first urukub to be slain, yet one so large that all here will eat their fill of it. Then for Malsas‹ and those who have traveled with her from Inegban* there will be a creature they have never eaten before, sharp-footed deer of the kind found only in this place. The eating will now begin.”

The two who would serve hurried away to return with the gourds of meat, each kneeling before the Eistaa she was to serve. Malsas‹ reached out and took up a long bone with a tiny black hoof attached, cool sweet flesh hanging loosely from it, tore a large bite from it, then held it up so all could see.

“Urukub,” she called out and all who heard her made comment on her humor. For the smallest bone in a urukub was bigger than this entire beast.

Vaintè was pleased. The eating went well. When they had finished, washing their hands in gourds of water that their servers held up to them, the ceremony was over and the others went to eat before darkness came.

With no one listening or watching for the moment Malsas‹ could speak in confidence to Vaintè. Her voice was soft and the motions of her limbs merely hints of movement.

“Everything said here today was more than true. Everyone has labored hard, you hardest of all. Therefore I know you can use the labors of the Daughters of Death I brought with me.”

“I saw them. They will be used.”

“Use them until they die!” Malsas‹’s teeth clacked together loudly with the force of her expression. “There are more and more of them, like termites eating away at the base of our city. See that they do not attempt to eat this city as well.”

“No possibility, not the slightest, of that happening here. I have hard and dangerous work for all of them. That is their fate.”

“We are of a single mind then. Good. Now about you, work-hardened, never-weary Vaintè. What can be done to help you more?”

“Nothing, we have all that we need.”

“You do not speak of personal need, but I know you can use assistance. Therefore it is my wish that the strength of my hand, first to me in everything, my efenselè Alakensi, be attached to your following. To be your first aide and share your labors.”

Vaintè would not permit herself the slightest movement, the softest word, for that would have revealed the spate of instant anger that engulfed her. But she did not have to speak. Malsas‹ looked her directly in the eyes, and eye to eye they both understood. Malsas‹ permitted herself just one little mocking gesture of victory, then turned and led her followers to the uruketo.

Had Vaintè possessed a weapon at that moment she would have sent a dart of death into that retreating back. Malsas‹ must have planned every moment of this even before she arrived. She had her spies in Alpèasak reporting on everything that happened here. She had known that as Eistaa here Vaintè would be reluctant to turn over power. Therefore the repulsive Alakensi had been brought here. She would sit at Vaintè’s side and watch and spy — and report everything that happened. Her presence would be a constant reminder of Vaintè’s certain fate. She would labor and build this city — and in the end she would be pulled down. For on that black day it would all belong to Malsas‹. Now she realized what had been done; her past was laid clear by her future. From the very beginning Malsas‹ had had it all planned. Let Vaintè work and struggle and build the city — and in the building construct her own fate.

Unknowingly Vaintè raked her foot along the floor, her thick sharp nails tearing at the wood. No! It was not going to be that way. In the beginning she had just wanted to rise through her own labors, to join those that led the city. No more. Malsas‹ would never rule here. Alakensi would die; her appointment had been her death notice. The details were not clear — but the future was. As winter closed in on Inegban* the sun shone on Alpèasak. Weakness ruled there while strength grew here. Alpèasak was hers — and none would ever take it from her.

In her rage Vaintè left the presence of others, walked through the city by the most circuitous route where only a few fargi could see her — and upon seeing her flee from the anger that radiated from the very impact of her stride. Death was in every movement of her body.

There was a guardpost, now deserted, high above the port. Vaintè went there and stood in the lengthening shadows while the loading of the uruketo was completed. The last cargo taken into it were the limp bodies of a number of deer. Vanalpè had improved upon the toxin, normally used to stun large animals so they could be moved. The new drug did not stun — nor did it kill — but rather brought the creatures to the very brink of death. Their heartbeats could barely be detected, their breathing was immensely slowed. Treated in this manner they could cross the ocean to Inegban*, needing neither food nor water, to provide needed meat for the hungry citizens there. It was Vaintè’s fervent wish, and she spoke it aloud though none could hear, that Malsas‹ be treated in this way. To lie dead but not-dead until the end of time.

When the uruketo left at dusk Vaintè returned silently and alone through the growing darkness and, despite the anger still possessing her, fell instantly asleep.

Sleep cleansed her mind of hatred, but in the morning it still lurked there at the edge of her thoughts. To those that saw her in the ambesed she appeared as always. But she had one glimpse of Alakensi across the ambesed and she had to turn away, rigid with hatred. Her temper was short as many discovered. It was Enge’s ill luck to approach her at this time.

“I have a small request, Eistaa,” she said.

“Refused. From you and your walking-dead creatures I want only work.”

“You were never cruel without a reason before this,” Enge said calmly. “It is my understanding that to the Eistaa all citizens are equal.”

“Precisely. It is my decision that the Daughters of Death are no longer citizens^. You are work animals. You will labor until you die; that is your fate.” The memory surfaced, long put aside by the pressure of work, brought up now by the sight of Enge standing before her.

“The ustuzou you were teaching to talk. What of them? Time has passed, a great deal of time.”

“More time is needed, that is the request that I have. More time — or no time.”

“Explain yourself.”

“Each morning I begin to work with the ustuzou with hope that this will be the day of comprehension. Each evening I leave them with the strong sensation that it is all a wasted labor. The female is intelligent — but is it just the intelligence of an elinou that prowls the city seeking out and killing mice? The actions look intelligent but certainly are not.”

“What of the male?”

“Stupid, like all males. He will not respond, even when beaten. He just sits and stares in silence. But the female, like an elinou, responds to kindness and is pleasant to be with. But, after all this time, she can speak only a few phrases, usually wrong, and always bad. She must have learned them as a boat learns and they are surely meaningless to her.”

“I am not pleased at this news,” Vaintè said, nor was she. Enge could have been working in the fields all this time; her labors had been lost. The reasons for attempting to communicate with the ustuzou were no longer important. There had been no further threat from the creatures — while trouble from other sources was bad enough. But if the danger was gone the intellectual interest was still there. She voiced the question aloud.

“If the creatures cannot learn Yilanè — have you taught yourself their language?”

Enge signaled despair and doubt with a convulsive movement of her body. “That is another question I cannot answer. At first I thought of them as ambenin, speechless things that could not communicate. But now I see them as ugunin…”

“Impossible!” Vaintè rejected the idea completely. “How can a creature of any kind communicate but not give or receive information? You are giving me puzzles — not answers.”

“I know, and I am sorry, but I see no other name for them. Their sounds and movements reveal no pattern at all, and I say this knowing I must have memorized thousands of their movements and sounds. All are meaningless. It was difficult, they are so waxy and move so little. In the end, I came to believe — as a theory only — that they must have another level of communication that will remain forever closed to us. I have no idea of what it might be. I have heard of the theory of mental radiation, one brain talking directly to another. Or radio waves perhaps. If we had a physicist in the city that might be answered.”

She fell silent as Vaintè expressed despair, doubt, and disbelief.

“You never cease to amaze me, Enge. A first-class mind was lost to this city when you devoted your existence to your repellent philosophy. But now I think that your experiments and expectations are at an end. I will see your ustuzou and decide what will be done.” Vaintè saw Stallan near by and signaled her to come as well.

She led the way with Enge and Stallan following after. When they approached the prison chamber Stallan hurried ahead to open the barred entrance. Vaintè pushed past her and stared down at the young ustuzou while Stallan stood ready in case they should attack. The female was squatting, but her lips were drawn back to reveal her teeth and Vaintè grew angry at what was obviously a threat. The small male stood in waxy, motionless silence against the rear wall.

Vaintè called out to Enge. “Make them do their tricks,” she ordered.

When Kerrick heard the scraping of the bolt that secured the door he jumped about to place his back against the wall, sure as always that this would be the day of death. Ysel was beginning to laugh at him for it.

“Stupid boy,” she said, rubbing at the scratches on her bare skull. “Still baby-afraid. The marag brings us food and plays games…”

“Murgu bring death and they will kill us one day.”

“Stupid.” She threw a fruit rind at him and turned with a smile to face the one who visited them.

It was a strange marag who entered first, stamping heavily, and her smile faded. But the other familiar one was right behind, along with the brutal one, and the smile returned. It was another day just like any other.

She was a lazy and not-too-bright little girl.

“Speak to me,” Vaintè ordered, standing before the ustuzou. Then with emphasis, slowly and clearly as though addressing a young fargi, “Speak… to… me!”

“I beg, let me try first,” Enge requested with supplication. “I can get a response.”

“Not any more you can’t. If the creature cannot talk, that is the end of it. Too much time has been wasted.” Turning back to the female ustuzou Vaintè made herself clear, absolutely and directly clear.

“This is my personal demand — and it is most urgent. You will speak now and you will speak as well as any Yileibe. If you do, you will keep on living and growing. Speech means growth-speech means life — understand?”

Ysel understood — at least she was aware of the emotion of the threat — and fear, kept at bay so very long, returned.

“I find it hard to talk, please.” But the Tanu words elicited no response from the great ugly creature towering over her. She must remember what she had been taught. She tried, tried as hard as she could, making some of the movements as she spoke the words.

“has leibe ene uu…”

Vaintè was baffled. “Is that talking? What is it saying? It can’t mean ‘The old female grows adroit’.”

Enge was baffled as well. “There is possibly the meaning that growing supple puts years on females.”

Even as Vaintè was attempting to understand this possible interpretation her anger welled up within her. Perhaps, on another day, she would have taken this attempt, pitiful as it was, as an indication that the ustuzou was learning to speak. But not today. Not after the insults of yesterday and the infuriating presence of Alakensi. It was too much — and after she had even attempted to be polite to the disgusting fur beast. Reaching down she seized it by both forelimbs and raised it into the air before her, shaking it and bellowing with rage at the stupid creature, ordering it to speak.

The thing didn’t even make the attempt. Instead it just closed its eyes and produced water from them, threw its head back, opened its mouth wide and emitted an animal screech that hurt Vaintè’s skull.

Vaintè was beyond thought, her mind filled instead with blind hatred.

She leaned forward and sank her long rows of sharp conical teeth into the ustuzou’s throat, bit down hard, tearing out its life.

Hot blood spurted into her mouth and she gagged at the taste, throwing the corpse from her and harshly spitting out its blood. Stallan moved slightly, radiating silent approval.

There was a gourd of water before her face and she seized it from Enge and rinsed out her mouth, spitting and gagging, pouring the remainder over her face.

The blinding anger was gone, she could think now, and could feel as well the satisfaction in what she had done. But she was not finished. The other ustuzou remained alive — and with its death they would all be extinct. Turning swiftly she moved in front of Kerrick and glared down at him.

“Now you, the last,” she said, and reached out towards him. He could not retreat. His body moved and he spoke.

“…esekakurud-esekvilshan…elel leibeleibe…”

It made little sense at first and she stepped forward. Then stopped and looked more closely at the creature. There was a cower there, at least a clumsy attempt at a cower. But why was it moving from side to side like that? It made no sense. Then came realization — the thing of course had no tail so it could not do the lift correctly. But if that was really a tail lift, then it might be trying to communicate top-disgust-sensation as well as top-speech-volition. The bits and pieces were beginning to come together and in the end Vaintè cried aloud.

“Do you understand, Enge? See — it is doing it again.”

Clumsily, but clearly now, clear enough to understand, the ustuzou was speaking.

“I very much don’t want to die. I want very much to talk. Very long, very hard.”

“You did not kill it,” Enge said as they left the chamber and Stallan bolted the door behind them. “Yet you had no mercy at all for the other…”

“The other was worthless. You will now train this last one for it may be of use to us some day. Other packs of the creatures could be marauding out there. But you told me it never spoke?”

“Never. It must have been more intelligent than the other. It watched me all of the time, yet it never spoke.”

“You are a better teacher than you know, Enge.” Now sated, Vaintè was magnanimous. “Your only mistake was in teaching the wrong ustuzou.”

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Although the sky above was clear blue, fine snow was blowing fiercely up through the mountain pass. The biting north wind that tore across the mountains was picking it up from the slopes below, then sending it hurtling through the pass in great frigid waves.

Herilak struggled with its fury, almost leaning against it as he pushed the last stumbling steps through the heavy drifts. Part of his left snowshoe had broken and it slowed him down. Yet if he stopped to mend it he would be dead before he finished. So he pressed stumbling on, a large man made even bulkier by the layers of furs wrapped about him. He could feel the change in the slope now as he entered the pass, went through it, tripping and falling again and again, but rising each time to shake the snow from him, then staggering on. As he passed the rocky scarp, the gray bones of stone rising from the drifts and kept free by the wind, he felt that wind lessen. He was through. Just a few paces further on and he was out of the wind completely, shielded by the rock. He dropped down with a sigh, his back against the rough stone, for the climb had taxed even his great strength.

His outer mittens were glazed with ice and snow and he had to beat them together before they were supple enough to remove. With his warm inner glove he wiped the caked snow from his eyebrows and eyelashes and blinked down at the valley below.

It was a sheltered place where some greatdeer still wintered; he could see the dark specks of their herds further up the valley. Below him was a stand of tall trees that gave shelter to the meadow beside the stream. A stream that never froze at its source where it welled up from beneath the ground. It was a fine spot to camp and to winter, and was known as levrelag Amahast, the camping place of the sammad of Amahast. Amahast married to Aleth sister of Herilak.

But the valley below was empty.

Herilak had heard this from a hunter of his own sammad, who had met a hunter of sammad Ulfadan who swore that he had been here, and that he was speaking only the truth. Herilak knew that he had to see for himself. He had taken his spear and his bow and his arrows, rubbed his body thickly with goose grease, then put on the soft furs of the beaver with the fur against his body, then the suit of coarse fur of the greatdeer over that. With the snowshoes lashed to the heavy fur boots he was ready for the winter. He traveled light for he must travel fast, and the bag over his shoulder held little more than a supply of dried meat and some of the mashed nuts and berries of ekkotaz.

Now he had found that which he sought and he was very displeased. He sucked a mouthful of snow as he bent to repair the snowshoe. Every once in awhile he would look up from the work to the empty valley below, as though to remind himself of the unpleasant truth. It remained empty.

It was midday before he was finished. He chewed on some dried meat while he pondered on what to do next. He had no choice. When he had finished eating he climbed to his feet, a big man who stood a head taller than even the tallest in his sammad, rubbing grease from his flowing beard and looking down the valley in the direction he must go. South. He started that way, along the slope, and once he began walking he never looked back once at the empty camping place.

All that day he walked and only stopped when the first stars began to sparkle in the darkness. He rolled himself in his furs and stared up at the night sky before closing his eyes to sleep. But he had a thought then and opened them again and searched among the familiar patterns. The Mastodon charging at the Hunter who held his spear ready. The bent row of stars in the Hunter’s belt. Was there a new one there, next to the center star? Not as bright as the others, but just as clear in the cold transparency of the winter sky. He could not be sure. It would have to be the tharm of a strong warrior to be in that honored place, adding strength to the Hunter. He was not certain if it had been there before. While he thought about it he closed his eyes again and slept.

On the afternoon of the third day, three days of marching from first light to early darkness, Herilak came through the trees beside a fast-flowing river, the current so swift that it still had an open channel in its center. He went quietly as a hunter always does, once surprising a small herd of deer, sending them jumping away between the trees, bounding high with sprays of snow flying about them. One at least would have been easy prey — but he was not hunting now. Not for deer. Pushing through a thicket he stopped suddenly, then bent to look at the ground. At the gut rabbit snare strung between two boughs.

After that he chanted as he went and let his spear rattle against the low branches that he passed. This was a new thing that had started with the frozen winters. In none of the stories that the old ones told was there any mention of the need. There was the need now. Tanu had killed Tanu. The world was not the free place it once had been, where hunters did not fear hunters.

In a short time he could feel beneath his feet a path that had been trampled into the snow. When he came to the next clearing in the forest he stopped, plunged his spear into a drift like a standard and squatted on his haunches beside it. He did not have long to wait.

Silent as wreath of smoke a hunter appeared on the other side of the clearing. His spear was ready, but he lowered it when he saw Herilak’s sitting figure. Herilak climbed slowly to his feet as the other hunter also stabbed his spear into the snow and started forward. They met in the center of the clearing.

“I am here on your hunting grounds but I do not hunt,” Herilak said. “This is where the sammad of Ulfadan hunt. You are the sammadar.”

Ulfadan nodded agreement. Like his name, his blond beard was long, reaching almost to his waist. “You are Herilak,” he said. “My niece is married to Alkos of your sammad.” He chewed over the relationship, then pointed back over his shoulder with his hand. “We will take our spears and we will go to my tent. It is warmer than the snow.”

They walked side by side in silence for it is not a hunter’s way to chatter like a bird when on the trail. The river moved swiftly at their side as they followed the path along its frozen bank. They came to the place where the river swung out and back in a slow curve and in the curve was the winter camp of the sammad, twelve large and sturdy tents. In the meadow beyond the tents the mastodons dug into the snow with their tusks, their breaths rising up in drifts of vapor, to reach the dry grass hidden below. From each tent a thin plume of smoke also rose into the cloudless sky. There were shouts as children ran between the tents playing some game. It was a peaceful scene well familiar to Herilak; it could have been his own sammad. Ulfadan pulled the hide flap aside and led the way into the darkness of his tent.

They sat in silence while the old woman poured melted snow, from the bark pail beside the fire, into wooden mugs, adding dried herbs to make a savory drink. The two hunters warmed their hands on the mugs and sipped at the brew while the women chattered to each other as they wrapped themselves in skins and slipped out of the tent one by one.

“You will eat,” Ulfadan said when they were alone.

“The hospitality of Ulfadan is talked about in the tents of the Tanu from the sea to the mountains.”

The formal words did not quite match the generosity of the portion, a few flakes of dried fish smelling very strongly of age. The winter was long and spring far distant yet. There would be hunger in the tents before it came.

Herilak drained the last drops of liquid with noisy appreciation, and eyen managed to summon up a belch to show how rich the meal had been. He knew that he should now talk about hunting, the weather, the migrating herds, and only much later reach the point of his visit. But this slow and time-consuming custom was changing as well.

“The mother of the wife of my first son is the wife of Amahast,” Herilak said. Ulfadan nodded in agreement, for this fact was known to him. All of the sammads in these mountain valleys were linked by marriage in one way or another. “I have been to the camping place of Amahast’s sammad and the place is empty.” Ulfadan nodded at this as well.

“They went south last spring, their path always taking them down this valley. It was seen that half of their mastodons had died. It was a bad winter.”

“It is known that now it is always a bad winter.”

Ulfadan grunted in unhappy agreement. “They did not return after that.”

Herilak turned the thought over in his head, tracing in his mind the trail down through the valleys to the flatlands, then eastward to the sea. “They went then to the sea?”

“Each year now they go the encampment by the river at the sea.”

“But this year they did not return.” There was no answer to that other than silent agreement. Something had happened that they did not know about. Perhaps the sammad had found a different winter camp; more than one sammad had been destroyed by cold and their encampments were empty. There was that possibility. There was the greater possibility that something far worse had happened about which they knew nothing.

“The days are short,” Herilak said, climbing to his feet. “And the way is long.”

Ulfadan rose as well and seized the big hunter’s arms in his hands in a gesture of appreciation. “It is a long and lonely way to the sea in winter. May Ermanpadar guide your path all of the way.”

There was nothing more to be said. Herilak pulled his furs tight about him again and once more pointed his spear to the south. It was only after he had reached the plains that he went faster, for the snow here was frozen and hard. Winter was his only enemy now for the ice-bound land was empty of life. Only once in his many days of walking did he see a greatdeer, and this was a thin and wretched creature pursued by a small pack of starving longtooths. He saw them moving across the plain in his direction. There was a low rise here with a stand of leafless trees upon it and Herilak stopped beside them to watch.

The wretched greatdeer was weakening, its flanks torn and dripping with blood. It stumbled to a halt when it reached the slope, too winded to run any further, and turned at bay. The starving longtooths came in from all sides, heedless of danger with the smell of warm blood in their nostrils. One of them was caught by the dagger-pointed horns and tossed aside. But this was the opportunity the leader needed to spring in and hamstring the greatdeer, tearing at its hindlegs. Bellowing, the creature fell and the end was upon it. The leader, a great black creature with a thick ruff of hair about its throat and chest, drew back as though to let the others eat first. There would be enough for all.

When it moved aside it became aware for the first time of watching eyes. With wild instinct it knew it was being observed. It rose growling and looked straight up the hill at Herilak, its gaze meeting his. Then it crouched and moved in his direction, halfway up the hill, coming so close that Herilak could look into the unblinking yellow of its eyes.

Herilak’s gaze was just as unswerving. He did not move nor point his spear, but in his silence he communicated an unspoken message. They would go their way, he would go his. If he were attacked he would kill; the longtooth knew what spears could do. The yellow eyes watched steadily and the creature must have understood because it turned suddenly and went back down the hill. Now it would feed, and the others made way for it. But before it sank its muzzle into the warm flesh it glanced back up the hill. Nothing waited under the trees. The spear-animal was gone. It lowered its head and ate.

A blizzard trapped Herilak inside his furs for two whole days. He slept most of the time, trying not to eat too much of his dwindling store of food. But it was eat or die from the cold. When the storm finally lifted he went on. Later that same day he had the good fortune to find the recent tracks of a rabbit. He pushed his spear under the strap across his back and notched an arrow into his bow. That night he feasted on fresh meat by his fire. Ate his fill and more again, staying up late, nodding half asleep as he roasted the remainder over the blaze.

There was less snow on the ground this far south, but the midwinter frost was just as hard. The frozen grass of the riverbank crackled underfoot. He paused when he heard something, cupped his ear and listened closely. Yes, the distant whisper was there. The sound of surf, waves beating upon a beach. The sea.

The grass did not crackle now as he went forward, spear ready, eyes that saw everything. Ready to face any danger.

But the danger had long since gone. Under a gray winter sky he came upon the meadow with the bones of the mastodons resting there. A cold wind, cold as death, sighed through the high-arched ribs. The carrion scavengers had done their work, then the crows and sea birds had followed and feasted well. It was there, just beyond the mastodons, that he found the first of the Tanu skeletons. His jaw clenched hard, his eyes narrowed to slits as he realized that more and more skeletons littered the river bank. It was a slaughtering yard, a place of death.

What had happened here? Dead, all dead, an entire sammad, that was clear from the beginning. Skeletons of adults and children lay where they had dropped. But what had killed them? What enemy had fallen upon them and had butchered them? Another sammad? Impossible, for they would have taken weapons and tents, would have driven off the mastodons, not just killed them along with their owners. The tents were still there, most of them wrapped and loaded onto the travois that lay beside the mastodons’ skeletons. This sammad had broken its summer camp, had been leaving when death had sprung upon them. Herilak searched further, and it was in among the bones of the largest skeleton that he saw a glint of metal. He lifted the bones aside with respect and took up the red-rusted form of a skymetal knife. He brushed away the rust and looked at the patterns on the metal, patterns that he knew so well. His spear fell to the frozen ground as he held the knife with both hands, thrust it up into the sky and howled with grief. Tears filled his eyes as he bellowed aloud his pain and anger.

Amahast, dead. The husband of his sister, dead. Their children, the women, the tall hunters. Dead, all of them, dead. The sammad of Amahast was no more.

Herilak shook the tears from his eyes, growling with rage as hot anger burned away the sorrow. Now he must find the killers. Bent low he traced his way backwards and forwards, searching for what he did not know. But searching carefully and closely as only a hunter can. Darkness stopped him and he lay down for the night beside the bones of Amahast and searched for Amahast’s tharm among the stars. He would be there, that was certain, one of the brighter stars.

Next morning he found that which he was searching for. At first it appeared to be just another strip of torn leather, one among many. But when he pulled away the frozen black fragments he saw that there were bones inside. Carefully, so as not to disturb them to any greater degree, he picked away at the leathery hide. Long before he was finished it was obvious what he had found, nevertheless he continued until all of the tiny bones were uncovered.

A long, thin creature, with tiny and unusable legs. Many ribs, far too many ribs, and more bones in the spine than seemed possible.

A marag of some kind, there was no mistake, for he had seen their kind before. It did not belong here, no murgu could live this far away from the hot south.

South? Did that have a meaning? Herilak stood and looked west, where he had come from. No murgu there, that was impossible. He turned slowly to face the north and could see inside his head the cold ice and snow stretching away forever. The Paramutan lived there, very much like the Tanu although they spoke in a different manner. But there were very few of them, they rarely came south, and they fought against winter only, not Tanu or each other. East, out into the ocean — there was nothing there.

But south, from the hot south, murgu could come. They could bring death and leave again. South.

Herilak knelt in the frozen sand and studied the marag skeleton carefully, memorized all the details of it until he could have scratched its likeness in the sand and would remember forever every single bone of it.

Then he stood and ground its brittle fragments underfoot. Turned about and without once looking back started on the return trail.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Kerrick never realized that it was age alone that had saved his life. Not that Vaintè had spared him because he was so young; she felt the most intense disgust for ustuzou of any age and would happily see them all dead. Ysel had been too old to respond naturally to a new language, particularly one as complex in construction as Yilanè. For her Marbak was the only way to speak and she used to laugh with the women when hunters from the Ice Mountains visited their tents and spoke so badly they could barely be understood. To her this was just stupidity, any intelligent one of the Tanu would of course speak Marbak. Therefore she had showed no interest in learning Yilanè, and was satisfied to memorize by rote some of the funny sounds just to please the marag and get food from it. Sometimes she even remembered to make body movements with her words. It was all just a stupid game — and she had died for believing that.

Kerrick never thought about language as a separate entity: he just wanted to understand and respond. He was still young enough to learn a language without conscious effort, by listening and watching. If he had had any idea that there were thousands of conceptual areas in the Yilanè language — that could be combined in over 125 billion ways — he would just have shrugged. The numbers were meaningless, particularly since he could not count nor visualize any number larger than twenty, the count of a man. What he learned he had learned without conscious effort. But now, as the lessons progressed, Enge did draw his attention to certain statements, ways of interpreting things, and made him repeat sloppy movements until he did them correctly.

Because of his inability to change areas of skin color he was learning what was referred to as graylight talk. In heavy jungle, or at dawn and dusk when there was very little light, the Yilanè communicated without color patterns, rephrasing expressions so that color was not necessary.

Each morning of their imprisonment he had expected death when the door had opened. He remembered the slaughter of the sammad far too well, the extinction of everything living, men, women, children — even the mastodons. He and Ysel would be killed one day as well; there was no alternative. When the ugly marag had brought food instead of death in the morning he knew that their slaughter had just been put off for one more day. After that he would watch in silence, trying not to laugh, as stupid Ysel made nothing but mistakes, day after day. But he had a hunter’s pride. He would not help her or the marag, would not answer when he was talked to, and he tried to accept the blows that followed in silence as a hunter should. After many days had passed he discovered that he could understand some of the things that Enge said when she spoke to the other marag that he hated the most, the one who beat him and tied him up. Keeping silent became more important after this, for it kept secret his knowledge; a small fragment of success where before there had only been total disaster.

And then Vaintè had killed the girl. He felt no remorse about that because she had been stupid and deserved to join the rest of the sammad. Only when Vaintè had seized him, the blood of murder still fresh on her jaw, only then had the hunter’s strength failed. He had only hunted once, had not been accepted as a hunter, that was what he told himself later, trying to explain away his failure to accept death from those sharp and terrible teeth. In all truth he had been just as frightened then as he had been when his spear drew the marag from the water. He had spoken out of dreadful fear, scarcely aware of what he was doing, and had spoken well enough to save his life.

Kerrick still knew that he would die some day, when the murgu had had enough of him. But that day was in the future and now, for the first time, he permitted himself a tiny bit of hope. Each day he could understand more and speak better. And he still had not been out of this room since the moment they had been brought here. Some day he would be let out of it, unless they intended him to spend his remaining days locked away, and on that day he would run. The murgu waddled, they did not walk, and he was sure he could run faster than they could — if they could run at all. This was his secret hope and because of it he did what he was asked and hoped that his rebelliousness had been forgotten.

Each day began the same way. Stallan would open the door and stamp in. Kerrick would carefully control his loathing of the violent creature. Even though he no longer fought back the hunter would still hurl him to the floor and kneel painfully on his back as it put the living shackles on his ankles and wrists. Stallan would then rub a string-blade over his head to remove the stubble of hair, usually cutting his skin at the same time. Enge would arrive later with the fruit and the gellid meat that he had finally forced himself to eat. Meat meant strength. Kerrick never spoke to Stallan, unless the creature struck him and demanded an answer, which was very rare. Kerrick knew better than to expect any compassion from this ugly, hoarse-voiced creature.

But Enge was a different matter altogether. With a boy’s sharp eyes he watched closely and saw that Enge reacted differently from the other murgu. For one thing she had expressed pain and sorrow when the girl had been killed. Stallan had enjoyed it greatly and had applauded the action. Once in a great while Enge would arrive with Stallan. Kerrick’s speaking improved and when he was sure he could say exactly what he wanted, he began to watch patiently each day as the door opened. When Stallan entered alone he forgot the matter completely until the following morning.

This went on until the morning when Enge entered as well. Kerrick said nothing, but he stiffened his body so that Stallan was more brutal than usual in handling him. As his arms were pulled out before him and the cool shackle was being slapped into place he spoke.

“Why do you hurt me and bind me? I cannot hurt you.”

Stallan’s only answer was a gesture of disgust and a blow across the head. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw that Enge was listening.

“It is hard to talk when I am bound,” he said.

“Stallan,” Enge said, “what the creature says is true.”

“It attacked you, have you forgotten that?”

“No, but that was when we first brought it in. And you will remember it bit me only when it thought I was hurting the female.” She turned to Kerrick. “Will you try to injure me again?”

“Never. You are my teacher. I know if I speak well you will reward me with food and not hurt me.”

“I marvel that an ustuzou can talk — but it is still a wild creature and must be secured.” Stallan was adamant. “Vaintè put it in my charge and I will obey my orders.”

“Obey them, but bend them a slight amount. Free its legs at least. It will make talking easier.”

In the end Stallan reluctantly agreed and that day Kerrick worked especially hard, knowing that his secret plan had moved ahead just that single step.

There was no way to count the days, nor did Kerrick particularly care how much time had passed. When he had been in the north, with his sammad, winter and summer had been markedly different and it had been important to know the time of year for the hunting. But here, in the endless heat, the passage of time did not matter. Sometimes rain would drum on the transparent skin above the room, while at other times it would be darkened by clouds. Kerrick knew only that a long time had passed since Ysel’s death, when there was an interruption to their daily lesson. The rattle of the outside lock drew the attention of both of them so that they turned to look when the door swung open. Kerrick welcomed the novel event until Vaintè entered.

Although the murgu were very similar one to the other he had learned to notice differences. And Vaintè was one creature whom he would never forget. He automatically signaled submission and respect as she stamped across the floor towards them, was pleased to see that she was in a good mood as well.

“You have done well in your animal-training, Enge. There are stupid fargi out there that do not respond as clearly or as quickly as this one. Make it speak again.”

“You may converse with it yourself.”

“Can I? I don’t believe it. Why it is like giving instructions to a boat and having it answer you back.” She turned to Kerrick and said clearly. “Go left, boat, go left.”

“I am not a boat, but I can go left.”

He walked slowly about the room while Vaintè expressed disbelief and pleasure in equal portions.

“Stand before me. Tell me the name you have been given.”

“Kerrick.”

“That means nothing. You are a ustuzou so you cannot say it correctly. It must be said this way, Ekerik.”

Vaintè could not realize that it was the sounds alone that made up his name. She added the physical modifiers so that in its entirety it signified slow-stupid. Kerrick could not have cared less.

“Ekerik,” he said, then again with the modifiers, “Slow-stupid.”

“I could almost be talking to a fargi,” Vaintè said. “But see how unclearly it says Slow-stupid.”

“It can do no better,” Enge explained. “Having no tail it cannot complete the motion correctly. But see, it has taught itself that twisting motion which is as close as it can come.”

“I will have need of the creature soon. The uruketo has brought Zhekak from Inegban* to work with Vanalpè. She is vain and she is fat — but she has the best scientific brain in Entoban*. She must stay here for we need her help. I wish to please her in every way. You must see that this ustuzou attracts her attention. The sight of a talking ustuzou will be a success I wish to achieve.”

Kerrick expressed only respectful attention as she turned to him. Unlike the Yilanè where to think a thought was to express it — he could lie very well. Vaintè looked him up and down coldly.

“It looks filthy, it must be washed.”

“It is washed daily. That is its natural color.”

“Disgusting. As is the creature’s penis. Can’t it be forced to withdraw it into its pouch?”

“It has no pouch.”

“Then have one made and attach it. The same color as the the creature’s flesh so it will not be noticed. And why is its skull scratched like that?”

“The fur is cut off daily. You ordered it.”

“Of course I did — but I didn’t order the ugly thing to be butchered as well. Talk to Vanalpè. Tell her to find a better way of defurring it. Do this at once.”

Kerrick just expressed humble thanks and amplified respect when they left. Not until they were gone and the door was sealed did he permit himself to straighten up and laugh out loud. It was a very hard world, but at the age of nine he was learning to survive in it very well.

Vanalpè came that same day, shown in by Stallan, and followed by her usual train of assistants and eager fargi. There were too many of them to fit into the small chamber and Vanalpè made all of them, other than her first assistant, wait outside. The assistant put the bundles and containers on the floor while Vanalpè walked around Kerrick examining him closely.

“I’ve never seen a live one before,” she said. “But I know the creature well. I did the dissection on the other.”

She was behind Kerrick’s back when she said this so he did not hear it all. Which was just as well since the Yilanè expression for dissection was the very literal cutting-dead-meat-apart-to-learn.

“Tell me, Stallan, can it really speak?”

“It is an animal.” Stallan did not share the general interest in the ustuzou and wanted it dead. But she obeyed orders and did it no injury.

“Speak!” Vanalpè ordered.

“What do you want me to say?”

“Wonderful,” Vanalpè said and instantly lost all interest. “What have you been using to remove the fur?”

“A string-knife.”

“Very messy. You’ve butchered the animal. Those things are better for cutting meat. Bring me the unutakh,” she ordered her assistant.

The brown, slug-like creature was shaken out of the container onto the palm of Vanalpè’s hand. “I use it for preparing specimens. It digests the fur but not the hide. But only on dead specimens so far. Let us see how it works on a live one.”

Stallan hurled Kerrick to the floor and leaned on him as Vanalpè pried the rolled-up unutakh open and placed it on his skull. He shivered away from the cold, slimy touch and the Yilanè expressed amusement at the sight. It crawled damply across his skin.

“Very good,” Vanalpè announced. “Flesh unharmed, fur removed. Now for the next problem. The creature certainly needs a pouch. I have this tanned hide, almost a perfect color match. Just a matter of fitting it into place and trimming it. I’ve lined it with modified bandages to adhere to the skin. Good. Stand it up now.”

Kerrick was close to tears at the rough and insulting handling but he forced them back. Murgu would not see him cry. The cold slug still crawled across his scalp and was now over one eye. When it moved away he glanced down at the small breechclout that they were fitting into place. It was no bother to him. He forgot about it as the slug went slowly across the lashes of his other eye.

It would be many years before he would learn that the covering pouch was made from the preserved and well-tanned skin of Ysel, the girl who had been murdered before his eyes.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

“I have thought about your status for a long time,” Enge said. “I have reached the inescapable conclusion that you are the lowest of the lowest.”

“I am the lowest of the lowest,” Kerrick agreed, trying to concentrate on her speech and ignore the unutakh crawling damply over his skull. This was only the third day that it had cleansed his body of hair and he still found it repulsive. As soon as it was finished he looked forward eagerly to washing off its slimy tracks. He also had a growing respect for the small creature. When he had pried it off the previous morning it had adhered to his finger and consumed most of one fingernail. It was crawling to the back of his head now and he could wipe his browless and lashless eyes clean with the back of his hand.

“Are you giving me all of your attention?” Enge asked.

“All. I am the lowest of the low.”

“But you don’t speak that way. You have never learned to do it correctly. Now you must. Say it this way. Lowest of the low.”

Kerrick noted her bent posture, tail tucked under, and did his best to imitate it.

“Better. You must practice. Because you will soon be in the company of those who are highest here and they will not take insults of language.”

“How do you know that I am lowest of the low?” Kerrick said, phrasing it as a question asked by one of low mentality — when in reality he was getting both bored and annoyed by their talk.

“Vaintè is the Eistaa and rules here in Alpèasak. She is the highest. Beneath her and infinitely above you and I are Stallan and Vanalpè and others who order the city. They have their aides and of course the fargi who train in their service. Even though you now speak better than many fargi you must still be lower than they are for they are Yilanè and you are merely ustuzou, a talking animal but still an animal.”

Kerrick cared nothing for the structure of their complicated relationships of rank and privilege. He was just curious about the word he had never heard before.

“What are fargi?”

“They are, well, just fargi.”

As soon as she had said it Enge realized the emptiness of the statement. She sat rigid and unmoving for a long time as she struggled for a definition. It was difficult to express clearly since, like any accepted fact of life, one took it for granted and never questioned the fact’s existence. It was like asking What is the sun? It is the sun. Its existence defines it. She knew that physicists could tell her many facts about the sun, far more than she might ever wish to know. But if she were to train this ustuzou to appear in public it had to know all the commonplace things that others knew. Including, apparently, what a fargi was. To explain she must begin at the beginning.

“When the young leave the birth beaches they enter the sea. They live in the ocean for many years, growing and maturing. It is a happy time because fish are easy to catch and dangers are few. All those who enter the ocean at the same time belong to the same efenburu. They are efenselè to each other and form a bond that lasts a lifetime. Eventually they mature and emerge from the ocean to live on land. The males are rounded up and brought to the city since they are too stupid to fend for themselves. This is a very hard time for every one must find her own way into life. Food is plentiful but so are dangers. Life is in the cities and the young go there. They listen and learn, and those that learn to speak become part of the city at the lowest level. They are fargi. You are lower than they are.”

“I can understand that, but I do not understand about the males. The fargi are females?”

“Of course.”

“But you are male—”

“Do not be insulting. You have never seen a male since they are carefully protected in the hanalè.”

Kerrick was stunned by this information. Female — all the murgu were female! Even the repellent Stallan. Indeed, everything about the murgu did not make sense. All Tanu could talk, even young ones. These murgu must be stupid. “What happens to those who do not learn how to speak?” he asked.

“That is no concern of yours. Just remember that even to the lowest fargi, one who is yileibe, that is speaking with utmost difficulty, you are lower.”

“I am the lowest of the low,” Kerrick agreed and tried not to yawn.

A short time later their lesson was interrupted by the unbolting of the door. Kerrick smoothed his features to hide the intense loathing he always felt when Stallan came in. She was carrying a sealed container.

“The time is now,” Stallan said. “Vaintè wishes the presence of the ustuzou. I have brought this to restrain the creature.”

Kerrick made no protests when Stallan removed the unutakh, then scrubbed him from head to toe with water. She seemed displeased with the manacle creature that held his wrists and replaced it with a fresh one. From the container she then produced a long, dark length that writhed slowly when she held it by one end.

“We want no trouble from this ustuzou,” Stallan said, pulling Kerrick over and looping the creature about his neck, then clamping its mouth onto its own body to make a secure loop. She held tight to the other end. “Tell it to follow you,” she told Enge, still refusing to accept the fact that Kerrick was anything more than a trained animal. They were matched and equal in their hatred of one for the other.

Kerrick did not care; for the first time since he had been captured he would see what lay beyond the door. He had only vague memories of pain, forest and trees when he had first been brought here. Now he was alert and ready, and trying hard to appear docile and manageable. Enge threw the door wide and he followed her, his hands shackled before him, Stallan walking behind holding tight to his leash.

A dimly-lit green tunnel stretched away before them. It had woven flooring like his prison chamber, but the walls were more insubstantial. They were made of growths of many kinds, thin and thick tree trunks, climbing vines, flowering shrubs as well as many strange plants that were unknown to him. Overlapping leaves made a covering above. There were corridors leading off this one, where he had quick glimpses of moving figures, then they emerged into a sunlit opening. He had to squint against the glare after his long imprisonment. The light hurt, but he looked anyway with watering eyes, taking in everything.

Was this all there was to Alpèasak? he thought. When Enge talked about it he had a picture in his mind of a giant encampment with countless tents stretching as far as the eye could see. He should have known that murgu knew nothing about a real camp. Yet this jumble of corridors and trees was indeed very large. And wherever he looked there were murgu. Too many of them all at once; it was like falling into a pit of them. His skin crawled as they crowded around, pushing each other to see the ustuzou, then following after when he had passed. They were stupid too, a lot of them could barely talk. These must be the fargi he had been told about.

The corridor ended suddenly in an open area, far bigger than the ones they had crossed before. Kerrick’s eyes were getting used to the light now and could see the groups of Yilanè all about the open space. Stallan called out a sharp command and the fargi moved aside leaving an open path for them. Across the hardpacked soil they went to the far wall where a small group stood. Two of them were very important, because even at this distance the crouching attitude of those in attendance was obvious. As they came closer Kerrick recognized Vaintè; that was one he would never forget. Beside the Eistaa squatted a very fat Yilanè, her skin drawn tight as though ready to burst. Vaintè signaled them to stop and turned to the fat one at her side.

“There you see it, Zhekak, one of the ustuzou who committed the crimes of which you know.”

“Pull it closer,” Zhekak ordered in a thin voice, the fat muffling the motions of its limbs. “It does not look too dangerous.”

“This is still a young one. The mature ones are gigantic.”

“Interesting. Let me see its dentition.”

While Kerrick was still puzzling out the meaning of the new phrase, Stallan seized him by the head and pried his jaws open, dragging him forward so Zhekak could see into his mouth. Zhekak was intrigued by the sight.

“Very similar to the preserved specimens that Vanalpè has. There is much to study here, much of interest. I see the day when Alpèasak will lead all of the other cities in their knowledge of ustuzou and their uses.”

Vaintè was radiating pleasure. “There is something else about this creature that you should know. It talks.”

Zhekak fell back expressing disbelief, wonder, incredulity and respect, her gross body writhing with the effort of saying this all at the same time.

“Demonstrate,” Vaintè ordered.

Stallan tugged Kerrick closer and Enge stood to one side where he could see her. “Speak your name to those of great rank before you,” she said.

“I am Kerrick, lowest of the low.”

Zhekak was overly generous in her appreciation. “A wonderful bit of training. I have never seen a beast that could speak its name before.”

“There is more to it than that,” Enge said with respectful addition — not correction. “It can talk just as though it were Yilanè. You may converse with it if you so wish.”

Zhekak’s delight, incredulity, and disbelief were very great. When she was finished she leaned forward and spoke very slowly and very clearly.

“I find this hard to believe. You cannot really talk.”

“I can. I can speak very fast and very clearly.”

“You’ve been trained to say that.”

“No. I learned as a fargi learns.”

“In the ocean?”

“No. I cannot swim. I learned to speak by listening to Enge.”

Zhekak did not look towards Enge and her speech was full of contempt. “That is very good. Kind words spoken of one who caused so much difficulty in distant lovely Inegban*. It is only fitting that a crude beast like this speaks well of a Daughter of Death.” She turned to Vaintè. “You are to be congratulated in that you have made something out of nothing, a city out of jungle, a speaker out of an ustuzou, a teacher out of a deathless one. Surely the future of Alpèasak will be always warm.”

Vaintè dismissed Enge and Kerrick with a gesture as she spoke to Zhekak. “I will remember those words always. A new world means new things and we are doing our best. And now — will you take meat? We have some new varieties here that you would never have tasted.”

Zhekak clacked her jaw in loud appreciation. “That is what I was told and that is what I intend to discover for myself.”

Fat murgu, eat and explode. Those were Kerrick’s thoughts, but no hint of this was reflected in his submissive stance.

“Return it to its place,” Vaintè said, dismissing them as well. Stallan tugged on the leash and pulled Kerrick along behind her. Kerrick stumbled, almost fell, but made no complaint. They left the great open space and returned to the green tunnels of the city. Enge turned into a different tunnel and Kerrick glanced carefully around. When there were very few others in sight, none of them close by, Kerrick called out in pain.

“Help me. Such pain. This thing on my neck… I’m choking.”

Stallan turned about and cuffed Kerrick on the side of the head for disturbing her. But she knew that they wanted this animal kept alive. The leash would have to be loosened. She dropped the free end and reached for the animal’s head.

Kerrick turned and ran, scarcely hearing the roar of rage that bellowed after him.

Run, boy, run, fast as your legs can carry you, faster than any murgu. There were two of them ahead, uncomprehending fargi.

“Move aside!” he ordered — and they did!

Stupid, stupid creatures. The leash was flapping over his shoulder and he raised his hands and gathered it up so it wouldn’t impede him. As he ran through one of the open spaces he glanced over his shoulder and saw that Stallan was far behind him. He was right, these creatures could not run.

He slowed a bit then, ran easier, ran free. He could run this way all day. The breath came strongly to his lungs, his feet slammed down on the matting as he fled for his life.

He could not be stopped, When he saw groups of murgu ahead he took a different way. The fargi moved aside when he ordered them to. One marag did not move, tried to grab at him instead, but he dodged the clumsy effort and ran on. When he found himself alone at last in a leaf-shrouded chamber he paused for breath — and to plan.

The city was all around him yet. The sun filtered down through the leaves and he blinked up at it. Late afternoon, the sea would be behind him, the land ahead in the direction of the setting sun. That was where he must go.

City blended into fields without any sharp distinction. He trotted briskly now, running only when he was noticed. The first difficulty to be overcome was a thick hedge filled with long thorns. His heart leapt. If he were found here he was trapped. He ran swiftly along it, searching for an opening, aware that two of the murgu had seen him and were calling after him. Yes, there it was, stout vines that looped back and forth across the gap. There must be a way of opening them, but he did not bother to search for it. Instead he dropped flat and wriggled under the lowest strand. A herd of small deer looked at him, then fled in panic through the tall grass. He followed them, kept straight on when they veered aside at the next fence. Now that he knew what to look for the vine-covered opening was easy to see. This time when he dropped flat to slide under it, he looked back and he saw that a group of murgu were at the far side of the field, just starting to open the last gate that he had slipped under. They would never catch him now!

Then he came to the final field. It had to be the last because the high green wall of the jungle was just beyond. He had already passed small bits of jungle, but these had been surrounded by the fences and fields. The jungle beyond this fence was unending, dark and frightening. But whatever dangers it held were nothing compared to those of the city he was leaving behind. He slipped under the vines into the field and stood up — and saw the great creatures that were looking at him.

Fear seized him and shook him savagely so he could not move. Big they were, bigger than mammoths, murgu from his worst nightmare. Gray, wrinkled, with legs like tree trunks, great shields of bones rising up and up, horns on their noses pointing directly at him. Kerrick’s heart beat so loudly in his chest that he thought it would burst.

Only then did he notice they were not moving towards him. Tiny eyes in wrinkled sockets stared down and scarcely saw him. The ponderous heads lowered and the sharp jaws tore at the grass. Slowly, a step at a time, he walked around them, towards the partly grown fence that was still filled with large gaps that opened out onto the dark of the forest.

Free! He had escaped! He brushed some hanging vines aside and stepped onto the cool loam of the jungle floor. Brushed the sticking vines aside, and once again.

Then he discovered that they had adhered to his arms, were slowly tightening themselves about him.

They weren’t vines at all but living traps. He tore at them, tried to bite them, but to no avail. He had been close, so very close. As he spun about in their cool embrace he saw the murgu coming after him through the field. So close.

He turned again to the forest, hanging limply, fighting no longer, scarcely able to react when the two-thumbed hands seized him cruelly. Looking up at the trees and freedom. At the flash of movement of some animal there.

The leaves above parted for an instant and he saw a bearded face. It was gone as quickly as it had come. Then he was being dragged back into captivity.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Vaintè leaned back comfortably on her resting wood, deep in thought, her body fixed and motionless. Her aides surrounded her and talked quietly among themselves, they in turn being encircled by the ever-attendant fargi. Vaintè was in the midst of an island of silence, for none would dare to disturb the Eistaa’s immobile state. Her thoughts were the force that drove the city.

But her only thought at the moment was one of extreme hatred; her immobility served only to hide that fact and represented no matters of great cogitation. She rested in complete stasis — except for her right eye which moved slowly, following the three retreating backs. Vanalpè, her irreplaceable aide in growing this city, the scientist Zhekak who could prove just as important. And with them Alakensi, the deadly weight that hung about her neck. How well Malsas‹ had planned this, what subtlety of malice. Now that the first vital work had been done Alakensi was there to make sure that Malsas‹ profited by it. To observe and remember — then to hand the leadership over to Malsas‹ when she arrived. There she went now, currying favor with Zhekak, hearing everything that passed between the two Yilanè of science.

The three vanished from sight and Vaintè’s eye rolled back and came to focus on Enge who had come up silently and now stood before her, bent in a gesture of supplication.

“Leave me,” Vaintè said, as curtly as she could. “I speak with no one.”

“A matter of greatest importance. I implore you to listen.”

“Go.”

“You must listen. Stallan beats the ustuzou. I am afraid she will kill it.”

Vaintè gave Enge her full attention now, demanding an instant explanation.

“The creature tried to escape but was recaptured. Stallan beats it terribly.”

“This is not my wish. Command her to cease. Wait — I will do it myself. I want to hear more about this escape. How did it happen?”

“Only Stallan knows. She has told no one.”

“She will tell me,” Vaintè said, grim authority in her gesture.

When they reached the prison chamber they saw that the door was open and could hear the thudding sound of blows, the moans of pain, as they came down the corridor. “Stop,” Vaintè ordered, halting in the doorway, speaking the word with such strength that Stallan halted, her arm still raised, the blood-drenched leash in her hand.

At her feet Kerrick lay twisted in agony, his back raw bloody flesh, beaten half unconscious.

“Tend the creature,” Vaintè ordered and Enge rushed forward. “And you, put that thing down and give me an instant explanation.”

There was such certain death hovering behind her words that even the strong and fearless Stallan quavered before it. The leash fell from her powerless fingers: it took all of her will to force her body to answer. Knowing that Vaintè had but to speak the few words more and she was doomed.

“The creature escaped from me, ran. Very fast. No one could catch it. We followed it to the fields, keeping close behind it. But never close enough. It would have escaped had it not been caught by one of the traps placed around the fields to stop the ustuzou night raiders.”

“That close,” Vaintè said looking down at the small form. “These wild animals have abilities we are not aware of.” Her anger was dying away and Stallan quivered with relief. “But how did it escape?”

“I do not know, Eistaa. Or rather I know what happened but cannot explain it.”

“Try.”

“I shall. It walked beside me, obeying my commands. When we had gone some distance it stopped and raised its hands to the collar of this leash, choking and saying it was being strangled. This was possible. I reached to the collar but before I could touch it the ustuzou ran away. And it was not choking.”

“But it told you it was choking?”

“It did.”

Vaintè’s anger was gone now as she thought hard about what the hunter had said. “Were you not holding the leash?”

“I had released it when I reached for the collar. The beast was choking, it could not escape.”

“Of course. You did the only thing possible. But it was not choking. You are sure of that?”

“Positive. It ran a long way and breathed well. When it was captured the first thing I did was look at the collar. It was just as it had been when I put it on.”

“These things are unexplainable,” Vaintè said, looking down at the unconscious ustuzou. Enge was bent over it, cleaning the blood from its back and chest. Its eyes were discolored and bruised, there was blood upon its face as well. Surprising that it was alive after Stallan’s attention. The inescapable fact was that the collar had not been choking it. But it had said it was being choked. That was impossible. But it had happened.

Then Vaintè stiffened into immobility. It was a thought, an impossible thought, one that would never have occurred to a crude hunter like Stallan. Vaintè controlled the thought, held it at bay for the moment as she spoke rudely and stiffly.

“Leave at once.”

Stallan hurried out immediately, expressing relief and gratitude, knowing that her life was out of danger for the moment, happy to put everything that had happened out of her mind.

But not Vaintè. Enge’s back was still turned so she was able to seize the thought, examine it, and not be concerned about anyone observing her own thinking processes.

It was simply an impossible idea. But it had happened. One of the first things that she had learned in the science of thought was that when all other explanations have been rejected, the remaining explanation, no matter how illogical or apparently false, must be the only explanation.

The ustuzou had said the collar was choking it. The collar was not choking it.

The statement of a fact was not a fact.

The ustuzou had said a fact that was not a fact.

There was no word or expression for this in Yilanè so she must make one up. It was a lie. The ustuzou had lied.

No Yilanè could lie. There was only immobility, or lack of expression to conceal one’s thoughts. A statement was a thought and a thought was a statement. The act of speaking was one with the act of thinking.

But not with the ustuzou.

It could think one thing and speak another. It could appear quiet and docile, then say it was choking — when all of the time it was only thinking of escape. It could lie.

This creature must be kept alive, cherished, guarded — and prevented from escaping. The future was gray and formless and Vaintè was not sure of the details. But she knew with positive assurance that the ustuzou was her future. She would use it and its ability to lie. Use it to climb, use it to reach the summit of her ambitions.

But now she must put all thoughts of this impossible talent from her own mind. She must order things done so that none of the others should know. She would order all discussion of the escape forbidden. Should Stallan die? For a moment she considered it — then rejected it. The hunter was too valuable. Stallan would obey the order for silence, would enjoy obeying it since she would certainly remember how close she had been to death before Vaintè’s anger. When she had composed herself Vaintè drew Enge’s attention.

“Is the creature badly hurt?”

“I cannot tell. It is bruised and cut, but that could be all. See, it stirs, its eyes are open.”

Kerrick looked up blurredly at the two murgu standing above him. He had failed to escape, he hurt, and he had failed. There would be another time.

“Tell me what you feel,” Vaintè ordered, and he was surprised at the worry in her words.

“I hurt. All over.” He moved his arms and legs. “That is all. I hurt all over.”

“That is because you tried to escape,” Vaintè said. “You took your chance when Stallan let go of your leash. I will arrange matters in the future so that this will never happen again.”

Kerrick was not too tired or sore to notice the elision in Vaintè’s words, the obvious leaving out of a statement. Vaintè must know what he had said to Stallan to make her drop the leash. Enge did not notice, but he did. He saw that knowledge and wondered at it, then forgot it. He hurt too much.

One of Vanalpè’s students came and dressed his wounds — and after that he was left completely alone for many days while they healed. The student brought food every morning, then checked the progress of his healing. There were no more language lessons — nor did he have to suffer the attentions of the dreaded Stallan. His manacles were removed, but the door was always securely locked.

When the pain lessened enough he thought about his attempt to escape — and what had gone wrong. He would not be trapped that way next time. He would avoid the false vines, leap over them, and flee into the jungle.

Had he really seen the bearded face there among the leaves? Or was it just wishing, hoping, that had placed it there? He could not be sure. Maybe it was only his desire that someone be there, waiting. It did not matter. He did not need any help. Just the chance to run. The next time they would not stop him.

Day after slow day passed until his wounds had healed and the scabs had fallen away, leaving white scars in their place. The student still examined him closely every morning when she brought the food. When all the bruises on his skull were healed she brought the unutakh to remove the long stubble of hair that had grown. After this he became used to the creature’s slimy ministrations once again. The door was always sealed when the student was with him, and he could feel the ominous presence of Stallan on the other side of it. There was no escape that way. But they would not keep him in this chamber forever.

On the day the student came in, moving with excitement, he knew that something was going to happen. She washed him and carefully inspected his body, saw that his skin pouch was decently in place, then crouched and watched the door. Kerrick knew better than to ask the creature what was happening. She never spoke to him or answered his questions. So he sat back and looked at the entrance as well.

It was indeed an important day. When the door opened next Vaintè entered, followed by the waddling fat body of Zhekak. Fargi and aides followed them bearing containers.

“It has escaped once,” Vaintè said. “It must be arranged that it shall never happen again.”

“An interesting problem, Eistaa, and one that has given me many happy moments of contemplation. I believe that I have the answer, but I shall show you rather than tell you in the hopes that you will take pleasure from the revelation.”

“I take pleasure in any work of Zhekak’s,” Vaintè said formally, but allowed an extra feeling of satisfaction to show through. Zhekak waved a fargi over and took the container from her.

“This is very new,” she said, drawing out a length of flexible material. It was thin, darkish red in color — and immensely strong. Zhekak demonstrated that it could not be broken by having two fargi tug at the ends of it, struggling and slipping to the amusement of all. As a final test she took up a string-knife and pulled it back and forth across the taut length. When it was handed to Vaintè she looked close and saw that it had scored the shining surface, but no more than that. She expressed admiration — and puzzlement.

“I shall be happy to elucidate,” Zhekak said with immense self-esteem. “A string-knife, as you know, is a single long molecule. It cuts because of its small diameter, it is virtually unbreakable because of the strength of the intramolecular bonds. And here we have like attempting to cut like. The flexible length is made of fibers of molecular carbon grown in that medium. They, will bend but not break, and cannot be cut.”

Vaintè radiated approval. “So you have a leash that will certainly secure the beast. So I ask the next obvious questions. How do you fasten it to the ustuzou — and to what do you fasten the other end?”

Zhekak wriggled her soft flesh with pleasure. “Eistaa, you do understand these things so well. Here is the creature’s collar-to-be.”

An assistant produced a semi transparent, jellyfish object the length and thickness of her arm. It writhed sluggishly as Zhekak draped it about Kerrick’s neck. He disliked the cold touch of it but knew better than to protest in the slightest. Zhekak issued brisk orders as the assistant brushed the ends of the creature with some salve, then pressed them together to form a thick collar about Kerrick’s neck.

“Quickly!” Zhekak ordered, “the secretion process is beginning.”

With careful touch they looped the end of the leash about the creature, then pulled on it so that it sank into the thing’s transparent flesh, to the very center.

“Lean close, Eistaa,” Zhekak called out, “and you will see the process begin.”

The transparent flesh was beginning to discolor deep down, congealing about the alien object in its core.

“This animal is a simple metal secretor,” Zhekak said. “It is depositing molecules of iron about the flexible core. Soon it will stiffen and grow strong. We will feed the creature until a complete metal collar is formed about the ustuzou’s neck. A metal collar too strong to be broken or cut.”

“Admirable. But what will you affix to the other end?”

Zhekak’s pendant flesh wriggled with pleasure as she walked across the room to the watching fargi and pulled one forward. This creature was taller and wider than most; strong muscles rippled under her skin as she walked. Zhekak pinched one muscular arm between her thumbs and could not dent it.

“This fargi has served me many years and is the strongest I have ever found. She is barely able to talk, but she still does all the lifting and heavy work in the laboratory. She is yours now, Eistaa, for a more important service.” Zhekak’s little eyes, almost lost in the folds of flesh, looked around at her silent and expectant audience.

“This is what her service will be. A collar will be grown about her neck as well — with the other end of the lead firmly grown into it. The ustuzou and the fargi will be joined together for life like two fruits growing from the same bough!”

“Your mind is like the mind of no other,” Vaintè said, and all of the aides and assistants signaled agreement. “Joined together, forever inseparable. I am told our ustuzou runs very fast. Tell me, ustuzou, how far can you run pulling this little fargi?”

There was no answer to this so Kerrick was silent, while all of the others were much amused. He looked at the stupid features of the creature at the other end of the lead and felt nothing but burning hatred. Then he noticed that Vaintè was looking closely at him and he silently expressed resignation and acceptance. She approved.

“This fargi has a new name,” Vaintè said, and they all grew silent. “From this moment on she shall be named Inlènu* for her mighty body shall make the entire world a prison for the ustuzou. Do you know your name, strong one?”

“Inlènu*,” she said with great satisfaction, knowing that she had been named by the Eistaa herself and would now serve the Eistaa.

Kerrick’s posture of acceptance was as false as the pleasure of all the rest in the chamber was true. He reached out slowly with his toe and rolled it over the length of the lead where it lay on the floor, already thinking of possible ways to sever it.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Es mo tarril drepastar, er em so man drija.

If my brother is wounded, it is I who will bleed.

The evening sky was as red as fire behind the black outlines of the trees, while over the ocean the first bright stars had appeared, tharms of the strongest warriors. But the four men on the beach faced away from the stars, stared instead at the dark wall of the jungle before them, for they feared the unseen beasts that were hidden there. They crouched with their backs against the wooden side of their boat, taking some strength from its solidity. It had brought them here and would, they fervently hoped, take them safely away again from this place of many dangers.

Ortnar could no longer keep silent, and he spoke the thoughts of all of them.

“There could be murgu in there, watching us right now, ready to attack. We should not be here.” He chewed his lip with apprehension, his imagination filling the darkness with unseen dangers: he was a lean and nervous man much given to worry.

“Herilak told us to wait here,” Tellges said, and this decided the matter for him. He did not fear what he could not see, and much preferred taking orders to giving them. He would wait patiently until the sammadar returned.

“But he has been gone all day. He could be dead, eaten by the murgu.” Ortnar was possessed by the terror of his thoughts. “We should never have come this far south. We passed herds of deer, we could have hunted…”

“We hunt when we return,” Serriak said, catching some of Ortnar’s fear. “Now shut your mouth.”

“Why? Because I speak the truth, that is why. Because Herilak seeks revenge we will all die. We should not have come…”

“Be silent,” Henver said. “There is something moving along the beach.”

They crouched, spears ready, lowering them with relief only when Herilak’s silhouette was clear against the sky as he climbed the dune.

“You have been gone all day,” Ortnar said when the sammadar came close, the reproof clear in his voice. Herilak chose not to hear it, standing before them and leaning wearily on his spear.

“Bring me water,” he ordered, “then listen to what I have to say.” He drank thirstily, then dropped the gourd onto the sand and lowered himself beside it. When he spoke his voice was low and distant as he talked first of things they knew.

“The sammad of Amahast is no more, all killed, you saw their bones upon the shore. You see Amahast’s skymetal knife now around my neck and know that I took it from among his bones. What I found on that beach, among those skeletons, led me to believe that death came to them from the south. I chose you to come with me to find that death. I chose you because you are strong hunters. We have come south for many days, stopping only to kill for meat to fill our bellies. We have come south to the country of the murgu and have seen many of them. But yesterday we found something different. We found trails that were not animal trails. I followed those trails to wherie they led. I will tell you now what I found.”

There was something in Herilak’s voice that silenced them all, even Ortnar. The last light of sunset washed Herilak’s face as red as blood, a blood-mask that belonged with the anger that drew his lips back from his teeth, clenched his jaw so tightly that it now muffled his words.

“I have found the killers. Those paths were made by murgu, of a kind I have never seen before. There is a great nest of them out there where they teem like ants in an anthill. But they are not ants — or Tanu — although they stand erect on legs like Tanu. They are not any of the beasts we know, but are murgu of a new kind. They move over the water on the backs of creatures like boats and their nest is guarded by a wall of thorns. And they have weapons.”

“What are you saying?” There was terror in Ortnar’s voice, for Herilak spoke of nightmares come alive. “That there are murgu that walk like Tanu? Who have spears and bows and kill like Tanu? We must leave, now, quickly, before they reach us…”

“Silence.” There was grim command in Herilak’s voice. “You are a hunter, not a woman. If you show your fear the animals you hunt will know it and will laugh at you and all of your arrows will miss their mark.”

Even Ortnar knew that this was true and he bit his lips shut to assure his silence. If you spoke of deer, no matter how distant they were, they would hear you and flee. Worse still, if a hunter felt fear all the animals would know it and his stone points would never strike true. Ortnar felt the others turn away from him and knew that he had spoken too quickly without thinking. He took refuge in silence.

“These murgu are like Tanu but not like Tanu. I watched all day from hiding and saw them do many things that I did not understand. But I did see something that is a weapon, although it is not a spear or a bow. It is like a stick. A marag pointed one and there was a noise and I saw a deer fall dead.” His voice rose, challenging them to disbelieve him, but none spoke. “This is what I saw, although I cannot explain it. The stick-thing is a weapon and there are many murgu, many sticks. It is they who killed the sammad of Amahast.”

It was Tellges who broke the long silence that followed. He believed what Herilak had said, but he could not understand it all.

“These murgu that kill with noise-sticks. You can be sure they killed the sammad?”

“I can be sure.” Herilak’s voice was grim again with the portent of the words that he spoke. “I can be sure because they know of the Tanu. I can be sure of this because I saw them capture a boy of the Tanu. They know of us. We now know of them.”

“What do we do, Herilak?” Serriak asked.

“We return to the sammad because there are just the five of us against so many murgu that they cannot be counted. But we do not return with our hands empty. The Tanu must be warned of this danger, shown what the danger is.”

“And how will this be done?” Ortnar asked, and there was still a tremor of fear in his voice.

“I will think before I sleep and you will be told in the morning. Now we will all sleep because there is much to be done tomorrow.”

Herilak had not spoken the entire truth. He had already decided what must be done, but he did not want them awake and worrying about it all night. Particularly Ortnar. He was one of the best hunters — but he thought about things too much before they happened. Sometimes it was better not to think but simply to act.

At dawn they were awake and Herilak ordered all of their possessions packed into their boat, ready for launching.

“When we return,” he said, “we will want to leave without delay. It may be that we will be followed.” He smiled at the sudden apprehension on their faces. “It is only a small chance. If we do our work as hunters there will be no chance at all. Here is what we must do. We are going to find a small group of murgu who are not close to the others. Yesterday I saw groups like this. They were doing something. We will find them and then, unseen, we will slay them. All of them, in silence. If my brother is hurt, I will bleed. If my brother is killed, then death is mine to return. Now we leave.”

Herilak looked at their grim and silent faces, could see them weighing his words. What he had proposed was something new and dangerous. But they would be hunting and killing murgu, murgu that had attacked and slaughtered the entire sammad of Amahast. Had butchered the women and children, the mastodons, everything. When they thought of this the anger grew within them and they were ready. Herilak nodded and took up his weapons and they took up theirs as well and followed him into the jungle.

It was dark under the trees where the dense foliage blocked out the sun, but the trail was well-trodden and easy to follow. They went in silence, bright birds calling out above them in the canopy of the forest. More than once they stopped, spears ready, as something heavy and unseen crashed in the undergrowth nearby.

The trail they followed twisted up through sandy hillocks set with towering pine trees, fresh-smelling with the morning breeze rustling their needles above. Herilak raised his hand suddenly and they stopped in rigid silence. He raised his head and sniffed the air, then cocked his head to listen. They could all hear the sound now, a faint crackling like burning twigs, or waves upon a stony shore. They crept forward then, to a place where the trees opened out upon grassy meadows. Meadows filled with movement.

Murgu, a giant herd of them, stretching out into the distance. Four-legged, round, each twice as big as a man, small eyes rolling as they tore at the grass and pine-cones. One reared to seize a branch in its duck-like bill, sharp claws on its small forelegs, sharper claws on its long hindlegs. Herilak signaled a retreat; they would have to work their way around the herd. Before they could move there was a scream from the jungle and a great marag appeared among the trees, leaping forward onto one of the grazing beasts. It was armored and scaled, its teeth white daggers now dripping with blood. Its forelegs were tiny and useless — but the claws of its great hind legs tore the life from its prey. The rest of the herd squealed and ran; the hunters hurried on before the marag took notice of them as well.

The trail led down from the trees into low, brush-covered land. The ground was getting softer, water pushing up between their toes as they walked; the sun burned on their backs while here in the open, away from the shelter of the forest, the damp heat was suffocating. They were running with sweat, panting for air, by the time Herilak signaled a halt.

“Up ahead, do you see it?” He spoke so quietly that they could barely make out his words. “That open stretch of water. That is where I saw them. Go forward in silence and do not show yourselves.’

They moved like shadows. No blade of grass rustled, no leaf moved to show that they had passed. One by one they slid up to the water’s edge where they peered unseen from the darkness. Then there was the quiet gasp of indrawn breath from one of the hunters; Herilak scowled in his direction.

Although the sammadar had told them what he had seen, and of course they had believed him, the reality was another thing altogether. They could only watch in horrified silence as the two dark forms slid silently through the water towards them. The first of them came close, passed by before the concealed hunters.

A boat — but not a boat — for it moved without oars. It had been decorated with a large shell at the front. No, not decorated, the shell grew there, was part of the living creature that was the boat itself. And on its back it carried other creatures, murgu. They could only be the ones that Herilak had told them of. But his words had not prepared them for the disgusting reality. Like deformed Tanu they stood erect, or unlike Tanu squatted back on their thick tails. Some of them held strange objects, while others had long dark sticks that must be the weapons Herilak had described. The hunters watched in frozen silence while the creatures passed, not a short arrow flight away. One of them was making clacking, growling sounds. Everything about the scene was alien and repellent.

Then the dark forms were past, had stopped on the far bank and the murgu were climbing ashore.

“You have seen,” Herilak said. “It is as I told you. They did this same thing yesterday, then they returned. Now you must move without being seen and find places along the bank where there is space to draw your bows. Lay your arrows on the ground before you. Wait in silence. When they return I will give the order to be ready. Choose your targets. Wait. Bend your bows but do not loose your arrows. Wait. When I give the command — kill them all. Not one must escape to warn the others. Is this understood?”

He looked at each grim, set face, and each hunter nodded agreement. In silence they took their positions, then in silence, unmoving, they waited. The sun rose high, the heat was intense, the insects bit and their mouths were dry with thirst. Yet no one moved. They waited.

The murgu were doing strange, incomprehensible things, while making loud animal sounds at the same time. They were either still as stones or twitching with repulsive movements. This went on for an unbearably long time.

Then ended as suddenly as it had begun. The murgu were putting their artifacts onto the living boats, then boarding them. The ones with the killing-sticks, obviously acting as guards, went first. They pushed off.

The birds were silent in the heat of the day, the only sound the ripple of water around the shell bows of the approaching creatures. Closer they came, and still closer, until the colored details of their scaled skins were repulsively clear. They were close to the bank, coming even with the unseen hunters, passing…

“Now.”

Strum of bowstrings, hiss of arrows. A murgu screamed hoarsely, the only one to utter a sound, then was silenced as a second arrow caught it in the throat.

Arrows had plunged as well into the dark hides of the living boats; they heaved in the water, spun about, the bodies of the dead murgu spilling from them. There was another loud splash as Herilak dived into the water and swam to the massacre. He returned dragging one of the bodies after him, was helped from the water by ready hands.

They turned the marag over, stared into the sightless eyes, prodded it unbelievingly with their bows.

“It was well done,” Herilak said. “All dead. Now we leave — and we take this with us.” He held out one of the killing-sticks. “We also take the body.”

They gaped in silence, not understanding. Herilak’s answering smile was the smile of death.

“Others must see what we have seen. They must be warned. We take this corpse with us in the boat. We row all this day and all of the night if we must. We get far away from this place and the murgu. Then, before this marag stinks too much, we flay it.”

“Good,” Tellges said. “Take the skull too. Cure the hide and take it with us.”

“That is correct,” Herilak said. “There will be no doubt then, none at all. Every Tanu who sees these things we have brought will then know what we have seen.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The model had a practical purpose, was indeed essential to the planning and design of the city. But like all things Yilanè it had to have a functional gestalt of its own, a completeness that went far beyond actual necessity. A chart could have been made that would serve the same purpose well enough, just as charts were used for navigation of the uruketo. But charts were used there only because of the shortage of space. In that particular case necessity demanded charts so the pragmatic answer was to make charts. Since no such restriction existed in the city, a scale model of Alpèasak was constructed that was essential for future planning, yet was also pleasing to behold.

Vaintè walked slowly around it, immensely satisfied. It was much improved since Sokain had come from Inegban* with her trained assistants. They had fleshed out the details that had only been indicated by the field surveyors. Now tiny stunted trees formed the heart of the city, surrounding the small opening of the ambesed. When Vaintè bent close to look there was the golden crescent of the birth beaches, complete down to the wall of thorns.

Alakensi was of course right behind her, a constant reminder that Malsas‹ would be getting reports on every detail of her movements and decisions, a nagging presence that dulled the pleasure of everything. Kerrick came next in line, as he did all of the time now. He was feeling even more excited interest than Vaintè, though he was careful not to reveal this in any way. This was the first time he had seen this model; he had not even known of its existence until this moment. He must study it, try to memorize it all. Then, when he escaped from the city, he would know just what course to take to safety. As he moved so did Inlènu*, a few steps behind him, holding up a loop of the lead that bound them together. Kerrick was so used to her presence now that he usually forgot all about her. She was just an inescapable fact of life — like the metal collar that rested about his neck. When he stopped she stopped, her back turned, not listening to anything being said, thinking her own placid thoughts until a tug on the lead stirred her to life again.

There was only a narrow walkway around the model, so the ever-attentive fargi were forced to remain outside, straining to see in through the doorway, telling each other how wonderful the model was, admiring the size of the transparent ceiling that filtered the sunlight to a golden glow.

Vaintè had reached the far side of the model now where Sokain was working with her assistants. Vaintè was upon them before Sokain was aware of her presence.

“Welcome, Eistaa, welcome,” she said hurriedly standing up, speaking, brushing mud from her knees — and holding onto a bulbous orange creature at the same time.

“Do not let me disturb your work,” Vaintè said.

“It is completed. The transfer of measurements has been made.”

“And this is what you use,” Vaintè pointed to the orange animal. “I have never seen a creature of this kind before.”

Sokain held out the orange chiton case for Vaintè’s inspection. Other than a tiny mouth and sealed eyes it was featureless, except for a tube on top and a number of indentations down the side.

“Explain,” Vaintè ordered, for as Eistaa there was no small detail of the city that she must not know. Sokain pointed to the bare ground where the model was being enlarged, to small slivers of wood that had been pushed into it.

“Those bits of wood correspond to the stakes we used in the survey. When we are in the field I place this measuring creature upon a marked spot in the ground and look through this tube at a stake which is a certain distance away. When this is done I press the indentations to inform the instrument to remember the angle and distance. I then turn the tube to another stake and do the same. This is done many times. When I return to the model the instrument-creature informs us of the scaled down distance between stakes and of the correct angles between them as well. The result — this model.”

“Excellent. What are these curved channels you have scribed in the soil?”

“Waterways, Eistaa. On this side of the city we have found a great deal of swamp. We are now plotting its extent.”

Vaintè displayed concern. “We need many more fields. Can these swamps be drained or filled?”

“I do not think so. But Akasest, who has improved the quality of the feed for the herds, has examined them as well and we are now planning to create enclosures there. There are many amphibious species, such as the urukub, that will thrive in that environment.”

“A satisfactory solution and utilization of the environment. You are both to be commended.”

“Our pleasure is to serve Alpèasak,” Sokain said formally, expressing great personal pleasure at the same time.

Much later, Vaintè was to remember this conversation, for it was the last time that she was ever to speak to the surveyor.

Like all of her days, this was a full one. As the city expanded so did the work — and with it the decisions that had to be made. By the time that the shadows were getting long she became aware of her fatigue and waved the attentive fargi away, then signaled Kerrick for a drinking fruit. There was one attached to a saptree close by and he prodded the green bulb until the suckers let go. He brought it to Vaintè who opened its orifice and drank the cool, sweet water inside. When she lowered it she saw Stallan hurrying across the ambesed, shouldering fargi aside in her haste. Vaintè knew that there was trouble, knew it as clearly as if the hunter had spoken aloud.

“Tell me,” Vaintè ordered as Stallan hurried up.

“The survey party, Sokain and her assistants, they have not returned — and it is almost nightfall.”

“Have they been this late before?”

“No. My orders are specific. There is a party of armed guards with them who bring them back at this time each day.”

“Then this is the first time that they have not returned at the specified time?”

“Yes.”

“What can be done?”

“Nothing until morning.”

Vaintè was possessed by a sense of disaster, and all those present shared it. “I will want a very large armed party ready to leave at dawn. I will lead it.”

Vaintè was awake when the first light filtered through the trees. Fargi were sent to summon Kerrick. He yawned and stretched and followed after the Eistaa, still not completely awake. Vaintè had not summoned Alakensi but she came along as well. Eager as always to see anything that she might report on to Malsas‹. Stallan and the armed guards were already boarding the boats when they arrived at the river’s edge. This was not Kerrick’s first ride in a boat, but he still found the creatures fascinating. This one had just been fed and the legs and tail of a baby alligator were still hanging from its mouth. The creature’s little eyes, set under the shell, bulged slightly as the wet skin contracted with effort and the rest of the alligator vanished from sight. He climbed aboard with the others. The pilot bent and shouted a command into the boat’s ear opening. The flesh beneath them began to pump rhythmically and jet out water. The small flotilla moved out into the stream beneath the blood-red dawn sky.

Stallan was in the lead boat, showing the way. Fields moving slowly by on each side, the animals there either fleeing from them, or looking on with gross stupidity at their passage. Beyond the drained fields were carefully preserved and fenced areas of swamp. Large trees that were well-rooted in the mud had been left standing and were connected by the living fence. This had been grown in place, vines that were both flexible and strong. They had to be, for the urukub inside were the largest creatures on earth. Their immense forms sent waves of water surging through the fences when they moved; their tiny heads seemed grotesquely small on the ends of their long necks. They browsed the trees above, dredged deep in the swamp below for underwater plants.

One of their young, already bigger than a mastodon, cried out shrilly as it splashed and swam to safety when the boats passed close. Kerrick had never been to this part of the city before so he carefully memorized the course that they were following.

When they had passed the last field the uncleared swamp began; Stallan led the small flotilla into a narrow channel. Tall trees rose up on all sides, their water roots lifting high above the boats. Flowers grew in great profusion here, white moss hung from the boughs above. Biting insects rose in clouds and Kerrick slapped at the ones that landed on him and began to regret that he had come on this trip. Not that there had been any choice.

They went slower now, wending their way through ever narrower channels, until Stallan finally signalled a stop.

“This is where they were working,” she called out.

The silence closed in when Stallan stopped speaking. A bird flew by overhead cackling loudly, but there was no other sound. Nor was there anything to see. The guards clutched at their weapons, looking about in all directions. Nothing. It was Vaintè who broke the deadly silence.

“They must be found. Spread out through these channels. Stay alert.”

Kerrick had good eyesight and caught the movement first.

“There!” he called out. “In that waterway. I saw something move.”

Every weapon was pointed that way in an instant, until Stallan commanded them to be raised.

“You will be shooting and killing each other. Or me. I’m going in there. Point your hèsotsan some other way.”

Her boat slipped forward slowly, Stallan standing with one foot on the thing’s shell, peering ahead into the leaf-shrouded darkness.

“It’s all right,” she called back. “It’s one of our own boats.” Then, after a long moment of silence, she added reluctantly, “It’s empty.”

The other boat shivered when her boat bumped against it, shivered even more when Stallan jumped into it. It took shouted commands, and a good kicking, before the boat backed away from the bank. As it approached the other boats Stallan was silent — but her pointing finger was explanation enough.

There was something stuck into the boat’s thick hide. Stallan reached down and pulled it free and the boat quivered with pain. Kerrick felt his heart beat loudly in his chest as Stallan held the object out for them to see.

A Tanu arrow!

Stallan dipped the arrow in the river to wash it clean, then leaned out and handed it to Vaintè. She turned it over and over in her hands, reading a detestable message there that arched her thick body with anger and detestation. When she looked up at Kerrick he cowered back as though from a blow.

“You recognize this, don’t you? I also know what it is. An ustuzou artifact with a sharp tip of stone. There are more of your disgusting ustuzou out there. We did not kill them all. But we will now. Kill them all, every one. Find them and slaughter them. This land of Gendasi is large, but not large enough to hide your ustuzou. It will be Yilanè or ustuzou — and it will be Yilanè who prevail.

There were hisses of agreement from all who heard her and Kerrick felt a sudden fear that he would be the first to be killed. Vaintè raised the arrow to throw it far from her, then lowered it and grew silent. Then she looked at Kerrick with a sudden new interest.

The deaths of Sokain and the others would now have a purpose, she thought. She sat silent and unmoving for a long time, not seeing Alakensi or any of the others, but looking into a distance at something visible only to her. They waited patiently until she moved again and spoke.

“Stallan, you will search until you are sure that all those missing are gone. Return before dark. I am going back to the city now. My duty is there.”.

She sat in immobile silence all of the way back to Alpèasak. She had to. Her plan was finished and complete and if she dared move at all everyone would read it clearly. Only when they were at the dock and climbing back onto the shore did she move. Her eyes slipped across Alakensi’s broad back, hesitated a second and moved on.

The plan was indeed made.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

No trace of the surveying party was ever found. The arrow was grim evidence of their fate. Vaintè went alone to her chamber where she put it away with the other ustuzou artifacts that they had captured, in the chests that grew from the walls. Then she sat on her seat of power and sent for Vanalpè and Stallan, who arrived with the ever-present Alakensi close behind her. Kerrick looked in as well, but fled at her gesture. She could not bear the thought of an ustuzou presence now. The three of them conferred for a long time with Stallan about the security of the city. There would be more traps, more guards — but no more survey parties for the time being. After this she dismissed them and called in one of the fargi she had recently promoted to assist her, the one who could speak the best.

“The uruketo will be here soon. When it leaves I want you to leave with it. I want you to return to Inegban* and seek out Malsas‹. You are to tell her what I will now tell to you. You will tell her in exactly the way I tell you. Do you understand?”

“I do, Eistaa. I will do as you command.”

“Here is the message. Greetings, Malsas‹, I bring you a message from Vaintè in Alpèasak. This is a sad and anger-filled message of great concern. Some are dead. Sokain is dead. She and the other Yilanè were killed by ustuzou, the same kind of ustuzou who slaughtered on the birth beaches. We did not see them but our knowledge is certain. We found a weapon of wood and stone of the kind that they use. These ustuzou must be found and killed. They lurk invisible in the jungles around Alpèasak. They must be found, they must be killed. All killed. When the uruketo returns to Alpèasak I ask you to send many fargi in it who can shoot well, with hèsotsan and supplies of darts. I feel it imperative that this be done. The fate of Alpèasak depends on the ustuzou deaths.”

Then Vaintè grew silent, oppressed by the truth and the darkness of her own words, while the fargi swayed before her with fear at the terrible message she must carry. But Vaintè had the strength to push the darkness aside and she did so, then ordered the fargi to recite the message back to her until it was perfect.

The morning after the uruketo left Vaintè went to her chamber and sent for Kerrick. Many days had passed since he had last been in her presence and he approached her with a certain amount of fear. There was no need. Vaintè had many important things on her mind now, he could tell that at a single glance, and actually seemed pleased at his presence.

“Inlènu*,” she called out, and the great creature shambled forward obediently. “You are to stand in the entrance, fill it with your body and no matter who approaches you will send them away. Do you understand?”

“They go away.”

“Yes, but say it strongly like this. Go away, Vaintè commands. Say it.”

“Go away, Vaintè commands.”

“That is correct. Now do it.”

Inlènu* made a good guardian; there was a scurry of running feet at her ominous presence. Vaintè turned to Kerrick and spoke as Eistaa issuing orders.

“You will now tell me everything about the ustuzou, your kind of ustuzou. Speak.”

“I do not understand the meaning of the Eistaa’s words.”

Vaintè saw his fear and confusion and realized that the question was too general. She must be more specific. “What is the name of your ustuzou city?”

“Ustuzou do not have cities. This is the first city I have ever seen. Ustuzou live in…”He searched his memory in vain. It had been so long since he had heard or spoken Marbak that the words would not come. He fell back on description. “Soft structures made of skins, hung over poles. These come apart and the poles are pulled by… large animals with hair.”

“Why do they come apart? Why do they move?”

Kerrick shrugged, then wriggled with the effort to put together bits of faded memory. “That is just the way that it is done. You hunt one place, fish another. That is just the way it is done.”

Continued questioning elicited few more answers. The ustuzou seemed to live in groups, like the group they had slaughtered, and there were other groups, but no indication of how many. The unused memories of the boy were vague and uncertain. Vaintè finally had enough of the questioning and stopped it with a single gesture. Now came the important part. She would use fear and reward, train this ustuzou to do what must be done. Her manner changed and she spoke now as Eistaa, she who controlled the life of the city and its inhabitants.

“I can kill you or have you killed at any instant — you know that.”

“I know that.” He trembled with supplication, confused by the sudden change of tone.

“I can also raise you up, see that you are honored and do not always remain an ustuzou, lowest of the low. You would like that, wouldn’t you? To sit by me, to command others to labor for you. I can do that for you — but you in turn must do something for me. Something that only you can do. You “must do for me the thing that only you can do.”

“I will do what you ask, Eistaa, but I do not understand what you are saying. I do not know what you are talking about.”

“It is what you do when you speak of one thing and think another. It is what you did to Stallan. You told her you were choking and you were not.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Kerrick said, radiating stupidity and lack of knowledge, innocence. Vaintè moved with joy.

“Wonderful! You are doing it now. You are doing the thing where you talk about things that didn’t happen as though they did happen. Admit it — or I will kill you on the spot.”

He quailed at the abrupt change in Vaintè’s mood, the motion of killing with her mouth open, her face close to his, those rows of deadly teeth just before him. “I did that thing, yes, I admit it. I did it to escape.”

“Very good.” She stepped back and the moment of danger was past. “This thing that you do, that no Yilanè can do, we will call it lying. I knew that you lied, and I also know that you will undoubtedly lie to me in the future. I cannot prevent it — but Inlènu* will see to it that your lies will not permit you to escape. Now that we know that you lie, we will put that lying to good use. You will lie for me. You will do that for me.”

“I will do what the Eistaa orders,” Kerrick said, not understanding, but quick to agree.

“That is correct. You will do as I order. You will never speak of this order — for if you do you are dead. Now — here is the lie you must speak, and you must speak it in a very excited way. You must say — ‘There, in the trees, an ustuzou, I saw it!’ Those are the words. Now repeat them.”

“There in the trees I saw an ustuzou.”

“Good enough. Do not forget that. And speak it only when I order you to. I will make a motion like this.”

Kerrick agreed happily. It was easy enough to do, though he could not see the reason for it. The threats had been real enough though so he made a special effort not to forget the words and the sign, muttering them to himself as he walked away through the city.

Many days had passed since Kerrick had last seen Enge. He rarely even thought of her now for his new-found freedom occupied every moment of his waking day. At first he had been hesitant to venture out alone and even took pleasure in the dumb presence of Inlènu* as some measure of security. When he did leave his room he very quickly discovered how stratified Yilanè social structure really was. He quickly came to understand that his position was somewhere near the top, since he was seen often in the Erstaa’s presence, sitting close to her. For the nameless fargi this was evidence enough of how high he ranked above them and, crude as it was, this respect was represented in the way they addressed him.

When he walked through the green corridors he saw how those fargi with the intelligence and ability to master their language were quickly slotted into city life. They became guards, food preparers, slaughterers, work gang supervisors, agriculturists, a wealth of occupations about which he knew little. With these Yilanè he spoke in a neutral manner, taking them as equals, or slightly lower, and this was readily accepted.

Respectful speaking he saved for those who were the leaders. Their position was obvious, though what they did was not always as clear, since they were trailed by aides and assistants, these followed in turn by fargi eager to be called upon, anxious to find a fixed status in the order of the city.

With so much to see Kerrick had very little time to miss Enge’s daily visits. The city was an ant’s nest of industry and occasionally he wished that she were there to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of life in Alpèasak. He asked after her a few times, but the curt dismissal of his question taught him not to follow that subject any further. But the response made him curious. When Enge and Vaintè had talked together it had been as equals. So why this bias against even mentioning her name? He considered, then rejected, questioning Vaintè about her whereabouts. The Eistaa made it very clear that she was the one who began and terminated conversations.

He saw Enge again strictly by chance. He was near the ambesed, where Vaintè had dismissed him from her presence, when there was a stirring of excitement among the fargi. They were asking questions of each other and all hurrying in the same direction. Curious, he followed after them just in time to see four Yilanè go by, carrying a fifth one. He could not get close in the press and decided not to draw any attention by ordering them aside. He was about to leave when the same four Yilanè returned, walking slowly now, mouths agape. Their skins were splotched with dirt, their legs caked with red mud. Then Kerrick saw that one of them was Enge. He called out and she turned to face him. She was attentive, but did not speak.

“Where have you been?” he asked. “I have not seen you.”

“My language skills are no longer needed, so my meetings with you are ended. I work now in the new fields.”

“You?” There was astonishment, even dismay, lack of understanding with the word.

“I.” The other three had stopped when she did and she signaled them to continue on, asking Kerrick to do the same. “I must return to work.”

She turned away and he hurried up beside her. There was a mystery here that he dearly wanted to solve, but he did not know how to begin.

“The one that you carried here. What happened?”

“A serpent bite. There are many where we work.”

“Why you?” They were not overheard now as they walked; the plodding Inlènu* did not count. “You talk to the Eistaa as one equal to another. Yet you now do work better done by the lowest fargi. Why?”

“The reason is not easy to tell. And I have been forbidden by the Eistaa to speak of it to any Yilanè.”

Even as she spoke the words Enge realized the ambiguity of meaning that they contained. Kerrick was not a Yilanè. She indicated Inlènu*. “Order that one to walk ahead of us, to follow those three.” As soon as this had been done Enge turned to Kerrick and spoke with an intensity he had never seen before.

“I am here, these others are here, because we have strong personal beliefs that those who rule do not agree with. We have been ordered to abandon them — but we cannot. For once you have discovered the truth you cannot turn away from it.”

“What truth are you talking about?” Kerrick asked in puzzlement.

“The burning, disturbing truth that the world and all things in it contain more than can be easily seen. Do you ever think of these things?”

“No,” he answered quite honestly.

“You should. But you are young — and not a Yilanè. I have puzzled about you since you first started to speak, and your existence is still a puzzle to me. You are not a Yilanè, yet you are not a bestial ustuzou since you can speak. I don’t know what you are or how you fit into the scheme of greater things.”

Kerrick was beginning to be sorry that he had found Enge. Little of what she said made any sense to him. But now that she was speaking, for her own benefit more than his, she could not be stopped.

“Our belief must be true because there is a power in it that passes the comprehension of the nonbeliever. It was Ugunenapsa who came first to this understanding, spent her life ordering her mind, forcing herself to understand. To bring a new thing into the world where none had been before. She talked to others about her belief and they laughed at her. Word reached the Eistaa of her city about her strange ways and she was called before the Eistaa who commanded her to speak. And she did. She spoke of the thing within all of us that cannot be seen, the thing that enables us to speak and separates us from the unthinking animals. Animals do not have the thing within which is why they cannot speak. Therefore speaking is the voice of the thing within and that thing within is life and the knowledge of death. Animals have no knowledge of life or death. They are, then they aren’t. But the Yilanè know — and now you know. Which is the great puzzle that I must grapple with. Who are you? What are you? Where do you fit into the design?”

Enge turned to face Kerrick, looked into his eyes as though she might find the answer to her question there. But there was nothing that he could say in answer, and she realized that.

“Someday you may know,” she said. “Now you are too young. I strongly doubt if you can comprehend the wonder of the vision that Ugunenapsa had, a vision of a truth that she could explain to others. And the proof as well! For she angered the Eistaa who ordered her to set aside these false beliefs and live as all Yilanè have done since the egg of time. Ugunenapsa refused and thereby put her beliefs ahead of her city and the commands of her Eistaa. The Eistaa saw disobedience and stripped her of her name, ordered her from the city. Do you know what this means? No, you cannot. A Yilanè cannot live without her city and her name once she has attained it. To leave is to die. Since the egg of time a Yilanè turned away from her city has suffered a deadly change. The rejection is so strong that the Yilanè collapses instantly, quickly falls unconscious and soon dies. It was always that way.”

Enge was possessed now of a strange humor, something between elation and delight. She halted and took Kerrick lightly by both arms and looked into his eyes, trying to convey what she felt.

“But Ugunenapsa did not die. There was a new thing in the world with proof undeniable. And since that day this truth has been proven time and time again. I was ordered from Inegban*, ordered to die — and I did not. None of us died, which is why we are here. They call us the Daughters of Death because they say that we have a pact with death. That is not true. We call ourselves the Daughters of Life and that is true. Because we live where others die.”

Kerrick wriggled free of her cool and gentle grasp, turning away, lying. “I have come too far. I am forbidden to be here in the fields.” He tugged on his leash, avoiding the intensity of her gaze. “Inlènu*, we return.”

Enge watched in silence as he left, then turned back to the fields. Kerrick looked behind him then and saw her plod slowly down the dusty track. He shook his head with mystification and wondered what she had been talking about. Then he noticed the orange trees nearby and pulled Inlènu* that way. His throat was dry and the sun was hot and he had not understood one word in ten that Enge had said. He had no way of knowing that her beliefs were the first rift ever torn in the millions of years of Yilanè homogeneity. To be Yilanè was to live as Yilanè. Nothing else had been comprehensible. Until now.

There were armed guards posted here, and about the entire city, who looked at him curiously as he pulled the ripe oranges from the tree. These guards provided daytime security, while larger and stronger traps were positioned to block entry by night. But in the days to come the guards saw nothing — while the traps merely collected a great assortment of animals of all kinds. The ustuzou killers never returned.

In all the time that it took for the uruketo to cross the ocean to Inegban* and return there were no further attacks on the city. When the uruketo did arrive Vaintè and her retinue were waiting as the great beast was secured to the land. It was the commander, Erafnais, who was first ashore, pausing before Vaintè and formally acknowledging her high station.

“I bring a personal message from Malsas‹, Eistaa, who is much concerned about the ustuzou atrocity. I have private words for you, but she also commanded me to speak aloud of the need for vigilance and strength — and the destruction of the ustuzou. To that end she has sent her best hunters, with hèsotsan and darts, and the will to destroy the menace completely.”

“We are all of a like mind,” Vaintè said. “Walk beside me as we go for I want to hear all the news of Inegban*.”

There was indeed news, and, in the privacy of Vaintè’s quarters, Erafnais related it to her, with Alakensi the only other present.

“The winter has been mild. Some animals have been lost, but the weather has been better than in other years. That is the day side of what I have to tell you. The night side is that there has been disaster among the uruketo. More than half are dead. They grew too fast, there was a weakness. Other uruketo are being bred. But the citizens of Inegban* will not come to Alpèasak this summer or the next or next again.”

“These are hard words you bring,” Vaintè said. Alakensi also motioned her unhappiness. “And all the more need to exterminate the ustuzou. But you must return with word of our growth to take the bitter taste of the other words from your mouth. You must see the model. Alakensi, order a fargi to have Stallan attend us there at once.”

Alakensi did not enjoy being ordered about like a fargi, but concealed her resentment and turned away to pass on the order. When they reached the model Stallan was already there.

Alpèasak had not grown since Sokain’s death, but its defenses had hardened. Stallan pointed out the newly grown thorn hedges and guard stations where armed Yilanè were now posted day and night.

“What good can a guard be at night?” Alakensi asked in her petulant way. Stallan’s answer was formal and clear.

“Very little. But they are protected, there are heaters and cloaks so they rest well. Nor must they walk the long way from the city and back each day. At dawn they are watching, and still on guard at sunset.”

“I feel the resources could be used more wisely,” Alakensi said, unconvinced. Vaintè took a middle path, which was unusual for she usually ignored Alakensi when she spoke.

“Perhaps Alakensi is right. We must be sure. We will see for ourselves, you as well, Erafhais, so you can tell Malsas‹ of our defenses when you return.”

They straggled through the city in a ragged column, with Stallan and Vaintè in the lead, the others following behind in order of rank. Kerrick — with the ever-present Inlènu* beside him — walked just behind the commander of the uruketo. The aides and fargi followed after. Because of the rain Vaintè and some of the others were wrapped in cloaks. But the rain was warm so Kerrick did not use a cloak, but enjoyed the feel of it upon his skin.

He also took careful note of the path they used, through the fields and the living gates. Someday he would come this way alone. He did not know how he would do it, but it would be done.

The group of trees was near the forest, at the edge of the final field. As they drew close it could be seen that vines and thornbushes encircled the grove, leaving only a single entrance to the strongpoint. Stallan pointed out the Yilanè with a hèsotsan, on a platform above. “When they watch, none shall pass,” she said.

“It appears satisfactory,” Vaintè said, turning to Alakensi and receiving a reluctant agreement to her request for an opinion. She then started past the grove and Stallan requested her to stop.

“There are creatures of all kinds out there. You must let guards precede you.”

“Agreed. But I am Eistaa and go where I wish in Alpèasak. With my advisors. You may keep the rest of the group back here.”

They only proceeded when a line of attentive guards, guns ready, went cautiously on ahead of them. On the far side of the grove Stallan pointed out the traps and defenses.

“You have done well,” Vaintè said. Alakensi started to disagree but Vaintè ignored her, turning to Erafhais instead. “Bring word of all this to Malsas‹ when you return. Alpèasak is guarded and in no danger.”

She turned about and in the moment when only Kerrick could see her she signaled to him to speak — intensifying the order when he gaped. Then he understood.

“There!” He called out loudly. “There in the trees. I see an ustuzou.”

The urgency of his words was such that all turned, all looked. In that moment, when everyone’s attention was focused on the trees, Vaintè let her cloak drop to the ground. Held beneath it was the stone-tipped, wooden arrow.

Grasping it firmly with both hands she turned slightly and plunged it into Alakensi’s chest.

Only Kerrick saw, only his attention was not upon the trees. Alakensi clutched at the shaft with her thumbs, her eyes open wide with horror, opened her mouth to speak — then slumped and fell.

Kerrick realized then what his lie was for. And he improved upon it instantly.

“An ustuzou arrow, it came from the trees. It has hit Alakensi!”

Vaintè stepped aside, body rigid, as the excitement swirled about her.

“An arrow from the trees,” Inlènu* called out; she usually repeated what she heard. Others said the same and the fact was established. The word was the deed, the deed the word. Alakensi’s body was rushed away, Stallan and Erafhais hurried Vaintè to safety.

Kerrick came last. He looked one more time at the jungle wall, so close yet infinitely distant, then plucked the lead secured to the collar about his neck and Inlènu* came obediently after him.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Vaintè stayed alone in her chamber, grieving for the death of the loyal Alakensi. That is what Kerrick told the anxiously awaiting Yilanè when he emerged. She would see no one. They all sorrowed as they left. He was such an excellent liar. Vaintè marveled at his talent as she looked out and listened through a small gap in the leaves, and knew that this was indeed the weapon she had always desired. She stayed away now from the sight of others because victory and joy were in every muscle of her body when she moved. But none saw her move for she did not appear in public until well after the uruketo had gone. By that time she no longer mourned the dead Alakensi, for this was not the Yilanè way. Whoever or whatever Alakensi had been, she no longer was. Her dead body was no longer hers and had been disposed of by the lowest fargi whose occupation that was. Vaintè was triumphant. The lives of those still living would continue — would do more than continue, would blossom as they were soon to find out.

Vaintè issued the orders and those who led in the city came to attend her. Kerrick stood back and watched because he felt that something momentous was in the air, could detect this just from the stance of Vaintè’s body. She welcomed each of them by name when they arrived, something she had never done before.

“Vanalpè, you who grew this city from a seed, you are here. Stallan who defends us from the perils of this world, you are here. Zhekak, whose science serves us all, Akasest who supplies our food, you are here.”

She named them all this way, until they were assembled, the small and important group who were the leaders of Alpèasak. They listened in motionless silence when Vaintè spoke to them all.

“Some of you have been in this city since the first landings on the first day, before the city existed, while some arrived later on as I did. But now all of you work hard to bring honor and growth to Alpèasak. You will have heard of the shame I found on the day I arrived in this city, the murders of the males and the young. We have purged that crime, the ustuzou who did it are safely dead, and it shall never happen again. Our birth beaches are secure, guarded, warm — and empty.”

As she spoke the words clearly and precisely a ripple of motion swept the listeners as though an unseen wind had passed over them. Only Kerrick was unmoved, as attentively silent as they were, waiting frozen for Vaintè’s next words.

“Yes, you are right. The time has come. The golden sands must be filled with fat and torpid males. Now is the time. Now we begin.”

Kerrick had never seen such excitement in all of his days in Alpèasak. There was loud talking and much laughter as they walked, faster than they usually walked, and he followed after in much puzzlement as they went through the city to the entrance to the hanalè, the sealed area where the males lived. The guardian, Ikemend, stepped aside at their approach with expressive movements of great welcome as they went through the entrance. Kerrick started after them but was jerked to a halt by the iron collar about his neck. Inlènu* stood as silent and immobile as a rock as he tugged on the lead that joined them. Behind his back there was a thud as the door was locked and sealed.

“What is it, what is happening? Speak, I order you,” he said, most irritated.

Inlènu* turned round and empty eyes upon him. “Not us,” she said, then repeated it. “Not us.” Nor could he force her to say any more. He thought about this strange occurrence for some time, but after awhile he forgot the incident, put it aside as just one more inexplicable happening in, this city of many secrets.

Bit by bit his exploration of Alpèasak continued, for he was curious about everything. Since everyone knew that he sat close to the Eistaa all of the time there were none to bar his way. He did not attempt to leave the city, the guards and Inlènu* would have prevented that, but he wandered everywhere else. This was natural to him for children in the sammad had done the same thing. But now he remembered less and less of his former existence; certainly there was nothing to remind him of that earlier life. Before very long he had adapted to the oceanic pace of Yilanè existence.

Each day began in the same manner. With first light the city stirred to life. Like the others Kerrick washed himself, but unlike them he was thirsty in the morning — hungry as well. The Yilanè ate but once in the day, sometimes even missing days, and drank their fill at the same time. This was not his way. He would always drink deeply from the water-fruit, perhaps in unconscious memory of his brief days as a hunter. Then he would eat the fruit that he had put aside the evening before. If there were other matters of importance he would order a fargi to do this task, get the fruit for him, but he tried to do it himself whenever possible. The fargi, no matter how carefully he instructed them, would always return with damaged and rotten fruit. To them it was all the same, fodder for animals — creatures who ate what they were given regardless of its condition. In fact, if there were any fargi present when he was eating, they would gather around, watching with dumb intensity, speaking among themselves and trying to understand what he was doing. The more adventurous would taste the fruit — then spit it out, which the others always thought was most amusing. At first Kerrick tried to dismiss the fargi, was annoyed at their constant presence, but they would always return. In the end he suffered their attentions, was scarcely aware of it like the other Yilanè, dismissing them only when something private and important had to be discussed.

Slowly he began to see through the apparent disorder of Alpèasak to the natural order and controls that ruled everything. If he had been of an introspective turn of mind he might have compared the movement of the Yilanè in their city to that of the ants in their own cities beneath the ground. Apparently a senseless scurrying, but in reality a division of labor with workers gathering food, nurses tending the young, armored and clawed guards preventing invasions — and at the heart of it all the queen producing the endless stream of life that guaranteed the ant city’s existence. Not an exact analogy, but a close one that he never even considered. But he was just a boy, adapting to extraordinary circumstance, so like the others he made no comparisons and unthinkingly ground the ants beneath his feet and passed on.

Many mornings he would go out with the fargi who had been ordered by one of the herders to bring in fruit from the groves around the city. This was pleasant to do before the heat of midday and his growing body needed the exercise. He would walk fast, even run, with the heavy tread of Inlènu* lumbering after him, many times stopping only because she became too warm and would go no further. Then he would feel very superior, streaming with sweat, knowing that he could go on and on when even a Yilanè as strong as Inlènu* could not.

Around the city the groves of trees and green fields stretched out in widening circles of a diversity that was constantly changing. Vanalpè’s assistants and their helpers were always developing new plants and trees. Some of the new fruits and vegetables were delicious, others smelled bad or tasted worse. He tried them all because he knew that they had been tested for toxicity before being planted.

The variety of plants was there to feed the even greater variety of animals. Kerrick had no knowledge of the Yilanè’s deep-rooted conservatism, of their millions-of-years-old culture that was based upon change only in the short term where it would not affect the stability and continuity of existence. The future would be as the past, immutable and unchangeable. New species were added to the world by careful gene manipulation; none was ever taken away. The forests and jungles of Gendasi held exciting new plants and animals that were a constant source of fascination to Vanalpè and her aides. Most of these were too familiar to Kerrick to be of any interest. What fascinated him were the great, lumbering, cold-blooded beasts that he used to call murgu; a Marbak word that he had now forgotten along with all the others.

Just as Alpèasak grew from Inegban*, so did the life of the old world flourish here in the new. Kerrick could spend half a day watching the three-horned nenitesk tearing at the foliage with mindless hunger. Their armored skins and large armored plates before their skulls had been developed to ward off predators now millions of years extinct, although perhaps they too were also preserved in small numbers in some of the older cities in Entoban*. Racial memories of their threat were still imprinted in the giant creatures’ brains and they would sometimes wheel about and tear up great clumps of earth with their horns when something caused them to perceive a possible danger. But this was the exception; normally they tore placidly at the undergrowth, consuming vast amounts of it every day. If he moved slowly Kerrick discovered that he could get quite close to the immense creatures for they saw no possible threat from his tiny form. Their hides were heavily wrinkled, while small and colorful lizards scurried across their backs, crawling into the folds of skin to eat the parasites there. One day, despite Inlènu*’s worried tugging on the lead, he ventured close enough to reach out and touch one of them on its cool, rough hide. The effect was unexpected for he had an instant vision of another great gray animal, Karu the mastodon, trunk lifted to throw dust over his back, one bright eye looking down at Kerrick. As quickly as it came the vision vanished and the gray wall of the nenitesk’s hide was before him. Suddenly he hated the creature, an insensate rock, unmoving and stupid. He turned his back on it and would have left it then but for the fact that something appeared to have disturbed it. For some reason it mistook the other nenitesk for a marauder and there was the thudding of giant bodies, the crash of armor and horns. Kerrick looked on with pleasure as small trees were crushed and the ground was torn up on all sides before they lost interest and separated.

One thing that Kerrick did not like was the slaughtering yard where each day animals in great numbers were killed and butchered. The killing was quickly and painlessly done; at the entrance to the yard a guard simply shot the animals as they were driven up. When they fell they were dragged into the yard by large beasts that were immensely strong and stupid, apparently indifferent as well to the fact that their legs were soaked and stained with blood. For it was a bloody business inside as the still-warm carcasses were disjointed and carved to bits, then thrown into tubs of enzyme. While Kerrick was now used to the jellied, half-digested meat he really wanted to forget the process that brought it before him.

The laboratories where Vanalpè, Zhekak, and their assistants worked were beyond his understanding and therefore boring. Kerrick rarely went there. He much preferred to examine the incredible detail of the growing city model — or to talk with the males. He discovered them after he had been turned away from the birth beaches. None were permitted there but guards and attendants. From what he could see through the thorn barrier around the beaches they looked dull beyond belief. Just fat males lolling about in the sun.

But the males in the hanalè were different. By this time he had forgotten the sense of profound shock that he had felt when he had first discovered that all of the Yilanè he had met, even terrifying creatures like Stallan, were female. He accepted that as a fact of life now, had long forgotten the roles of male and female among the Tanu. He was just curious about a part of the city he had never seen. After being turned away from the hanalè many times he had questioned Vaintè about it. She had been amused by this, though she hadn’t explained why. She had decided that as a male there was no reason he could not be admitted. But Inlènu* could not go in — therefore he was forbidden entrance as well. He thought about this for a long time until he hit upon the obvious answer. He went through the door — which was closed behind him. Leaving Inlènu* on the outside with their unbreakable link still connecting them.

This meant that he could not leave the area inside the door, so could not see all of the interior of the hanalè. But this did not matter. The males came to him, overjoyed at the novelty of his presence in their sheltered and boring existence.

Superficially there was no way that Kerrick could tell the males from the females. He was young enough not to think this of any importance and it was only the curiosity of the males, once the novelty of his presence had worn off, that caused them to reveal their nature.

Though most of the males talked to him or asked him questions at one time or another, it was Alipol who came forward eagerly to greet him whenever he appeared. Although Ikemend ordered all the affairs and operations of the hanalè, it was Alipol who ruled inside the door. He had been selected in Inegban* for this position of responsibility and leadership. He was far older than any of the others, all of whom had merely been selected for youth and good health. In addition Alipol was an artist, a fact that Kerrick did not discover for a long time. This happened on a visit when Alipol did not appear and Kerrick had to call out to one of the others.

“Alipol is busy at his art as always,” he said and hurried on. Kerrick did not understand the expression, most of the males were worse than fargi in the crudeness of their language, but what he had said had to do with beauty, of making things, of new objects. Alipol did not appear that day, so on the next visit Kerrick displayed his curiosity.

“Art is of greatest importance, perhaps the greatest thing that there is,” Alipol said. “But these stupid young males don’t know that, and certainly the brutal females would have no idea of its existence.”

Alipol, and the other males, always referred to the females in this manner, with a mixture of fear and respect that Kerrick could never understand. Nor would they explain it to him, so he had long since ceased asking.

“Please tell me,” Kerrick said, with curiosity and interest, which Alipol accepted with a certain suspicion.

“A rare attitude,” he said, then made his mind up. “Stay here and I will show you what I do.” He started away, then turned back. “Have you ever seen a nenitesk?”

Kerrick did not understand the relevancy of the question, though he agreed that he had indeed seen the great beasts. Alipol left and returned with an object that had Kerrick expressing unconcealed joy and pleasure. In turn Alipol’s own pleasure was beyond belief. “You see what others don’t see,” he said simply. “They have no eyes, no understanding.”

Alipol had his hands joined before him, all four thumbs turned up to form a bowl. Resting upon them was the delicately formed image of a nenitesk, glowing brightly in the sunlight and seemingly woven from beams of light. The eyes were shining red, while every line of tail and horn, great shield and stumpy legs had been caught in glowing radiance.

Kerrick bent close to see that the tiny creature was formed from thin strands of some shining material, woven together to form the intricate object. He reached out a questing finger and found it hard to the touch.

“What is it? How do you do it? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“Woven of wire, silver and gold wire. Two metals that never grow dim. The eyes are small gems that I brought with me from Inegban*. They are found in streams and banks of clay, and I have the skills to polish them.”

After that Alipol showed Kerrick other things he had made: all of them were marvels. Kerrick could appreciate art and he longed to have one of them, but dared not express his desire lest it interfere with the friendship they had formed.

As the city grew and flourished only one major problem remained. The ustuzou. During the rainy months, when there was cold in the north, the city was guarded and ringed with defenses. When the warmth returned to the north, then Stallan led raids up along the coast. Only once did they find a large group of ustuzou; they killed all that did not flee. At other times small groups were attacked and killed, and once they returned with a wounded prisoner. Kerrick went with the others to see the filthy, fur-covered creature, and he felt no sense of identification at all. It never regained consciousness and died quickly. This was the only time that the mounting clashes between Yilanè and ustuzou interfered with the order of city life. All of the other encounters took place at a distance now and were only the concern of Stallan and the others with her.

Without the rhythms of the seasons, the passage of time was scarcely noted in Alpèasak. The city grew with the leisured pace of any living creature, animal or plant, reaching out into the forest and jungle until it covered a vast area inland from the river and the sea. Reports from Inegban* had the unreality of weather not felt, a storm not experienced. The recent winters had been mild enough so that some there hoped the cold weather was at an end, although the scientists who knew about these things insisted that the condition was only a temporary one. They talked of air and water temperature measurements made at the summer station in Teskhets, and pointed out the increasing numbers of ravenous wild ustuzou that had been driven down from their normal haunts in the north.

In Alpèasak news of this sort was, of course, of great interest, but they were still tales told of a distant land. More uruketo were being bred, that was good to hear, and one day Inegban* would come to Alpèasak and the city would be complete. One day. In the meantime there was much to do here and the sun was always warm.

For Kerrick the world was endless summer. Without the arrival of autumn he never looked forward to the snows of winter. From his place of privilege close to the Eistaa he watched the city grow — and he grew with it. Memories of the life he had once led grew dim, vanished altogether except for the occasional confusing dream. In mind if not in body he was Yilanè and none dared speak otherwise in his presence. He was no longer ustuzou. No longer Ekerik. When Vaintè called him by his name she changed the way the word was said and everyone else copied her way. He was no longer Ekerik, slow and stupid, but Keririk, close to the center.

There was need for the new name for he was growing, tall as a Yilanè, then even taller. There was so much hair on his body now that the unutakh died, perhaps from overeating, and he had been supplied with a larger and more voracious unutakh. But without the cold of winter to end the year, the green of spring to begin the new, there was no way to measure the track of time.

Kerrick did not know it but he was fifteen years of age when Vaintè ordered him into her presence.

“When the uruketo leaves in the morning I go with it to Inegban*.”

Kerrick showed abstract interest, but little else, though he did lie and say it was sorrow to be parted from her. Inegban* was a word to him, nothing more.

“Major changes are on the way. The new uruketo reach maturity and in one summer, two at the most, Inegban* will be abandoned. They are so concerned there with fear of the future and the changes it will bring that they do not appreciate the real problems we have here. They care nothing about the ustuzou that threaten us, scarcely even notice the Daughters of Death who sap our strength. I have great labors ahead of me and you must aid me. That is why you are coming with me to Inegban*.”

Now Kerrick’s interest was indeed captured. A voyage inside the uruketo, across the ocean, a visit to a new place. He was both excited and afraid and Vaintè was aware of that since he was too upset to lie.

“You will capture everyone’s attention, and when I have that attention I will convince them what must be done.” She looked at him quizzically- “But you are too much of a Yilanè now. We must remind them all that you were once ustuzou, still are.”

She went to the opening where she had placed the small knife many years ago, and took it out. Zhekak had examined it, pronounced it a crude artifact worked from meteoritic iron, had then placed a rustproof coating on it. Vaintè gave it to Etdeerg, her first assistant, and ordered her to fix it into position about his neck. Etdeerg did this with a piece of twisted gold wire, attaching it to the shining iron of his collar, while the fargi watched and listened at the doorway.

“That looks strange enough to make them look twice,” Vaintè said, reaching out to press flat the sharp end of the wire. Her fingers touched his skin, the first time in years, and she was surprised at the warmth of it.

Kerrick had looked at the dull knife with lack of interest, had no memory of it at all.

“The ustuzou drape themselves with skins, it has often been remarked, and you had one about you when you were brought here.” She signaled to Etdeerg who opened a bundle and shook out a smooth deerskin. The fargi chattered with distaste and even Kerrick moved away from it.

“Stop that,” Vaintè ordered. “This is no piece of lice-ridden filth. It has been sterilized and cleaned, and that will be done again daily. Etdeerg, remove the false pouch and put this in its place.”

Then Vaintè ordered the fargi cleared away and Inlènu* to block the doorway since she remembered why the pouch had been made in the first place.

Etdeerg stripped off the pouch and tried to fit on the skin, but the seals were in the wrong place. She went to fix them and Vaintè looked at Kerrick with interest. He had changed, grown, and she stared at him now with a mixture of attraction and disgust. She went across the chamber and reached down to him and Kerrick shivered at her touch. Vaintè laughed with pleasure.

“You are a male, very much like our males. Just one instead of two — but you respond just as they do!”

Kerrick felt unease at what she was doing, tried to pull away but she seized him tight with her other hand and drew him close.

Vaintè was aroused now, the aggressor as all female Yilanè were, and he was pulling away yet responding at the same time like any male.

Kerrick had no idea of what was happening to him, nor what were the strange sensations he was feeling. But Vaintè was well aware. She was Eistaa, she could do as she willed. With practiced motions she hurled him to the floor and mounted him, while Etdeerg watched with appreciation.

Her skin was cold on his, yet he was warm, strangely warm, and then it happened. He had no idea of what it was, just that it was the greatest and most wonderful thing that had ever occurred in his entire lifetime.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

“I have a respectful message from Erafnais,” the fargi I said, speaking slowly and carefully, yet quivering with the effort to get the message correct. “The loading is complete. The uruketo is ready to leave.”

“We go,” Vaintè announced. Etdeerg and Kerrick stepped forward at her gesture. She looked around at the leaders of Alpèasak gathered before her and spoke in the most official and formal manner. “The city is yours until I return. Keep it well. You have my trust.”

Having said this she took her leave and went slowly through the city with Kerrick and Etdeerg walking a decent pace behind.

Kerrick had long since learned to control his movements so he appeared as calm as the others. Inside he churned with conflicting emotions. This voyage, he was looking forward to it, yet was also afraid of such a major change in his ordered existence. And yesterday, what had happened yesterday with Vaintè, he still couldn’t understand. What had caused such an all-encompassing sensation? Would it happen again? He hoped that it would. But what was it?

Any memories he had of Tanu passion, of the differences between the sexes, of the funny-forbidden talk the older boys had whispered to each other, even of the pleasure he once felt in touching Ysel’s bare body, all this was gone. Overlaid and forgotten under the need for survival with the Yilanè. The males in the hanalè never talked of their relationship with the females, or if they did it was never in his presence. Inlènu* was dumb on the subject. He had no knowledge of sexuality, Yilanè or Tanu, and could only puzzle over this exciting mystery.

The sky behind them was red with sunset when they reached the harbor. The enteesenat, leaping with anticipation of the voyage, surged up out of the sea and splashed back into the water in a welter of red-tinted froth. Kerrick was last aboard, climbing down the opening in the high fin, blinking at the dim-lit interior. Beneath him the floor pulsed and he lost his footing and fell. The journey had begun.

The novelty quickly wore off for Kerrick since there was little to see and nothing at all to do. Most of the interior was taken up by the dead-alive bodies of deer and stalakel. The stalakel lay heaped in piles, small forelimbs limp, horn-beaked jaws gaping open. Some of the deer, though unmoving, had their eyes wide open, and this was clearly visible in the light from the luminescent patches. He had the uneasy feeling that they could see him, that they were crying out at their paralyzed state. They couldn’t be, he was putting his own feelings into theirs. The sealed interior closed in on him and he clenched his fists with unknown terror, made worse by what seemed to be an endless storm. The uruketo’s fin stayed sealed and the air grew musty and foul.

In the darkness the Yilanè grew torpid and slept. There were only one or two on watch at any time. Once he tried to talk to the Yilanè at the helm, but she would not answer; all of her attention was focused on the compass.

Kerrick was asleep when the storm ended and the heavy seas died down. He jerked awake as the chill, salty air washed over him. The Yilanè stirred and reached for the cloaks — but the air and the shaft of light were pure pleasure to him. He tugged at his lead until the sluggish Inlènu* woke up and had wrapped herself in a cloak, then pulled her after him towards the opening in the fin. He scrambled quickly up the corrugations and pulled himself up beside Erafnais who stood there, wrapped tightly in a large cloak. Inlènu* stayed below, as far as the lead would permit her. He held tight to the edge and looked out at the green waves rolling towards them and frothing over the uruketo’s back, laughing when salt spray splashed his face. It was different, wonderful, exciting. Rays of sunlight cut through the clouds lighting up the vastness of the sea that stretched to the horizon in all directions. He shivered with the chill and wrapped his arms about him, but would not leave. Erafnais turned and saw him, and wondered at his emotions.

“You are cold. Go below. Take a cloak.”

“No — I like it like this. I can understand now why you cross the sea in the uruketo. There is nothing else like it.”

Erafnais was very pleased. “Few others feel this way. Were the sea to be taken from me now I would feel very strange.” Strange had overtones of unhappiness and despair, with just the slightest suggestion of death. The scar on her back made it difficult to express this with exactitude, but so powerful were her feelings that the meaning was clear.

A flight of seabirds floated by overhead and Erafnais pointed in their direction.

“We are not far from the land now. In fact there, low on the horizon, that dark line. The coast of Entoban *.”

“I have heard the name spoken, but never understood its meaning.”

“It is a great land mass, so large that it has never been sailed around for the sea gets cold to the south. It is the home of the Yilanè where one city stretches to the fields of another city.”

“That is our destination?”

Erafnais agreed. “On the northern coast. First through the passage known as Genagle into the warm waters of Ankanaal on whose shores is Inegban*.”

When she spoke the word, there were mixed overtones of pleasure and pain. “Be pleased it is now midsummer, for the past winter was the worst in the city’s history. Crops died. Animals died. Beasts from the north raided the herds. And once, briefly, hard water fell from the clouds and was white on the ground before it melted.”

Hard water? The meaning was clear — but what was it? Before he could ask for an explanation Kerrick had a vision, clear and sharp, of snow-covered mountains. But accompanying it was a terrible pang of apprehension and fear. He rubbed at his eyes — then looked out at the sea and thrust the memory from him. Whatever it was it did not bear considering.

“I am cold,” he said, half-lie, half-truth, “so return to the warmth inside.”

One morning Kerrick awoke to warm air and sunlight, a beam that poured down from the open fin. He climbed quickly to join Vaintè and Etdeerg who were already there, He was surprised at their appearance, but since they said nothing about it he did not comment. Vaintè had an aversion to being questioned. He looked at her out of the corners of his eyes. Her forehead and the strong angles of her jaw had been painted red with pigment, neatly applied in scrolls and turns. Etdeerg did not have any coloring on her face, but black vines appeared to twist about her arms, ending with leaf patterns on the backs of her hands. Kerrick had never seen a Yilanè decorated in this manner before, but managed to contain his curiosity and looked towards the shore instead. The coastline moved slowly by, green wooded hills clearly visible above the blue of the sea.

“Inegban*,” Etdeerg said, a wealth of mixed emotions behind the single word.

Grassy fields were mixed in among the forests now, with the dark figures of beasts grazing upon them. As they moved past a point of land a grand harbor opened out. Upon its shores were the beaches of Inegban*.

Kerrick, who thought Alpèasak a city of wonder, now saw what a real city was and allowed his feelings to show, to the immense pleasure of Vaintè and Etdeerg.

“Alpèasak will be this one day,” Vaintè said. “Not during our lives, for Inegban* has been growing since the egg of time.”

“Alpèasak will be greater,” Etdeerg said with calm assurance. “You will make it so, Vaintè. You have an entire new world to build it in. You will do it.”

Vaintè did not answer. Nor did she deny it.

As the uruketo approached the inner harbor Erafnais climbed to the top of the fin, then called down orders. The great creature slowed and stopped, lay wallowing in the clear water. The pair of enteesenat swam ahead, then turned about sharply before they reached the floating boom of large logs. They had no desire to brush against the long stinging tentacles of the jellyfish that were suspended from the logs. They hurtled back and forth, anxious for the boom to be opened so they could reach their waiting reward, the treated food they were longing for. This was delayed until the uruketo in the harbor were driven away. Smaller than normal, still half trained, they were slow to obey. When they were safely restrained a harnessed uruketo tugged the boom open and the enteesenat instantly darted inside. Their own uruketo proceeded at a more leisurely pace.

Kerrick could only gape in silence. The dock area was vast — yet was still crowded with Yilanè awaiting their arrival. Behind it rose the trunks of ancient trees, their branches and leaves high above seemingly touching the sky. The pathway leading from the docking area into the city was wide enough to drive an urukub down. The Yilanè that were crowding it now parted to let a small procession past. At its head were four fargi carrying a construction made of gently curved wood and hung with colored fabrics. Its function was revealed when the fargi placed it carefully onto the ground, then squatted beside it. A hand pushed the fabric aside and a Yilanè, resplendent with golden face coloring, stepped down to the ground. It was a figure that Vaintè instantly recognized.

“Gulumbu,” she said with carefully controlled lack of emotion that allowed just a small measure of her distaste to show through. “I know her of old. So she is the one who now sits at Malsas‹’s side. We will meet her.”

They had disembarked and were waiting on the dock when Gulumbu walked slowly up. She made the humblest of greetings to Vaintè, acknowledged Etdeerg’s presence — and let her unseeing eyes move slowly past Kerrick.

“Welcome to Inegban*,” she said. “Welcome to your home city, Vaintè, now builder of Alpèasak across the storm-filled sea.” Vaintè acknowledged this with equal formality.

“And how fares Malsas‹, Eistaa of our city?”

“She has ordered me to greet you and take you to attend her in the ambesed.”

While they talked the palanquin had been carried away. Vaintè and Gulumbu walked side by side instead, leading the procession into the city. Kerrick and Etdeerg walked behind them with the other aides, in silence for this was a formal occasion.

Kerrick took it all in with widened eyes. Other vast walkways led from the one they were on, all crowded with Yilanè — and more than Yilanè. Small creatures with sharp claws and colorful scales darted through the crowds. Some of the largest trees they passed had steps worked into their bark, curving up and around to platforms above where other Yilanè, many of them with painted faces and bodies, looked down on the milling crowds. One of these tree-dwellings, larger than the others, had armed guards below. The Yilanè above looked out, moving about and twittering together in a manner that proved they could only have been males.

Nor was there the dedication to work and the formality of talk that he knew in Alpèasak. Yilanè pointed rudely at him, and talked to each other coarsely about his strange appearance.

And there were Yilanè of a kind he had never seen before, some only half the size of the others. They stayed together in groups, pressing themselves aside when other Yilanè passed, looking on with worried eyes, not speaking. Kerrick touched Etdeerg’s arm and indicated them questioningly.

“Ninse,” she said, scorn in every motion. “Yileibe.”

The unresponsive, the dumb ones. Kerrick understood that clearly enough. Obviously they couldn’t speak or understand what was said to them. No wonder they were unresponsive. Etdeerg would say no more about them and he put the matter aside for the moment with all of the other questions he was eager to ask.

The ambesed was so large that the farthest side was hidden by the milling crowds. But they opened before the procession which passed through them to the sunny, favored wall, where Malsas‹ reclined with her advisors on a platform draped with more of the soft fabrics. She was resplendent with gold and silver paintings on her face and down her arms, curlicues of gold reaching down her waistless, ribbed body. She talked to an aide, appearing not to notice the procession until it was just before her, waiting that extra little moment to deliver not an insult, but a firm reminder of rank. Then she turned and saw Vaintè and welcomed her forward. A place was made at her side as they greeted each other.

Kerrick was staring about at everything, taking little notice of what was being said, so was startled when two Yilanè approached and seized him by the arms. As they pulled at him he looked fearfully at Vaintè — who signaled him not to protest but to go with them. He had little choice. They pulled strongly and he allowed himself to be led away with Inlènu* walking dutifully after.

Close to the ambesed was the doorway to a strange structure. There was no way to tell its size for it was hidden by the city trees. But panels of translucent chitin were visible between the trunks, stretching away to both sides. A solid-looking door of the same material was before them, without handles or openings in its surface. Still holding tight to his arm, one of the Yilanè reached out and squeezed a flexible bulb beside the door. After a short wait the door opened and a fargi looked out. Kerrick was pushed through the door with Inlènu* following after. The door closed behind them.

“This way,” the fargi said, ignoring Kerrick and speaking to Inlènu*, then turned and walked off.

It was most unusual. A short length of corridor made of the same chitinous material led to another door. Then another. The next chamber was smaller and the fargi stopped here.

“Eye membrane over,” she said to Inlènu*, letting her own transparent nictitating membrane slide over her eyes. Then she reached out her hand, thumbs spread wide, and tried to place them on Kerrick’s eyelids.

“I heard you,” he said, slapping the hand away. “Keep your dirty thumbs to yourself.”

The fargi gaped, shocked at hearing him speak, and took a moment to recover. “Important that eyes be closed,” she finally said, then closed her own membranes and squeezed a bulbous red growth on the wall.

Kerrick had just enough time to close his eyes before a rush of warm water showered down on them from above.

Some trickled into his mouth, was burning and bitter, and he kept his lips clamped tightly closed after that. The spray stopped, but when it did the fargi called out “Eye…shut.”

The water was replaced by moving air that quickly evaporated the water from their bodies. Kerrick waited until his skin was completely dried before he tentatively opened one eye. The fargi’s membrane had slipped back, and when she saw that his eyes were open she pushed through the last door and into a long low chamber.

It was a complete mystery to Kerrick: he had never seen anything like it before. Floor, ceilings, walls, they were all made of the same hard material. Sunlight filtered through the translucent panels above and threw moving leaf patterns on the floor. Stretched along the far wall was a raised surface of the same material with completely unidentifiable objects upon it. Yilanè busied themselves with these things and took no notice of their arrival. The fargi left them, saying nothing. Kerrick could make no sense of any of it. Inlènu*, as always, cared not in the slightest where she was or what was happening. She turned her back and squatted comfortably on her thick tail.

Then one of the workers noticed their arrival and drew the attention, in a most formal way, of a squat and solid Yilanè who was staring at a small square of material as though it had great importance. She turned and saw Kerrick, and stamped over to stand before him. One of her eyes was missing, the lid collapsed and wrinkled, and the remaining one bulged out strongly as though trying to do the work of two.

“Look at this, look at this, Essag,” she called out loudly. “Look at what has been sent to us from across the sea.”

“It is strange, Ikemei,” Essag said politely. “But it brings to mind another species of ustuzou.”

“It does, only this one is not covered with fur. Why is that fabric draped around it? Remove it.”

Essag started forward arid Kerrick spoke in the most commanding manner.

“Do not touch me. I forbid it.”

Essag fell back while Ikemei called out with happiness.

“It talks — an ustuzou that talks. No, impossible, I would have been told. It has been trained to memorize phrases, that is all. What is your name?”

“Kerrick.”

“I told you. Well-trained.”

Kerrick was growing angry at Ikemei’s firm wrongness of mind.

“That is not true,” he said. “I can talk as well as you, and a lot better than the fargi that brought me here.”

“That is hard to believe,” Ikemei said. “But I will assume for the moment that what you said was original and not a rote statement. If it is original — why then you can answer questions.”

“I can.”

“How did you arrive here?”

“I was brought by Vaintè, Eistaa of Alpèasak. We crossed the ocean in an uruketo.

“That is true. But it also could be a learned statement.” Ikemei thought intensely before she spoke again. “But there is a limit to learned statements. Now what can I ask you that your trainers could have no knowledge of? Yes. Tell me, before the door opened to admit you here — what happened?’

“We were washed by very bitter-tasting water.”

Ikemei stamped her feet with appreciation. “How wonderful. You are an animal that can talk. How did this come about?”

“I was taught by Enge.”

“Yes. If anyone is suited for that task she is. But now we will stop talking and you will do as I say. Come to this workbench.”

Kerrick could see what they were doing, but had no idea why. Essag used a pad to moisten the ball of his thumb, then Ikemei pierced it suddenly with a sharp object. Kerrick was surprised that he felt nothing, even when Ikemei squeezed great drops of blood from his thumb. Essag caught them in little containers which sealed themselves when she squeezed their tops. Then his arm was placed flat on the surface and rubbed with another pad that first felt cool, then numb.

“Look there,” Ikemei said, pointing high on the wall. Kerrick looked up and saw nothing. When he looked back he saw that while he had been distracted she had used a string-blade to slice away a thin layer of his skin. There was no sensation of pain. The small drops of blood that began to well up were covered by the adhesive bandage of a nefmakel.

Kerrick could not contain his curiosity any longer. “You have taken some of my skin and my blood. Why?”

“An ustuzou with curiosity,” Ikemei said, signing him to lie flat on a low bench. “There is no end to wonders in this world. I am examining your body, that is what I am doing. Those colored sheets there will make a chromatographic examination, while those precipitating columns, those transparent tubes, will discover other secrets of your chemistry. Satisfied?”

Kerrick was silent, understanding nothing. Ikemei placed a lumpish gray creature on his chest and prodded it to life.

“And now this thing is generating ultrasound to look inside your body. When it is finished we will know all about you. Get up. We are done. A fargi will show you the way to return.”

Ikemei looked on and marveled as the door closed behind Kerrick and Inlènu*. “A talking animal. For the first time I am eager to get to Alpèasak. I have heard that ustuzou lifeforms are varied and interesting there. I look forward with great interest to seeing them for myself. Orders.”

“I hear, Ikemei,” Essag said.

“Do a complete series of sera tests, all the metabolic tests, give me a complete picture of this creature’s biology. Then the real work begins.”

Ikemei turned to the workbench and almost as an afterthought said, “We must find out all we can about its metabolic processes. We have been ordered to find parasites, predators, anything that will cause specific damage to this species.” She wriggled with distress as she said this and her assistant shared her discomfort. Ikemei gestured her to silence before she could speak.

“I know your thoughts and share them. We build life, we don’t destroy it. But these particular ustuzou have become a menace and a danger. They must be driven away. That is it, driven away. They will leave and not bother the new city when they see they are in danger. We shall not kill them, we will just drive them away.”

She spoke with all the sincerity that she could muster. Yet she and Essag shared a growing fear that darker things were being planned. Their respect for life, all life, warred with their sense of survival and their muscles twitched spasmodically with the silent conflict.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

As the great doors were swung slowly shut the sounds of the ambesed outside began to grow quiet. Silence filled the room when they had closed all the way. Vaintè had scarcely noted the details of the doors before, though she had been in this chamber many times in the past. Her attention was drawn to them now. They were intricately carved with a variety of intertwined plants and animals, these in turn had then been inset with shining metal and gemstones. They were just one more of the luxuries and pleasures of this ancient city that were taken for granted by the Yilanè who dwelled here. That she had once also taken for granted. How different this was from new-grown Alpèasak where there were scarcely any doors at all — while the few that did exist might still be damp with the sap of their growth. Everything there was crude and quickly grown, new and green, in direct contrast to this cultured city, old and staid. It was brash of her to be here, Eistaa of a wilderness city come to stand before those who ruled in timeless Inegban*.

Vaintè rejected this line of thought instantly. There was no shame to newness, no need for her to feel inferior here in this great city. Inegban*, ancient, rich — but certainly doomed, there could be no doubting that. These trees would die, cold mists and dead leaves would blow through the empty city, these ponderous doors would fall beneath the fists of time, would be splintered and turn to dust. The Yilanè of Inegban* might sneer now at the crudeness of her distant city-but it would be their salvation. Vaintè treasured that thought, turned it over and over and let it possess her. Alpèasak would be their salvation — and she was Alpèasak. When she turned to face Malsas‹ and her aides she stood erect with pride that bordered on arrogance. They felt this and at least two of them stirred restlessly. Melik and Melpon‹, who knew her well for these many years, knew her rank and expected some deference. Nor was Malsas‹ very enthusiastic about this seeming lack of respect. When she spoke her attitude was firm and questioning.

“You seem very pleased, Vaintè, you must tell us why.”

“It is my pleasure to be in Inegban* again, among all her comforts, to be among efenselè of my efenburu. It is my pleasure to report to you that the work I have been asked to do is progressing well. Alpèasak grows and prospers, the fields are vast, the animals many. Gendasi is a rich and fertile land. Alpèasak will grow as no other city has grown before.”

“Yet there is a shadow behind your words,” Malsas‹ said. “A hesitation and an unhappiness that is all too clear.”

“You are too perceptive, Eistaa,” Vaintè said. “There is a shadow. The ustuzou and all the other animals of this land are numerous and dangerous. We could not establish the birth beaches until we had eliminated the alligators, creatures very similar to the crocodiles we know, but infinitely more plentiful. There are species of ustuzou that are delicious, you have eaten them yourself when you honored our city with your visit. Then there are the other ustuzou, the ones that stand on their hind legs like crude copies of Yilanè. They cause much damage and are a constant threat.”

“I understand the danger. But how can these animals prevail against our weapons? If they are strong is that not because of your weakness?”

It was an open threat that Vaintè instantly turned aside. “Would that it were only my weakness. I would then step down and let one who was stronger preside in my place. But look how these dangerous animals reach right into our ranks and kill. Your efenselè, strong Alakensi, ever-watchful Alakensi. Dead Alakensi. They may be small in numbers but they have a jungle ustuzou’s low cunning. They lay traps. Sokain and all with her died in such a trap. If a fargi dies there are always more to take her place. But who can replace Alakensi or Sokain? The ustuzou kill our food animals, but we can raise more. But the ustuzou also killed on the birth beaches. Who can replace those males, those young?”

Melpon‹ cried aloud at the thought. She was very old and given to much sentimental thinking about the birth beaches. But her cry spoke for all of them, even Malsas‹ who was clutched by the same strong feelings. But she was too experienced to permit herself to be swayed by emotion alone.

“The threat seems to have been contained so far. You do well.”

“That is true — but I wish to do more.”

“What?”

“Let me first supply all here with more information about the ustuzou. I wish them to hear about it from the lips of the captive ustuzou itself.”

Malsas‹ pondered this and in the end signaled agreement. “If the creature has information that might be of value we will hear it. Can it really talk — respond to questions?”

“You will see for yourself, Eistaa.”

Kerrick must have been waiting close by, because the messenger returned with him very quickly. Inlènu* settled down to face the closed doors while Kerrick addressed himself to the assembly in silent expectancy of orders, one of the lowest facing those of the highest.

“Order it to speak,” Malsas‹ said.

“Tell us of your pack of ustuzou,” Vaintè said. “Speak so all can understand.”

Kerrick glanced quickly towards her when she said this, and as quickly away. Those last words were a signal. He was now to supply the listeners with the information that she had carefully drilled into him.

“There is little to say. We hunt, dig in the ground for insects and plants. And kill Yilanè.”

A murmur of anger and a quick shift of bodies followed instantly.

“Explain about killing Yilanè,” Malsas‹ ordered.

“It is a very natural reaction. I have been told that Yilanè feel a natural disgust towards ustuzou. Ustuzou react the same way to Yilanè. But being brutal creatures they seek only to kill and destroy. Their single aim is to kill all Yilanè. They will do this — unless they are killed themselves.”

It sounded stupid even as Kerrick said it. Who could believe such an obvious and contrived lie? But the answer to this was clear; it would be accepted at once by these Yilanè who could not lie themselves. He recoiled in fear at the threat of death in their movements and was relieved to be ordered from the chamber. Malsas‹ spoke as soon as the door was closed again.

“The ustuzou must be wiped out once and for all. Every single one of them. Sought out and destroyed. Pursued and killed just as they killed Alakensi who sat closest to me. Now, Vaintè, can you tell us how this will be done?”

Vaintè knew better than to let them see that she had won a major tactical victory. Keeping her thoughts carefully on the plans that she had made she leaned back solidly on her tail and numbered off the steps to victory.

“Firstly — there must be more armed fargi. We can never have too many. They guard the fields, push out along the paths into the jungle, keep the ustuzou at bay.”

“That will be done,” Malsas‹ agreed. “We have been breeding hèsotsan and training fargi in the use of these weapons. When you return the uruketo will carry as many armed fargi as it can hold. Two of the smaller uruketo are reported ready for a longer sea voyage. They will carry fargi as well. What else?”

“Creatures to spy, creatures to kill. Yilanè are not jungle killers, but Yilanè of science can breed those creatures that will do this to perfection.”

“This is being seen to as well,” Lekmelik said. “Much work has already been accomplished. Now that the sampling of the tissue of your ustuzou has been done the work will proceed to its conclusion. Ikemei who is supervising all of this work is waiting close by to be summoned. She will explain.”

“Then everything that can be done has been done,” Vaintè said, expressing pleasure and gratitude with every movement of her body.

“It has,” Malsas‹ said, but there was a touch of displeasure behind her words. “Started but not finished. And the flow of time is not kind to us. Those who care about such things have returned early from Teskhets. They report a cold summer, an early autumn. They fear for a long and violent winter. We must proceed always with care — but we must proceed.”

The emphasis in her words, the bitter anger and the fear was so strong that those who listened to her swayed backwards beneath the wave of emotion. They shared the fear for long moments before Malsas‹ broke the silence.

“Send for Ikemei. We will hear what has been done.”

They were not only to hear about the research progress, but were to see the results with their own eyes. Ikemei entered, followed by a train of heavy-laden fargi, who hurriedly put their burdens down and left. Ikemei pulled the covering from a cage that was large enough to hold a grown Yilanè.

“The ruler of the skies,” she said proudly, her single eye bulging. “A raptor of skill, strength — and intelligence.”

The great bird ruffled its feathers and turned its head about slowly to look at them. The hooked beak was made for tearing flesh, the long wings for flying high, fast, tirelessly. The bird’s toes were tipped with curled sharp claws designed only for killing. The creature did not like to be stared at. It shook its wings and screeched angrily. Ikemei pointed to an elongated, dark object that clung to one of the raptor’s ankles with tight-wrapped toes.

“This beast is a neurological image recorder,” she said. “Very much improved for this use. As I am sure you know an image from its eye is focused on a membrane within. Neurons then store the image in microganglia for future retrieval. Since single images are being stored, not memories of complex series or motions, there is almost no limit to the number of these images that can be recorded.”

“Images of what?” Malsas‹ asked abruptly, bored by the technical talk, little of which she understood.

“Images of whatever we wish to record, Eistaa,” Ikemei said. “This bird is almost immune to cold — the creatures fly at very high altitudes while searching for their prey. Therefore after its training had been completed this creature was instructed to fly north. The training has been most successful. Normally the creature has no interest in longtooth, carnivorous ustuzou that dwell far to the north. They offer it no threat and are too large to attack and eat. But the bird is well-trained and knows that it will be rewarded if it follows instructions. This one flew far to the north. And, here, we can see exactly what it saw.”

Ikemei opened one of the parcels and took out a bundle of prints. They were grainy, black and white, but very impressive. She had arranged them in dramatic order. First a field of white with black dots upon it. Then the swoop, the dots took shape, then were clear. Four-legged, fur-covered ustuzou. One of them grew, filled the print, looked up with snarling jaws, curved teeth protruding. Then jumped aside at the threat of the attacking bird. This last print was the most dramatic of all for the wing-spread shadow of the raptor lay across the longtooth and the snow. When Malsas‹ had finished looking at them Vaintè took the pictures with eager hands, excitement growing as she went through them.

“It can be trained to search for any creature?”

“Any.”

“Even the ustuzou I brought from Alpèasak?”

“Particularly that ustuzou. It will search and it will find and it will return. Where it has been can easily be determined by using the pictures of its flight to prepare a map.”

“This is the weapon I need! The ustuzou move in small packs, while the country is large. We found one pack and destroyed it easily. Now we will find the others…”

“And you will destroy them in the same way,” Malsas‹ said.

“We will. I promise you — we will.”

“I am pleased. Vaintè, remain. Everyone else will now retire.”

Malsas‹ sat in frozen silence until the heavy doors had closed behind their backs. Only then did she move, and as she turned to face Vaintè she expressed unhappiness and more than a suggestion of fear. The Eistaa of Inegban* unhappy and afraid? There could be only one cause. Vaintè understood, and her movements echoed those of Malsas‹ as she spoke.

“It is the Daughters of Death, is it not?”

“It is. They will not die — and their numbers grow.”

“Nor will they die in Alpèasak. In the beginning, yes, the work was hard and the dangers many. But now that we have grown and prospered it is not the same. They are injured, some die. But not enough.”

“You will take some of the worst offenders with you in the uruketo when you return. The ones that talk in public, who make converts.”

“I will. But each one I take means one less armed fargi. In Alpèasak these deathless creatures impede me because they will not aid in the destruction of the ustuzou. They are a burden.”

“Equally so in Inegban*.”

“I will take them. But only in the new and unproven uruketo.”

Malsas‹’s sign of assent had small overtones of respect.

“You are hard and dangerous, Vaintè. If the young uruketo fail to cross the ocean, their failure will also be a success.”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“Good. We will talk of these matters again before you return to Alpèasak. Now — I am tired and the day has been long.”

Vaintè made a most formal withdrawal — but once the door had closed she had to fight to prevent her elation from being revealed. She was filled with thoughts of the future as she walked through the city, and her body moved to mirror those thoughts. There was not only elation, but death was very present as well, so much so that the fargi she passed moved quickly away from her. She was hungry now and went to the nearest place of meat. Many were waiting and she ordered them from her path. Vaintè ate well, then washed the meat from her hands and went to her quarters. They were both functional and comfortable, yet also highly decorated with woven and patterned cloth.

The fargi hurried away at her abrupt command. All except the one that she signaled to her.

“You,” she ordered. “Seek out my ustuzou with the leashed neck and bring it here.”

It took some time because the fargi had no idea where to look. But she spoke to fargi she met who spoke to others and the command passed through the living fabric of the city until it reached one who saw Kerrick.

Vaintè had almost forgotten the order by the time he arrived, was deeply involved in planning the future. Memory returned instantly when he entered.

“This has been a day of success, a day of my success,” she said. Speaking to herself, not knowing or caring what he responded. Inlènu* settled down comfortably on her tail, facing the woven cloth on the wall, enjoying its patterns in her own almost mindless way.

Vaintè pulled Kerrick down beside her and stripped away his fur coverings. Laughing when he tried to draw away from her, exciting herself as she excited him.

Kerrick was no longer frightened by what happened. It felt too good. When it was over and she pushed him from her he went regretfully. Hoping already that this thing would happen again and again.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Thunder rumbled ominously behind the dark-clouds as the torrential rain lashed the surface of the ocean. The uruketo moved slowly away from the shore, with the two smaller uruketo close behind. The enteesenat, happy to be in the open ocean again, raced ahead, surging up and out of the water as they dived through the waves. Inegban* soon fell behind, grew dim, then was lost from sight in the rain.

It was not an easy voyage. After the excitement and unexpected pleasures of Inegban*, the return trip in the uruketo was a constant torment to Kerrick. The interior was filled to capacity, the bottom so covered with fargi that it was impossible to walk without treading on them. Food and water were in short supply and carefully rationed. This was no hardship for the Yilanè who simply grew torpid and slept most of the time. Not so Kerrick. He felt closed in, trapped, unable to breathe. Nor was there any respite in sleep, for he would dream of suffocating, drowning, and wake with a cry, running with sweat. He could not move around at will, and only twice during the seemingly endless voyage did he manage to make his way up inside the fin to gasp in lungfuls of the life-giving salt air.

There was a storm in mid-ocean that prevented the fin from opening for so many days that the foul-smelling air became unbreathable. In the end the fin had to be opened, just a slit, but this was still more than enough to admit a dripping shower of cold sea water along with the air. Damp and sticky, first cold then warm again, Kerrick suffered in silent misery.

When the storm finally ended and the fin could be opened again, Vaintè ordered the others away and climbed to the top alone. The seas were still heavy and white-tipped waves stretched out on all sides. Empty seas. The two small uruketo had vanished; they were never seen again.

Kerrick’s seasickness ended only when they were in the harbor of Alpèasak . The sickness and the days without food had weakened him so greatly that he could barely climb to his feet. The caged raptor had suffered almost as much as he had; its head hung low and it cried out weakly when they carried it away. Kerrick was the last ashore, and had to be lifted bodily up the fin by Inlènu* and two of the fargi.

Vaintè breathed deeply of the moist, warm air, rich with the odors of the living city, and felt immense pleasure as she shook off the lethargy of the voyage. She slipped into the first cooling tank she came to, rubbed away the salt and crusted filth from the uruketo’s interior, emerged into the sunlight again refreshed and fit.

She had no need to summon the city leaders because they were all waiting for her in the ambesed when she arrived.

“Alpèasak is well?” she asked, and felt even more refreshed when they all communicated well-being. “What of the ustuzou, Stallan, what of those vermin that gnaw at the fringes of our city?”

“A nuisance, little more. Some of our meat animals have been stolen, others butchered during the hours of darkness, their flesh carried away before morning. But our defenses are strong, there is little they can do.”

“The smallest amount is too much. They must be stopped. And they will be. I bring more fargi, trained in the use of their weapons. The ustuzou will be followed and killed.”

“They are hard to track,” Stallan said doubtfully. “They have an animal’s skill in the forest and leave no sign of their passing. Or if there is a trail it leads only to an ambush. Many fargi have died that way.”

“No more,” Vaintè said, and expressed pleasure as the raptor screeched as though in response. Its cage had been brought forward by its handlers and the bird was now preening its feathers in the sunlight.

“All will be explained,” Vaintè said. “This flying creature will enable us to find the ustuzou den where they hide their cubs and females. But first I want the reports in detail of everything that has passed while I have been away.”

The raptor recovered quickly from the sea voyage: Vaintè waited impatiently for the next ustuzou raid. When the report reached her she issued rapid orders and went at once to the outlying pasture where the attack had occurred. Stallan was there first, pointing out with disgust the butchered corpses on the blood-stained grass.

“Wasteful. Just the rich hindquarters have been taken.”

“Very practical,” Vaintè said, showing little emotion. “Easy to carry, little to waste. Which way have they gone?”

Stallan indicated the opening that had been torn in the thorn fence, the trail beyond that vanished under the tall trees.

“North, as always. An easy trail to follow which means we were meant to see it. The meat is gone and only death, traps, and ambushes will be on that trail if we dare to follow it.”

“The bird will go where we cannot,” Vaintè said as the raptor was brought up. The captive creature screamed angrily and tore at the shackle that held its leg. It was not caged now but sat instead on a wooden perch mounted on a platform. Long poles supported this so that the fargi that carried it could not be reached by claw or beak. Kerrick arrived at the same time, wondering at this early summons.

“Do your work,” Vaintè ordered the handlers.

Kerrick found himself suddenly no longer a spectator as hard thumbs seized him and dragged him forward. The raptor was excited by the sight and smell of the bleeding carcasses, screeching and flapping its wings thunderously. One of the handlers carved a lump of flesh from the flank of a butchered beast and threw it towards the bird. It seized the red meat greedily with its free foot, clamped it to the perch with its claws and tore bloody gobbets from it. Only when it was done did they continue. Kerrick struggled as he was pushed forward, almost within reach of that gory, hooked beak.

“Follow, find. Follow, find,” the handler shouted, over and over, while they forced Kerrick even closer.

The raptor did not attack, but turned its head instead to fix one cold, gray eye upon Kerrick. It stared unwaveringly at him while the commands were shouted at it, only blinking and bobbing its head when the orders ceased.

“Turn the perch until it faces the trail,” the handler ordered, then reached out from behind and swiftly released the shackle.

The raptor screamed, bent its legs — then hurled itself into the air with the thunderous beat of great wings. Kerrick fell back as the bird looked in his direction and the handler shouted instructions.

It had been well-trained. It mounted swiftly into the air, soared about in a single lofty circle-then started north.

“It has begun,” Vaintè said with great satisfaction.

But her enthusiasm ebbed as day after day went by — and the raptor did not return. The worried handlers avoided her, as did everyone else at the sight of the anger in her movements. As long as Kerrick was not summoned to her presence he stayed as far away as he could. The hanalè offered a quiet retreat where he could not easily be found; he had not been there since their return from Inegban*.

Ikemend opened the door at his approach. “You have been to Inegban*,” she said, her words a question and an answer at the same time, excitement in the movements she spoke.

“I have never seen such a city.”

“Tell me of it, for I will never see it again with my own eyes.”

While he spoke she fitted the leash into a groove that had been worked into the wood of the doorway, then closed the door against it. Kerrick knew what she wanted to hear and told her only of the glories of the city, the crowds and the excitement — and nothing of the hunger and cold of the winters. He valued his visits to the hanalè so made sure that Ikemend would always look forward to seeing him. She listened as long as she could, hurrying away only when the urgency of her work demanded it. The males did not like Ikemend and carefully avoided her company. None of them were in sight now. Kerrick looked down a dark hallway, to the interior he would never see, then called out when someone passed at the far end.

“It is I, Kerrick, I would speak with you.”

The male hesitated, then started on, stopping only when Kerrick called out to him again. “I have been to Inegban*. Would you like to hear about the city?”

The bait was too strong to be resisted. The Yilanè came slowly forward into the light and Kerrick recognized him. Esetta*, a moody creature whom he had talked to once or twice. All of the other males admired Esetta*’s singing, though Kerrick found it monotonous and a little boring. Though he had never said this aloud.

“Inegban* is a real city,” Esetta* said, in the abrupt, breathless fashion that all the males used. “There we could sit high up among the leaves and watch everything that happened in the crowded walkways below. We were not forever trapped in boredom as we are here, with little to do other than to think of the fate of the beaches. Tell me…”

“I will. But first send for Alipol. I want to tell him too.”

“I cannot.”

“Why?”

Esetta* took a perverse pleasure in his answer. “Why can’t I? You want to know why I can’t? I will tell you why I can’t.” He hesitated over the answer, flicking his tongue between his teeth to dampen his lips before he spoke.

“You cannot speak to him because Alipol is dead.”

Kerrick was shocked by this news. Sturdy Alipol, as solid as a treetrunk. It did not seem possible.

“He was taken ill — an accident?”

“Worse. He was taken, taken by force. He who has been to the beaches twice before. And they knew, those crude beasts, they knew, he told them, pleaded with them, showed them the lovely things he makes but they just laughed at that. Some of them turned away, but the hideous one with the scars and that rough voice, the one who leads the hunters, she found the protests exciting and seized Alipol and stifled his cries with her ugly body. All day they were there, she made sure, all day, I saw it. Sure of the eggs.”

Kerrick understood that something terrible had happened to his friend, but did not know what. Esetta* had forgotten him for the moment, was swaying with his eyes closed. He hummed a dirge-like tone, then began to sing a hoarse song that brimmed with dread.

Young I go, once to the beach,
and I return.

Twice I go, no longer young,
will I return?

But not a third, please not a third,
for few return.

Not I, not I. For if I go, I know,
I’ll not return.

Esetta* grew silent then. He had forgotten that Kerrick was to tell him about Inegban*, or perhaps no longer cared to hear about that distant city. He turned, ignoring Kerrick’s questions, and shuffled back down the hall. Even though Kerrick called out loudly after that no one else appeared. In the end he let himself out, pulling the door shut so it sealed behind him. What had Esetta* meant? What had killed Alipol on the beach? He could not understand at all. Inlènu* was asleep in the sun, leaning against the wall, and he jerked cruelly on the leash until she blinked vacantly up at him, yawned, and climbed slowly to her feet.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

The fargi was eager to deliver her message — a message to the Eistaa herself! — but in her eagerness she had moved too fast in the heat of the day. When she reached the ambesed her mouth gaped so wide and she breathed so fast that talking now was impossible. In an agony of indecision she lurched forward into the sun, then fell back into the cool shadows. Was there a waterpool nearby? In her confused state she could not remember. None of the fargi nearby paid any heed to her moving fingers and the play of colors across the palms of her hands. They were selfish, thinking only of themselves, never helping another fargi. She grew angry, ignoring the fact that she would have done exactly the same thing herself in a similar situation. In desperation she looked into nearby corridors and finally found a drinking fruit. She sucked the cool water from it, then squeezed the rest of its contents over her arms and body. Her breathing finally slowed and she hazarded an attempt at speaking.

“Eistaa… I bring you a message…”

Rough but understandable. Walking slowly now, keeping to the shadows, she circled the ambesed, pushing her way through the clustered fargi to the empty space before the Eistaa. Once there she stiffened her body into the position of expectant-attention, lowest to the highest.

It was Vanalpè who noticed her after some time and drew Vaintè’s attention to the silent figure.

“Speak,” Vaintè ordered.

The fargi shivered with apprehension and had to force herself to speak the carefully memorized words.

“Eistaa, I bring message. Message is from she who feeds the raptor. The bird is returned.”

“Returned!” Vaintè was delighted and the fargi writhed with joy, believing in her simplicity that the pleasure was directed at her. Vaintè summoned another fargi with a quick motion. “Find Stallan. She is to attend me at once.” She turned back to the fargi who had brought the message.

“You. Return to the ones with the bird. Stay with them until the pictures are ready for me to see then come and inform me. Repeat.”

“Return to those with the bird. Stay. Return to the Eistaa when ready are the…”

“Pictures, views, landscapes.” Vaintè said it three different ways so the stupid creature could understand. “Repeat, akayil.”

Akayil, disgust-in-speech. The watching fargi whispered the terrible expression to each other and felt fear, moving away from the messenger when she left as though afraid of some contamination.

“Vanalpè, how long will the process take?” Vaintè asked.

“To start with, the information is available now. The memory store of the bird’s ganglion array will have been dumped into a larger memory bank. I have done this myself when recording growth patterns. The first pictures and the last pictures may be seen at once — but finding one’s way through the information in between is the time-consuming part.”

“Your meaning is not clear.”

“I am stupid in my explanations, Eistaa. The bird has been gone for very many days. All of this time, night and day, a picture has been memorized every few moments. The memory creature may be instructed to remove all the black pictures of the night, but countless more still remain. Then each picture must be brought to the liquid-crystal screen, to be ignored or recorded. This will take days, many days.”

“Then we will be patient and we will wait.” She looked up and saw the stocky, scarred figure of Stallan approaching and signaled her close.

“The bird has returned. We will soon know if the ustuzou have been found. Are we ready to mount an attack?”

“We are. The fargi now shoot well, the hèsotsan are well-fed. More dart-bushes have been planted and many darts have been gathered. The boats have been breeding and some of the young ones are big enough for service.”

“Ready them. Load food and water, then attend me. You, Vanalpè, your experience with pictures will be put to good use now. You will go at once to aid those who do that work.”

For the rest of that day, and all of the next, Vaintè guided the city and put all thought of ustuzou from her mind. But on every occasion when she relaxed and there was no one close to speak to, instant memory returned. Had the ustuzou been found? If they had been found they must be killed, sought out and destroyed. Her nose flaps whitened with anger when she thought of the ustuzou. When she felt like this she took no pleasure from eating, while her temper was so short that one frightened fargi died after her savagely curt dismissal. It was a good thing for the well-being of the city that word finally reached Vaintè on the third day.

“The pictures are ready, Eistaa,” the fargi said and a shiver of relief passed through all who heard that. When Vaintè left the ambesed even Kerrick joined the large group of followers who trailed after her, as eager as any to discover what had happened.

“They have been found,” Vanalpè said. “A large picture is being processed and is almost ready.”

The sheet of cellulose was slowly being extruded from a beast’s orifice. Vanalpè pulled it free with a wet smacking sound and Vaintè seized it ifp, still damp and warm.

“They have indeed been found,” she said, and the picture trembled in her fingers at the pleasure in her movements. “Where is Stallan?”

“Here, Eistaa,” Stallan said, laying aside the pictures she had been looking at.

“Do you know where this place is?”

“Not yet.” Stallan pointed to the center of the picture. “But it is enough to know that this river goes past the site. We attack by water. I am now following their trail, it is a way that I know and the first part is already marked on my charts. With the pictures I shall follow them until they reach this place. See, it is their lair. The shelters of skins, the large beasts, everything as before.”

“And they will be destroyed as they were destroyed before.” She signed Kerrick to attend her, then tapped the picture with her thumb. “You know what this is?”

The black and white patterns meant nothing to him; he had never seen a picture before. He took the sheet and turned it in different directions, and even looked at the back before Vaintè tore it from his hands.

“You are being difficult,” Vaintè said. “You have seen these creatures and structures before.”

“With all respect, Eistaa,” Vanalpè said, her interruption humble and apologetic. “But the fargi are like this as well. Until they have been trained to look at pictures everything that they see is meaningless.”

“Understood.” Vaintè threw the picture aside. “Finish the preparations. We leave as soon as the site is identified. You, Kerrick, you will be coming with us.”

“Thank you, Eistaa. It is my pleasure to aid.”

Kerrick was sincere about this. He had no idea of where they were going or what they were doing. But he looked forward to the novelty of the voyage in the boats.

His enthusiasm wore off very quickly. They left at dawn, sailed until dusk and then slept on the shore. This continued day after day until he began to envy the Yilanè their ability to lapse into an almost mindless state. He looked at the shore instead and tried to imagine what was behind the wall of trees behind the beaches.

There were changes in the shoreline as they moved slowly north. Jungle gave way to forest, then to marshes, then low scrub. They passed the mouth of a great river but continued on. Only when they entered a large bay was there a change from their northerly route. Vaintè and Stallan in the lead boat altered direction and headed up the bay. This was something new and the somnolent fargi stirred to life. When they drew close to the reeds along the shore their passage stirred the birds that were feeding there, causing them to rise up in great flocks that darkened the sky; the sound of their honking was deafening. When the marshes gave way to beach again Vaintè signaled them to land — although the sun was only halfway down the sky. Like the others, Kerrick moved close to hear what was being decided. Stallan was touching one of the pictures.

“We are here — and the ustuzou are here, on the riverbank. If we go closer today we may be seen. It will be wisest to lighten the boats here, leave all the water and food on the beach. In that way we will be prepared to strike fast at first light.”

Vaintè agreed. “We will attack from the water, in the breaking-wave movement, since we cannot get behind them this time. I want them all killed, except for the few that Stallan has been instructed to take prisoner. Is this understood? Repeat.”

The group leaders repeated the instructions while the fargi strained to understand. This was done over and over until even the most dim-witted knew what they had to do. Kerrick turned away, bored, but returned quickly when Vaintè signaled to him.

“You will remain here with the supplies and await our return. I don’t want you killed by mistake during the fighting. Your work will come later.”

Before Kerrick could answer she turned away. He had no desire to see any killing, even of ustuzou, so he welcomed her decision.

They were up at dawn and into the boats. Kerrick sat on the shore while they boarded the boats, then watched their silent departure as they slipped away into the morning mist. Inlènu* watched as well, with apparent lack of interest, though she did open one of the meat containers as soon as they were out of sight.

“You’re disgusting, a glutton,” Kerrick said. “You will get fat.”

“Eat good,” Inlènu* said. “You eat too.”

He really did not like the meat that was preserved in the bladders; it always had a musty taste. But he nibbled a little, then drank some water, knowing that there was no way he could get Inlènu* to move until she had eaten her fill. He looked closely at her and realized that what he had said was true; she was getting fat, a soft layer over her entire body that rounded the hard contours of her solid muscle.

Though he was used to the constant presence of others he found that he could still relish the freedom of being alone. Inlènu* did not count. When the boats had gone silence descended. There were sounds, the breeze rustling the tall grass, the small waves slapping on the shore. But there were no voices, none of the constant talk of the ambesed.

Kerrick led the way as they walked quietly along the clean sand, between the tussocks of grass, surprising birds that fluttered away almost from beneath their feet. They walked on, until Inlènu* muttered complaints and had to be ordered into silence. The tide was going out when they came to the ridge of high black rock. Seaweed hung from it in streamers and just above the water there were large mounds of dark shellfish clinging to the cracks.

“Good to eat,” Inlènu* said, smacking her jaws loudly. Standing knee-deep in the sea she tried to pull some free but they were firmly fastened to the stone. She made no protest when Kerrick led her ashore and found a fist-sized rock. He used this to break some of them free and Inlènu* seized them and shoved them into her mouth and crunched down with her immense jaws. She spat the fragments of shell into the ocean and happily swallowed the sweet flesh inside. Kerrick gathered more for himself and used the metal knife about his neck to open them. They stayed and ate until they could eat no more.

It was a pleasurable day, the best that he could remember. But Kerrick wanted to be there when the others returned, so they went back to the landing site in the early afternoon. They had a long wait. It was almost sunset before the boats reappeared.

Vaintè was first ashore. She strode across the beach to the supplies, dropped her weapon into the sand, and tore open a bladder of meat. As she bit a great chunk from it she looked at Kerrick’s inquiring stance. She chewed and swallowed greedily before she spoke.

“None escaped. The killers have been killed. They fought hard and we lost fargi, but the world has many fargi. We did what we came here to do. Now you will do your duty as well.”

She called out an order and two fargi took a heavily wrapped bundle from one of the boats and dragged it ashore. At first Kerrick thought that it was a bundle of skins. Then it moved.

When the fargi dropped it on the sand the skins fell open and Kerrick looked down at a bearded face. Blood had soaked into the creature’s hair; its eyes were wide with terror. It opened its mouth at the sight of Kerrick and strange harsh sounds came out.

“The ustuzou speaks,” Vaintè said. “Or does whatever passes for speaking among these dirty creatures. What is it saying, Kerrick? I order you to listen and tell me what it says.”

There was no thought of disobeying. When the Eistaa spoke one always did what she said. But Kerrick could not obey and he moved with fear.

He could not understand the sounds. They meant nothing to him, nothing at all.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

“Is the creature speaking?” Vaintè asked, insistently.

“Tell me at once.”

“I don’t know,” Kerrick admitted. “Perhaps it is. I can understand nothing. Nothing at all.”

“Then the noise it makes — it is just a noise.”

Vaintè was furious. This was a setback to her plans. She should never have believed Enge with her insistence that the filthy beasts actually communicated with each other. She must have been wrong. Vaintè vented her anger on the ustuzou, pushing her foot into the thing’s face, twisting hard. It groaned with pain and called out loudly.

Kerrick cocked his head, listening intently before he spoke. “Eistaa, please wait — there is something.”

She stepped back and spun about to face him, still angry. He spoke quickly before she turned her wrath on him as well.

“You heard it, it called out the same thing-many times. And I know, that is, I think I know what it was saying.”

He fell silent, chewing at his lip as he searched through memories long buried, words forgotten, silenced.

“Marag, that is what it said. Marag.”

“That conveys no meaning.”

“It does, I know it does. It is like, it has the same intent as ustuzou.”

Now Vaintè was puzzled. “But the creature is ustuzou.”

“That is not what I mean. To this one, the Yilanè are ustuzou.”

“The meaning is not completely clear, and I do not like the inference, but I grasp what you are attempting to say. Proceed with the questioning. If you think this ustuzou is yileibe and cannot speak well we will find you another one. Begin.”

But Kerrick could not. The captive was silent now. When Kerrick leaned close to encourage it the ustuzou spat into his face. Vaintè was not pleased.

“Clean yourself,” she ordered, then signaled to a fargi. “Bring another one of the ustuzou here.”

Kerrick barely noticed what was happening. Marag. The word turned over and over in his head and stirred up memories, unpleasant memories. Cries in the jungle, something frightening in the sea. Murgu. That was more than one marag. Murgu, marag, murgu, marag…

He stiffened and realized that Vaintè was calling to him angrily.

“Are you suddenly yilenin too, as unable to speak as a fargi fresh from the sea?”

“I am sorry, the thoughts, the sounds the ustuzou made, my thoughts…”

“They mean nothing to me. Speak with this other one.”

Kerrick looked down into wide, frightened blue eyes, a tangle of blond hair about its head. There was no hair on the thing’s face and its body under its wrappings was swollen and different. The frightened creature wailed as Vaintè grabbed up one of the stone-tipped wooden spears that had been taken from the ustuzou and prodded the captive’s side with it.

“Look at me,” Vaintè said. “That is correct. I now show you what your fate will be if you remain silent like this other one and do not make your speaking.”

The bearded captive cried out hoarsely as Vaintè turned and stabbed the spear into its flesh, again and again, until it was silent. The other prisoner moaned in agony and rolled about as much as it could in its tight binding. Vaintè threw the blood-drenched spear aside.

“Loosen its limbs and make it speak,” she ordered as she turned away.

It was not easy. The captive wailed, then coughed heavily until its eyes streamed with tears, mucus dribbled down its lips. Kerrick leaned close and waited until it grew quieter before he spoke the only words that he knew.

“Marag. Murgu.”

The answer came quickly, too fast for him to understand, though he recognized murgu-and something else. Sammad. Yes, sammad, the sammad had been killed. That was what the words meant. All in the sammad slain by the murgu. That was what she was saying.

She. Unbidden the word was on his lips. Female. She was linga, the other dead one, hannas. Male and female. He was hannas too.

Understanding grew, but only slowly, a word, an expression at a time. Some words he could not understand at all; the vocabulary of an eight-year-old, all that he had ever known, was not that of a grown woman.

“You make noises at each other. Is there understanding?”

Kerrick blinked at Vaintè, leapt to his feet, and stood gaping for a long moment before the meaning of her question penetrated the flood of Marbak words that filled his head.

“Yes, of course, Eistaa, there is understanding. It moves slowly — but it moves.”

“Then you are doing well.” The shadows were long, the sun below the horizon, and Vaintè had a cloak wrapped about her. “Tie it again so it cannot escape. In the morning you will continue. When you have perfected your understanding there are questions you will put to the ustuzou. Questions that will need answers. If the creature refuses — just remind it of the other’s fate. I am sure that that argument will be a strong one.”

Kerrick went for a cloak for himself, then returned to sit on the sand beside the dark form of the woman. His head was filled with a clash of words, sounds, and names.

The woman spoke some words — and he realized that he could understand them even though her movements were unseen!

“I grow cold.”

“You can speak in the dark — and I can understand.”

“Cold.”

Of course. Marbak was not like Yilanè. It did not depend upon what the body was doing. It was the sounds, just the sounds. He marveled at this discovery while he unrolled some of the blood-soaked skins from the dead man, then spread them over the woman.

“We can speak — even in the night,” he said, wiping his sticky hands on the sand. When she answered her voice was low, still fearful, but curious as well.

“I am Ine of the sammad of Ohso. Who are you?”

“Kerrick.”

“You are captive too, bound to that marag. And you can speak with them?”

“Yes, of course. What were you doing here?”

“Getting food, of course, that is a strange question to ask. We should never have come this far south, but many starved to death last winter. There was nothing else we could do.” She looked at his outline against the sky and felt a great curiosity. “When did they capture you, Kerrick?”

“When?” It was a difficult question to answer. “It must have been many summers ago. I was very small…”

“They’re all dead,” she said with sudden memory, then began to sob. “These murgu killed them all, all except a few captured.”

She sobbed even louder and there was sudden pain in Kerrick’s neck. He seized his collar with both hands as he was dragged away. The noise was disturbing Inlènu* in her sleep and she rolled away from it, pulling Kerrick after her. After that he did not try to talk again.

In the morning he was slow to waken. His head felt heavy, his skin warm. He must have been in the sun too much the day before. He found the water containers and was drinking thirstily when Stallan approached him.

“The Eistaa has informed me that you talk with the other ustuzou,” she said. There was a wealth of rich loathing behind the concept of bestial communication that she used.

“I am Kerrick who sits close to the Eistaa. Your manner of talk is an insult.”

“I am Stallan who kills the ustuzou for the Eistaa. There is no insult in calling you what you are.”

The hunter was filled with the fullness of the killing today. Her manner was normally as rough as her voice, yet not this venomous. But Kerrick was not feeling well enough to argue with the brutal creature. Not today. Ignoring her movements of superiority and contempt he turned his back on her, forcing her to follow him as he went to the spot where the bound woman lay.

“Speak to it,” Stallan ordered.

The woman shivered at the sounds of Stallan’s voice, turned frightened eyes on Kerrick.

“I am thirsty.”

“I’ll get some water.”

“It writhed and made noises,” Stallan said. “Your noises were just as bad. What was the meaning?”

“It wants water.”

“Good. Give the thing some. Then I will ask questions.”

Ine was frightened of the marag that stood near Kerrick. It stared at her with a cold and empty expression, then moved its limbs and made sounds. Kerrick translated.

“Where are more Taru?” he asked.

“Where? What do you mean?”

“I am asking for this ugly marag. It wants to know where more are, other sammads.”

“To the west, in the mountains, you know that.”

Stallan was not satisfied with the answer. The questioning continued. After a while, even with his inconsistent knowledge of the language, Kerrick realized that Ine was avoiding clear answers.

“You are not telling all that you know,” he said.

“Of course not. This marag wants to find out where the other sammads are in order to kill them. I will not tell. I will die first. Do you want the thing to know?”

“I do not care,” Kerrick answered truthfully. He was tired — and his head ached. Murgu could kill ustuzou, ustuzou kill murgu, it was nothing to him. He coughed, then coughed again, deep and chesty. When he wiped his wet lips he saw that there was blood in his saliva.

“Ask again,” Stallan said.

“Ask her yourself,” Kerrick said in such an insulting manner that Stallan hissed with anger. “I want some water to drink. My throat is dry.”

He drank the water, gulping it greedily, then closed his eyes to rest for a moment.

Later he was aware of someone pulling at him, but it was too much effort to open his eyes. After a bit they went away and he drew his legs to his chest and wrapped his arms about them. Unconscious, he whimpered with cold although the sun was hot upon him.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

There was an awareness of the passage of time; there was a constant awareness of pain. Pain that very quickly became the most important thing in Kerrick’s life, an overwhelming presence that trampled him underfoot. He slipped in and out of consciousness, welcomed the blank periods of darkness as an escape from the fever and the endless agony. Once he was awoken by the sound of someone screaming weakly; it was some time before he realized that he was doing it himself.

The worst of these times slowly passed away. There were still only brief periods of consciousness, but during them the pain had now subsided to a dull ache. His vision was blurred, but the strong, cool arm about his shoulders, supporting him so he could drink, could have only been that of Inlènu*. A constant attendant, he thought, constant attendant. He laughed at the idea, he didn’t know why, as he drifted off again.

This timeless period came to an indefinite finish one day when he found himself conscious but unable to move. It wasn’t that he was held down or bound in any way, just that a terrible weakness was pressing him flat. He found that he could move his eyes, but they hurt when he did it bringing inadvertent tears. Inlènu* was beside him, sitting comfortably back on her tail, staring at nothing with silent pleasure. With great effort he managed to croak out the single word, water, unable to make the accompanying body motions to indicate that he wished some water to be brought to him. Inlènu*’s nearest eye rolled towards him while she considered his meaning. Eventually his intent became obvious, even to her, and she stirred and went to bring him the gourd. She raised him so he could drink. He slurped, then coughed, dropping back exhausted but conscious. There was a movement at the entrance and Akotolp swam into his vision.

“Did I hear it speak?” she asked and Inlènu* signed an affirmative. “Very good, very good,” the scientist said, bending over to look at him. Kerrick blinked as her fat features, heavy wattles swaying, swam into view like a rising moon.

“You should be dead,” she said with some satisfaction. “And you would be dead had I not been here. Move your head to show how grateful you are for that.”

Kerrick managed a slight motion of his jaw and Akotolp accepted it as her due. “A frightening disease, raging through your entire system: those sores on your skin are the least part of it. The fargi wouldn’t touch you, too stupid to realize that an infection like this is species specific, had to tend you myself. Most interesting. Had I not worked with warm-fleshed ustuzou in the past your death would have been certain.”

While she talked, mostly for her own benefit, Akotolp changed the dressings on his body. This was moderately painful, but nothing like the pain that he had felt before. “Some of the ustuzou we captured had the same disease, in a milder form. Antibodies from their youth. You had none. I exsanguinated the sickest one completely, made a serum, did the job. There, finished. Now eat something.”

“How… long…” Kerrick managed to whisper the words.

“How long the food? How long the antibodies? Are you still delirious?” Kerrick managed to move his hand in the motion of time significance. “Understood. How long have you been ill? Very long, I did not keep track. It is not important. Now drink this, you need protein, you’ve lost a third of your bodyweight, it is delicious meat enzymed to liquid, most digestible.”

Kerrick was too weak to protest. Though he did gag on the repulsive liquid before he managed to get some down. After that he slept, exhausted. But this had been the turning point. The disease was over, he was on the mend. He had no visitors, other than the fat scientist, nor did he want any. Memories of the Tanu that he had talked to turned over and over in his mind. No, not Tanu, ustuzou, degenerate, warm-fleshed killers. Flesh of his flesh. Tanu. The same people, the same creatures. He had a double-identity that he could not understand and he fought to make sense of it all. Of course he was Tanu himself, since he had been brought here when he was very young. But that had happened so long ago, so much had happened to him since that all memory of this had vanished. He was left more with a memory of the memory, as though it were something that he had been told about and had not really experienced himself. Though physically he was not Yilanè, could never be, he nevertheless now thought like one, moved like one, spoke like one. But his body was still Tanu and in his dreams he moved among his own people. These dreams were disturbing, even frightening, and he was glad that he remembered very little of them when he awoke. He tried to remember more of the Tanu words but could not, while even the words he had spoken aloud slipped from his mind as he recovered.

Other than the perpetual silent presence of Inlènu* he was left completely alone. Akotolp was his only visitor and he wondered at this.

“Are they all still away from the city, all of those who are killing the ustuzou?” he asked her one day.

“No. They have been back twenty of days at least.”

“But no one passes outside, not even the fargi, no one comes in other than you.”

“Of course not.” Akotolp settled back solidly on her tail, her four thumbs laced together and resting comfortably on the thick roll of fat on her midriff. “You know little about the Yilanè, just about this much, the space between my thumbs.” She pinched them together tightly. “You live in our midst yet know nothing.”

“I am nothing, I know nothing. You know everything. Enlightenment would be pleasure.”

Kerrick meant what he said, it was not mere politeness. He lived in a jungle of mysteries, a maze of unanswered questions. Most of his life had been lived here in this city of secrets. There were assumptions and knowledge of Yilanè life that everyone seemed to know — yet no one would talk about. If flattery and fawning could get answers from this fat creature, he would contort himself into every position of obeisance.

“Yilanè do not grow ill. Disease strikes down only the lower animals, like you. I can assume that there were once diseases that affected us. They have long since been eliminated, like the fever that killed some of the first Yilanè to come here. Infections may follow traumatic wounding; they are quickly conquered. So your illness baffles the stupid fargi, they cannot understand it or accept it — so they ignore it — and you. However, such is my skill at working with all forms of life that I am immune to such stupidities.”

She expressed great satisfaction with herself and Kerrick hurried to agree in great detail. “There is nothing unknown to your Highest,” he added. “Could this stupid one presume upon your intelligence to ask a question?”

Akotolp signaled bored permission.

“Is there not disease among the males? I was told in the hanalè that many of them die on the beaches.”

“Males are stupid and make too much stupid talk. It is forbidden for Yilanè to discuss these things.”

Akotolp looked at Kerrick with one quizzical eye, while rolling the other at the same time towards Inlènu*’s stolid back, while she made up her mind.

“But I can see no harm in telling you. You are not Yilanè — and you are male — so you will be told. I will speak of it simply, because only one of my great knowledge can really understand it. I am going to describe to you the intimate and complicated details of the process of reproduction. Firstly, you must realize your inferiority. All of the warm-fleshed male creatures, including yourself, evacuate sperm — and that is your total involvement in the birth process. This is not true of our superior species. During intercourse the fertilized egg is deposited within the masculine pouch. This act triggers a metabolic change in the male. The creature grows torpid, expends little energy, and grows fat. The eggs hatch, the young nurse in the protected pouch and grow strong, emerging only when they are mature enough to survive in the sea. A beautiful process that frees the superior females for more important duties.”

Akotolp smacked her lips hungrily, reached out, and seized up Kerrick’s unfinished gourd of liquid meat and drained it in a single swallow. “ Superior in every way.” She belched with pleasure. “Once the young have entered the sea the male role in reproduction is finished. Very much the same, it might be said, as that of an insect called the mantis where the female eats the male while they are copulating. Reversing the male metabolic change is not efficient. Approximately half of them die in the process. While this is presumably uncomfortable for the male it has no effect at all on the survival of the species. You have no idea of what I am talking about, do you? I can tell that by the bestial emptiness of your eyes.”

But Kerrick understood only too well. A third time to the beaches, certain death, Kerrick thought to himself. Aloud he said, “What wisdom you have, Highest. Had I been alive since the egg of time I would know only the smallest part of what you do.”

“Of course,” Akotolp agreed. “The inferior warm-fleshed creatures are incapable of major metabolic change which is why they are few in number and capable of surviving only at the rim of the world. I have worked with animals in Entoban* that encase themselves in the mud of dried lake bottoms during the dry season, surviving that way until the next rains fall, no matter how long a time that may be. Therefore even you will be able to understand that metabolic change can cause survival as well as death.”

The facts came together and Kerrick spoke aloud, without thinking. “The Daughters of Life.”

“The Daughters of Death,” Akotolp said in the most insulting manner. “Do not speak of those creatures to me. They do not serve their city, nor do they die decently when turned away. It is the good who die.” When she looked at Kerrick now there was cold malice in her gestures. “Ikemei is dead, a great scientist. You had the honor of meeting her in Inegban* when she took samples of your body tissues. That was her undoing. Some fools in high places wished for her to find a biological way of destroying your ustuzou. She would not, could not do this, no matter how hard she tried. So she died. The scientist preserves lives, we cannot take them. Like a Yilanè rejected by her city, she died. You are an insensate male animal and I talk to you no more.”

She waddled away, but Kerrick was scarcely aware of her going. For the first time he was beginning to understand some bit of what was happening around him. He had stupidly accepted the world as he saw it. Had believed that creatures like the hèsotsan and the boats were completely natural. How could they be? The Yilanè had shaped their flesh in some unknown manner — must have shaped every plant and animal in the city. If the fat Akotolp knew how to accomplish such things her knowledge was indeed well beyond anything that he could possibly imagine. For the first time he sincerely respected her, respected what she knew and what she could do. His sickness, she had cured that. He would be dead except for her knowledge. He fell asleep then and moaned in his sleep at the dreams of animals and flesh changing all around him, of himself melting and changing as well.

Soon he was well enough to sit up. After that, leaning on Inlènu*, he managed to walk a few dragging steps. Bit by bit his strength returned. When he was able to, he ventured out of his chamber and sat against a leafy wall in the sun. Once here, and apparently as sound as ever, his presence was permitted again. The fargi came when he called and brought him fruit, all that he wished to have, to wash the taste of liquified raw meat from his mouth.

His strength continued to return until finally, stopping often to rest, he even managed to venture out as far as the ambesed. Before his illness this would have been a short stroll. It was an expedition now and he was leaning heavily on Inlènu* and running with sweat before he reached his goal. He dropped against the ambesed wall, gasping for breath. Vaintè saw him arrive and ordered him to her presence. He struggled to his feet, stumbling when he walked. She watched his unsteady approach.

“You are still ill,” she asked, expressing concern as she spoke.

“The illness has passed, Eistaa. Just the weakness remains. Akotolp, she of endless knowledge, tells me to eat much meat so that flesh will return to my body, and with it my strength.”

“Do as she orders, that is my command as well. Victory marched with us to the north and all of the ustuzou we met we destroyed. Other than the few we made prisoner. It was my wish that you speak with them, seek out information.”

“As the Eistaa commands,” Kerrick said. Though he spoke with humble courtesy he was possessed of sudden excitement: his skin flushed and he trembled. He knew that he loathed the disgusting creatures. Yet he still longed to communicate with them.

“You will speak, but not with those we brought back. They are dead. Build your strength. When the warm sun returns to the north we go there again for an even greater killing.”

Kerrick signed supplication, wondering at his sudden disappointment.

It was enough now to lie in the sun, to put the illness behind him as his strength returned. Many days passed before Akotolp sent for him. The fargi led the way to a part of the city he had never visited before, to a sealed and strangely familiar panel. It opened to reveal a still damp chamber.

“It is a water entrance — just like the one in Inegban*!”

Inlènu* wriggled her thick body in agreement. “Hurts the eyes.”

“Then keep them shut, one of great stupidity.” Then he closed his own eyes quickly as the warm liquid washed over them.

Akotolp turned from her work when they entered, reached out and pinched Kerrick’s flesh between her thumbs.

“Good. You cover your ribs. You must exercise as well. That is the order I pass on to you from the Eistaa. She is most concerned that you will able to go north with the others.”

“I hear and I obey.” Kerrick’s eyes were moving about the strange room as he talked, trying — and failing — to understand what he saw. “Once, in distant Inegban* I was in a place like this.”

“You are wise in your stupidity. One laboratory is the same as another.”

“Tell me what you do here, great one.”

Akotolp smacked her lips and her fat flesh trembled with the strength of her feelings. “You wish me to tell you, creature of endless stupidity! Were you to live ten lifetimes you could not begin to understand. Since Yilanè first came from the sea we have had our science, and since that time it has been growing and, maturing. Science is the knowledge of life itself, of seeing inside life, seeing the cells that form all life, seeing inside the cells to the genes, seeing the spiral there that can be cut and moved and changed until we are masters of all life. Have you understood a word that I have said, groveling and crawling one?”

Kerrick signed groveling and crawling as he spoke. “Very little, she of endless knowledge, but enough to know that you are the master of life.”

“That is true. At least you have intelligence enough to appreciate even if you cannot understand. Look in wonder at this creature.” Akotolp pushed one of her assistants aside and gestured at a knobbed and spiked, multicolored creature that squatted beside a transparent section of the wall. Bright sunlight shone against what appeared to be a great eye in its side. Disconcertingly, it had another eye in the top of its head. Akotolp signaled Kerrick forward, then wobbled with mirth at his reluctance.

“You are afraid of it?”

“Those eyes…”

“They cannot see, stupid one. It is blind and senseless, the eyes modified for our use, lenses to bend light so we can see the unseen. Look here, on this transparent plate, what do you see?”

“A drop of water?”

“Amazing observation. Now watch when I place it into the sanduu.” Akotolp prodded with her thumb until an opening appeared in the sanduu’s side, then slipped the plate into it. She then squinted into the topmost eye, grunting to herself as she thumbed the sanduu with instructions. Satisfied, she straightened up and signaled Kerrick to her.

“Close one eye. Look in here with the other. Tell me what you see.”

He saw nothing. Just a blur of light. He blinked and moved his head — then saw them. Transparent creatures with rapidly moving tentacles. He could not understand it and turned to Akotolp for assistance. “I saw something, moving beasts, what were they?”

“Animals, minute ones, there in the drop of water, their images magnified by the lenses. Do you know what I am talking about?”

“No.”

“Exactly. You will never learn. Your intelligence is equal to that of the other ustuzou behind you. Dismissed.”

Kerrick turned and gasped when he saw the silent, bearded Tanu standing in the niche in the wall. Then he realized that it was only a stuffed and mounted animal. It meant nothing to him and he left quickly.

Yet he felt strangely disturbed as he walked back, the sun warm on his shoulders, Inlnu* plodding patiently behind. In thought and speech he was Yilanè. In form he was ustuzou. Which meant he was neither one nor the other and he grew upset when he thought about it. He was Yilanè, that was what he was, there was no doubt about that.

Unconsciously, as he told himself this over and over, his fingers pinched at his warm Tanu flesh.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

“The time has come for us to leave,” Stallan said. “It is here in the pictures, everything we need to know.”

“Show me,” Vaintè said. Her aides and the fargi pressed close to see as well, but a gesture drove them back. Stallan passed the pictures over, one at a time, with a careful explanation of each.

“These are the earliest, of the high valleys where the ustuzou usually winter. But this last winter the valleys remained frozen. The thaw did not come that brings them life during the rest of the year. Therefore the ustuzou must move south to find food.”

South, away from the cold of their winter, Vaintè thought, just as we flee south from the frigid winters of Inegban*. She wiped this repugnant idea away as quickly as it had come. There was no connection between the two facts, could be no connection between Yilanè and ustuzou. It was just a matter of chance. What did matter was that the creatures would have to move south to find food. She spoke aloud.

“South — where we can reach them.”

“You see the future clearly, Eistaa. If they stay, then they die of starvation. If they do not stay, why, we will be there to greet them.”

“When do we leave?”

“Very soon. See here, and here. The large beasts that drag the poles and skins. They come down from the hills. There is grass, but still gray and dead after the winter. And the white, here in the hollows, that is hard water. They must come further south.”

“They will. Are your preparations made?”

“They are. Supplies gathered, the boats fed, the armed fargi are ready.”

“See that they remain that way.”

She dismissed Stallan, put the hunter from her mind instantly, addressed her thoughts instead to the coming campaign. They would be going far inland this time and would be away all of the summer. They could not carry enough food with them for this long a time — so should she arrange for resupply? Or live off the land? This would be easier — and every beast they killed and ate would be one less for the ustuzou. But there would also have to be a reserve of preserved meat so their progress would not be slowed. Everything must be considered. Prisoners must be taken as well. The raptor’s chance movements would find only a few of the ustuzou packs. But questioning the prisoners would lead them from one pack to another until they had all been destroyed. A fargi hurried over at her gesture.

“Command Kerrick to attend me.”

Her thoughts went to the coming campaign until she was aware of his presence before her.

“Tell me of your health,” she ordered. “You are thinner than you used to be.”

“I am, but the weakness has gone, the scars from the sores are healed. Each day I make this fat Inlènu* run with me to the fields. She loses weight, I gain it.”

“We go north soon. You will go with us.”

“As the Eistaa speaks, so do I obey.”

He expressed this in the most formal manner when he left, revealing no other emotion. But the thoughts that churned beneath that calm exterior were quite different.

He was eager to go — yet was afraid at the same time. Most of his memories of the last voyage north were buried beneath the pain of his sickness. It had been easiest when he was the sickest because then there had only been unconsciousness with no memory of what had passed. But then had come the wakening days, the pains in his chest, the sores that covered his body. He knew that he should eat but he could not. He had been vaguely aware of the wasting away of his body, the close approach to death, but had been too weak to do anything about it. Only when the gradual and painful recovery had begun could he think of food again.

But that was in the past — and must be kept in the past. Though he still grew tired by the end of the day, each day he was that slight bit stronger. It would be all right. He would go with them and there would be other ustuzou to talk to. For a long time he had not permitted his thoughts to dwell on this, but now a strange excitement filled him and he looked forward eagerly to the expedition. He would talk to Tanu again — and this time he would remember more of the words. There was a sudden and inexplicable excitement when he thought about talking with them and he walked faster, until Inlènu* registered patient protest.

They started north a few days later, earlier than had been originally planned, for now they would be going slower. Vaintè wanted to see if they could supply their own meat as they went along. On the first day they traveled only until early afternoon before making a landing on a rocky shore. Stallan left at once with her best hunters, followed by a group of nervous fargi.

They returned well before dark, the fargi now burdened with the carcasses of deer. Kerrick looked on with strange excitement as they came up and placed the deer carefully before the Eistaa.

“This is good, very good,” she said with pleasure. “You are truly named, Stallan, for you are a hunter without peer.”

Hunter. Kerrick had never considered the significance of the name. Hunter. To enter the forest, move stealthily across the plain, to make the kill.

“I would like to hunt too, Stallan,” he said, almost thinking aloud. He bent to pick up a hèsotsan that lay nearby, but Stallan kicked it roughly away with her foot. The rejection was cruel and sharp.

“Ustuzou are killed with hèsotsan, they get no closer than that.”

Kerrick recoiled. He had not been thinking of the weapons, just the chase. While he was shaping a reply Vaintfe spoke first.

“Is your memory so short, Stallan, that you have forgotten that it is I who give the orders? Give Kerrick your own weapon. Explain to the ustuzou how it functions.”

Stallan stiffened into immobility at the strength of the command. Vaintè did not change her final imperative position. It was important that all Yilanè, even of Stallan’s rank, be reminded that she alone was Eistaa. And it pleased her to pit these two against each other, since their hatred of each for the other was so great.

Stallan could only obey. The fargi pushed close as they always did when something was being explained, while Stallan reluctantly held out the weapon to Kerrick.

“This creature is hèsotsan, developed and bred to be a weapon.” Kerrick gingerly took the cool dark length in his hands and followed the indicating thumb. “They are mobile when young, only changing their form when they get their full growth. The legs become vestigial, the spine stiffens until the creature looks like this. It must be fed or it will die. This is the mouth,” she indicated a black-lipped opening, “not to be confused with this orifice where the darts are inserted. The darts are picked from the bushes and dried — do not move your hand!”

Stallan tore the weapon from Kerrick’s grasp and held it while she fought to control her temper. The presence of the Eistaa behind her just made this possible. Had they been alone she would have smashed the ustuzou to the ground. Her voice was even hoarser when she spoke again.

“This weapon kills. To do this you squeeze its body with one hand, here where your hand was, then press here on the base with the thumb of your other hand.”

There was a sharp cracking sound and a dart hissed harmlessly out into the sea.

“The darts are inserted here. When the hèsotsan receives the impulse, it produces a small quantity of a secretion which explodes into steam, driving the dart out forcibly. When they are loaded the darts are harmless to handle. But as it moves through the projection tube the dart brushes against a gland that secretes a poison so strong that a drop too small to see will instantly kill a creature as large as a nenitesk.”

“You make an excellent teacher,” Vaintè said, a sharp edge of amusement adding a second meaning. “You may stop now.”

Stallan thrust the hèsotsan at Kerrick and turned quickly about. But not so quickly that he could not see the burning hatred in her movements. He returned the emotion in full. But he quickly forgot the incident as he examined the weapon, eager to try it on the hunt. But not so eager that he would allow Stallan anywhere near him when they were out of sight of the others. It would be wise to always stay well away from the hunter now, particularly during the hunt. The poisoned darts could kill him as easily as any other animal.

When it was time for the hunt next day he did go out with his weapon until he saw which way Stallan and the others had gone — then he went in the opposite direction. He had no desire to be the victim of a fatal accident.

Hunting was not easy with the clumsy Inlènu* in tow, but he did as well as he could. He had some success and in the coming days Inlènu* carried more than one deer back to the beach. But more important than the deer themselves was the way he felt when stalking his prey through the high grass. It was a pleasure beyond pleasure. He did not notice when he grew tired: his appetite was ravenous and he slept well. The hunting continued as they moved slowly north, and every day he found that he could do that little bit more. By the time they left the ocean and started up the wide river he felt as strong as he ever had. It was only a few days after that when they had their first battle, their first massacre of the summer.

Kerrick stayed at his usual place in the encampment on the river bank when the others left. The raptor’s pictures had shown that the ustuzou were moving in this direction along the river bank, so the ambush had been carefully laid. It was no affair of Kerrick’s. He sat cross-legged on the ground and teased the hèsotsan’s mouth open with his fingernail, then pushed a fragment of meat into it, thinking of the next hunt. Inlènu* was so noisy. But at least she had learned to be motionless and quiet when they stopped. He would do a wide circle around the next herd of deer that they found, then lie in wait downwind from them. The deer would move away from the other hunters and approach him — instead of the other way around. It was a good plan.

The distant shriek cut through his thoughts. Even Inlènu* stirred herself and looked around. It sounded again, louder, closer. Kerrick jumped to his feet, the weapon in both hands ready to fire as the cry came again, the sound of heavy thudding.

There was a harsh bellow from the bank above them and a great head appeared. Long white tusks, a lifted trunk, the deafening shriek again.

“Kill the ustuzou,” Inlènu* pleaded. “Kill, kill!”

Kerrick had the hèsotsan in a line before his eyes, looking along it at the creature’s dark eye glaring down at him.

“Karu…” he said, and did not fire. Inlènu* moaned in fear.

The mastodon lifted its trunk and bellowed again. Then turned and vanished from sight.

Karu. Why had he said that? What did it mean? He had been startled by the giant creature — but not afraid at all. That strange word, Karu, it stirred up mixed memories. Warm and friendly. Cold as death. He trembled and pushed them away. The fighting should be very close. The large, hairy beast must have been frightened by the battle, had run this way. He was glad that he had not killed it.

“The Eistaa sends for one by the name of Kerrick,” the fargi said, moving slowly along the river bank. She had been wounded by some sharp object and a large bandage covered her lower arm. There was blood on her side and streaked down her leg.

“Wash yourself clean,” Kerrick ordered, then gave a tug on his lead and Inlènu* lumbered to her feet. The hèsotsan had finished the bit of meat and he smoothed its mouth shut as they walked; it had tiny, sharp teeth and could give a nasty little bite if this were not done.

They followed the river bank, then turned away from it when they came to a well-trampled path. More wounded fargi passed them going in the opposite direction. Some of them had stopped; others were sprawled on the ground, too weak to go any further. They passed one of them that had died on the way, eyes wide and mouth gaping. The fighting must have been fierce.

Then Kerrick saw his first dead Tanu. They were heaped together, men and women, children’s tiny corpses tossed aside. Beyond them a mastodon, dead among the broken poles, its load burst and scattered.

Kerrick was numb, with an emotion — or lack of emotion — that left him stumbling along in silence. These were ustuzou, they needed killing. These were Tanu — why were they dead? These were the loathsome ustuzou that had slaughtered the Yilanè males and the young on the beaches. But what did he really care or know about that? He had never even been close to the beaches.

A fargi, the spear that had killed it still through her body, lay in bloody embrace over the body of the hunter who had wielded it. The fargi was Yilanè and he, Kerrick, he was Yilanè as well.

But, no, he was Tanu. Was he Tanu too?

The question could not be answered, but could not be forgotten as well. Yet he must forget it then and remember that he had been a boy — but that boy was dead. In order to live he must live as a Yilanè. He was Yilanè, not dirty ustuzou.

A fargi pulled at his arm and he stumbled after her. Through the column of death; dead Tanu, mastodons, Yilanè. It could not bear looking at. They came to a group of armed fargi who moved aside so that Kerrick could pass. Vaintè stood there, every movement of her body expressing unconcealed anger. When she saw Kerrick she pointed soundlessly at the object on the ground before her. It was an animal’s skin, badly tanned and mottled, limp and shapeless except for the head that had been stuffed.

Kerrick recoiled in horror. Not an animal — a Yilanè, and one that he recognized. Sokain, the surveyor who had been killed by the ustuzou. Killed, skinned, and brought here.

“See this.” Every motion of Vaintè’s body, each sound she spoke, exuded hatred and a relentless anger. “See what these animals have done to one of such intelligence and grace. I want to know more of this matter, which one of them was responsible, how many were involved, where we can find them. You will question the ustuzou we hold captive over there. We had to club it into submission. It may be the pack leader. Make it bleed, make it tell you what it knows before I kill it. Be quick. I will want to know when I return. A few of them fled destruction but Stallan leads her hunters and follows and will pull them down.”

There was a glade here surrounded by high trees. The Tanu lay on the ground, arms and legs bound, while a fargi beat the creature with its own spear. “Make it suffer — but do not kill it,” Vaintè ordered, then turned away as a messenger hurried up.

Kerrick approached slowly, almost against his will. Saw that the hunter was big, taller than he was, his flowing beard and hair matted thick with blood. The beating continued yet the man said nothing.

“Stop that,” Kerrick ordered, prodding the fargi with his weapon to get her attention. “Move back.”

“What are you?” the man asked hoarsely, then coughed and spat out a mouthful of blood and fragments of teeth. “Are you a prisoner, leashed like that? Yet you speak to them. Where is your hair? Who are you? Can you talk?”

“I… I am Kerrick.”

“A boy’s name, not a hunter’s name. Yet you are grown…”

“It is I who ask questions. Give me your name.”

“I am Herilak. This is my sammad. Was mine. They are dead, all dead, aren’t they?”

“Some escaped. They are being pursued.”

“A boy’s name.” His voice was gentler. “Come closer, boy who is now a man. Let me see you. They bruised my eyes, you must come close. Yes, I see. Even though all of your hair is gone I can still see that you have a Tanu face.”

Herilak rolled his head back and forth, trying to shake the blood from his eyes. Kerrick reached down and gently wiped them clean. It was like touching himself, the warm skin. Skin like his, flesh like his. Kerrick shivered all over, his hand shook in the grasp of some unknown sensation.

“You were making sounds at them,” Herilak said, “and wriggling about too just as they do. You can speak with them, can’t you?”

“You will answer my questions. It is not you who will do the questioning.”

Herilak ignored this but nodded with understanding. “They want you to do their work. How long have you been with them?”

“I don’t know. Many summers… winters.”

“They have been killing Tanu all of that time, Kerrick. We kill them, but never enough. I saw a boy once, being held by the murgu. Do they have many captives?”

“There are no captives. Just myself…” Kerrick fell silent; a memory long forgotten stirred his thoughts, a bearded face in the trees.

“They captured you, raised you, didn’t they?” Herilak said almost in a whisper. “You can speak with them. We need your help, the Tanu need you now…”

He broke off as he saw what hung about Kerrick’s neck. His voice was choked now as he spoke.

“Turn, boy, turn to the light. Around your neck — is that yours?”

“Mine?” Kerrick said, touching the cool metal of the knife. “I suppose so. It was around my neck, they tell me, when I first came to them.”

Herilak’s voice was distant, as he too dredged in memories of the past. “Skymetal. I was one of those who saw it fall from the sky, searched and found it. I was there when the knives were made, sawn from the metal block with sheets of stone, hammered and drilled. Now — reach into my furs, in the front, that’s right. You have it, pull it out.”

The metal knife was hanging from a thong. Kerrick clutched it, unbelieving. It was the same as his — only twice as large.

“I saw them made. A large one for a hunter, a sammadar, a small one for his son. The son, a boy’s name, Kerrick perhaps, I don’t remember. But the father. One close to me. His name was Amahast. Then I found the skymetal knife again many years later — in the broken bones of his body. The bones of Amahast.”

Kerrick could only listen in frozen, horrified silence as the name was spoken. A name remembered in dreams, forgotten upon awakening.

“Amahast.”

Amahast. The word was like a key unlocking a flood of memories that washed silently over him. Karu, his mastodon, killed beside him. His father, Amahast, killed, the sammad destroyed around him. The memory blurred and merged with that of this sammad lying dead now on all sides. The slaughter, the years, the long years since. Through these memories the hunter’s words slowly penetrated.

“Kill them, Kerrick, kill them as they have killed us all.”

Kerrick turned and fled with Inlènu* stumbling after, away from the hunter and his voice, away from the memories that flooded through him. But these he could not escape. He pushed past the armed fargi to the top of a grassy slope that led down to the sea, dropped to the ground, sat clutching his legs, staring out at the ocean yet not seeing it.

Seeing Amahast, his father, instead. And his sammad. Unclearly at first, but fleshed out in greater detail as memory returned. The memory was still there, buried and long forgotten, but hiding there still. His eyes filled with a child’s tears, tears that he had never shed as a child, that welled out and ran down his cheeks as he saw his sammad being destroyed, slaughtered just as the sammad of Herilak had been destroyed this day. The two scenes blurred in his mind and were one. To survive all those years with the Yilanè all of this he had to forget. He had survived, he had forgotten.

But now he remembered, and in remembering he was two people, the ustuzou who spoke like a Yilanè; the boy who was Tanu.

Boy? He stared at his hands, arched his fingers. He was no longer a boy. In those long years his body had grown. He was a man yet knew nothing of being a man. The realization came that his father, the other hunters, so large in memory — why, he must be their size now.

Springing to his feet, Kerrick roared aloud with defiance and anger. What was he? Who was he? What was happening to him? Through the crash of his emotions he was aware of a movement at his neck, a pulling. He turned about, blinking, to discover that Inlènu* was tugging gently at their connecting lead. Her eyes were wide, her shivering motions expressing worry and fear at his strange actions.

He wanted to kill her, half raised the weapon still clutched in his hand. Marag, he cried, “marag.” But the anger drained away as quickly as it had come and he lowered the weapon shamefacedly. There was no harm in this simple creature, more of a prisoner than he was.

“Be of peace, Inlènu*,” he said. “There is nothing wrong. Be of peace.”

Reassured, Inlènu* sat back on her tail and blinked comfortably in the evening sun. Kerrick looked past her to the glade behind the trees where Herilak waited.

Waited for what? An answer, of course. To a question that Kerrick could not answer, although the question was all too clear.

What was he? Physically he was Tanu, a man with the thoughts of a boy who had never grown as a Tanu. That was clear and obvious when he thought about it. That boy, to stay alive, had become Yilanè. That was obvious too. A Yilanè inside his thoughts, a Tanu for the world to see. That much was clear. What was not clear was what would happen to him next. If he did nothing, his existence would go on very much as it had in the past. His position would remain high, next to the hand of the Eistaa, secure and honored. As a Yilanè.

But was that what he wanted? Was that his future? He had never considered these matters before, had no idea that a conflict such as this might exist. He shrugged his shoulders, struggling to remove an invisible burden. It was too much to consider right now. He needed to puzzle things out slowly. He would do as Vaintè had asked, question the ustuzou. There would be time later to think of these matters; his head was hurting too much now.

When he returned nothing had changed. Herilak was lying bound on the ground, the three fargi standing guard in unquestioning obedience. Kerrick looked down at the hunter, trying to speak, but the words did not come. It was Herilak who broke the silence.

“Do as I said,” he whispered. “Kill the murgu, cut my bonds, escape with me. To the mountains, to the winter snow, the good hunting, the fire in the tent. Come back to your people.”

Though they were whispered the words were echoing in his head like the roll of thunder.

“No!” he shouted aloud. “You will be silent. You will answer my questions only. You will not speak except to answer…”

“You’re lost, boy, lost but not forgotten. They’ve tried to make you one of them but you are not of them. You are Tanu. You can come back to the sammad now, Kerrick.”

Kerrick shouted in anger, ordering Herilak to be silent, but he could not drown out the hunter’s voice or his words. Neither would he give in. It was the fargi, the one who still held the hunter’s spear, who made the decisive move. She did not understand, but she could see that there was disagreement. Remembering the Eistaa’s earlier orders she moved forward to help, hammering the butt of the spear into Herilak’s side, again and again.

“No!” Kerrick roared aloud in Tanu, “you cannot do that.”

The weapon in his hand snapped almost without volition and the fargi crumpled and died. Still in the grip of his anger he turned and fired at the next one as well; her mouth still gaping with disbelief as she fell. The third one started to raise her own weapon but she crumpled like the others. He kept squeezing and squeezing on the hèsotsan until the fargi corpses bristled with darts. Then it was empty and he threw it down.

“The spear, take it,” Herilak ordered. “Cut me free.”

Inlènu* lurched after Kerrick as he stumbled to the fargi and pulled the spear from her dead grasp. He cut Herilak’s ankles free, then his wrists.

“What is this? What has happened?” Vaintè called out angrily.

Kerrick spun about to see her standing above him, mouth open, teeth shining. And now, for the first time he saw before her in the blur of memory those teeth tearing a girl’s throat out. Saw the rows of teeth above him as she straddled him, roaring with pleasure. Shared pleasure, for he had been moved as well.

Pleasure and hatred now, he felt them both.

She was saying something he could not hear, issuing an order he could not obey, as she turned away and reached for one of the abandoned weapons.

What he did next was so natural, so right that it required no thought or effort. The spear came up, thrust forward, into Vaintè’s side, deep into her body. She clutched at it and it came free. Blood spurted as she crumpled and fell backwards out of sight.

“Run,” Herilak shouted, pulling at Kerrick’s shoulder. “Come with me. You can’t stay here, not after what you have done. You must come with me. That is all that you can do now.”

He took Kerrick by the hand, tugging him towards the dark wall of the forest beyond the glade. Kerrick resisted — then stumbled after him crashing, through the undergrowth, the spear still clutched, forgotten, in his hand, with Inlènu* protesting and stumbling along behind.

Their running footsteps died away as they vanished from sight among the trees. The glade was quiet again.

Quiet as death.

BOOK TWO

CHAPTER ONE

The flock of crows wheeled up in wide circles, cawing loudly before settling back among the trees. There was little wind and the afternoon was close and hot. Under the trees it was cooler, for the leaves were so thick upon the birch and oak trees above that only a dapple of flickering sunlight filtered through to the forest floor below. A moving pattern of light that played over the three figures sprawled on the soft grass.

Even Herilak’s massive strength was spent; his wounds had reopened and blood matted his hair and beard, spread wetly down his side. He lay back, eyes closed, drawing in breath after ragged breath.

Inlènu* lay opposite him, her position an unconscious mockery of his with her jaw gaping wide to cool herself after the unwelcome exertion in the heat.

Kerrick was not as exhausted as they were, so was well aware of what was happening, of where they were. In the foothills close above the shore. They had fled, running until Inlènu* could run no more, and when she had staggered to a halt Herilak had fallen as well. While they had been running Kerrick’s panic had slowly ebbed away — but had been replaced by a heart-stopping fear.

What had he done?

The question was its own answer. He knew what he had done. He had destroyed himself. He had murdered the Eistaa. Now that the emotion was spent he could not understand what had possessed him to do such an insane thing. With that single thrust of the spear he had cut every bond that held him to the Yilanè, had set every Yilanè hand against him. The life he had known was ended, was as dead as Vaintè herself. Now he could never return to the comforts of Alpèasak, to the easy life he had known there. Ahead of him was only a blankness, an emptiness, with the only certainty that of death itself. Shivering with apprehension he turned and pushed a shrub aside and looked back down the slope. Nothing moved. There was no sign of any pursuit. Not yet — but they would certainly follow. The murderer of the Eistaa would not be allowed to escape unpunished.

He could not return. Not after what he had done. The past was dead. He was an exile now, a Yilanè among ustuzou. More alone than he had ever been before. The voice cut across his thoughts and it was long moments before he could understand the words.

“You did it well, Kerrick, a good clean thrust. Killed the one in command.”

Kerrick’s voice was numb with loss. “More than just the one in command. Leader, head of the city, sammadar of the city.”

“Even better.”

“Better? Her death will bring about my death!”

“Her? That ugly marag was female? It’s hard to believe.”

“They are all female. The males are kept locked away.”

Herilak struggled up onto his elbows and looked coldly at Inlènu*. “That one too, a female?” he asked.

“All of them.”

“Give me the spear. Then there will be one less.”

“No!” Kerrick pulled the spear back before Herilak’s groping fingers could find it. “Not Inlènu*. She’s harmless, as much a prisoner as I am. You’ll not kill her.”

“Why not? Was it not her kind cut down my sammad, killed them all, every one? Give me the spear. I’ll kill her and then you will be free. How far do you think you will be able to go bound to her like that?”

“You will not harm her, do you understand?” Kerrick was surprised at the warmth of his feeling towards Inlènu*. She had meant nothing to him before this. He had been aware of her only as a hindrance to his movements. But now her presence was somehow reassuring.

“If you won’t kill her then use the edge of the spearhead. Cut yourself loose from the thing.”

“This lead cannot be cut. See, the stone edge won’t even scratch it.” He sawed at the smooth, hard surface to no effect. “Some of your sammad escaped.” Talk of this might make Herilak forget Inlènu* for the moment. “I was told this. I was also told that they were being followed.”

“Do you know who they were? How many?”

“No. Just that some fled.”

“Now I must think. Whoever they are, they will not go any further south. They will know better than that. They will return, back the way we came. Yes, that is what they will do. Backtrack, to the nearest water, the stream where we camped last night. We must go there as well.” He looked up at Kerrick. “Have we been followed?”

“I have been watching. I don’t think that any of them saw us escape. But they will come. They are good trackers. I will not be allowed to escape after what I have done.”

“You worry without cause. They are not here yet. But we will not be safe until we are well away from the shore. They could still find us in these hills if, as you say, they know anything about tracking.” He struggled to rise, and could only get to his feet with Kerrick’s help. He rubbed the clotted blood from his eyes and looked about. “We go in that direction, along that valley. If we follow it north, then cross the ridge, we will come to the campsite by the stream. Now we leave.”

They made slow progress the rest of the afternoon, since they were forced to proceed at Herilak’s limping pace, going on steadily even though there was no sign of any pursuit. They were working their way up a grassy valley when Herilak stopped suddenly and raised his head to sniff the air.

“Deer,” he said. “We need food. I don’t think that we are being followed — but even if we are we must take the chance. You will bring a good-sized buck, Kerrick.”

Kerrick looked at the spear, tested its weight in his hand. “I have not thrown a spear since I was a boy. I no longer have the skill.”

“It will return.”

“Not this day. You have the skill, Herilak. Do you have the strength?” He held out the spear and Herilak seized it.

“When I lack the strength to hunt I will be dead. Go to the stream there, under the trees, keep watch and wait until I return.”

Herilak’s back straightened as he tested the balance of the spear, then he trotted swiftly and silently away. Kerrick turned and led the way down to the stream where he drank his fill, then poured handfuls of water over his dusty body. Inlènu* knelt down and sucked water noisily between her pointed teeth, then squatted comfortably on the bank with her tail in the stream.

Kerrick envied her peace of mind, her stability at all times. It must be pleasant to be so stupid. She didn’t question their presence here at all, had no concept of what might happen to her.

Kerrick knew what he had left behind — but the future was only a blank. He must come to terms with it: but it was too early to do that yet. How could he live away from the city? He knew nothing about this kind of rough existence. A boy’s memories did not fit him for Tanu life. He wasn’t even able to hurl a spear.

“A Yilanè comes,” Inlènu* said and he sprang to his feet, terrified. Stallan and her hunters! This was his death. He drew back from the crackling in the underbrush — then swayed with relief when Herilak pushed his way through, a horned buck draped across his shoulders. He dropped it heavily and fell beside it.

Kerrick turned angrily to reproach Inlènu* — then realized that it was not her fault. To Inlènu* all those who talked were Yilanè. What she really meant to say, though she knew no way to express it, was that someone, some person, was approaching.

“I saw murgu,” Herilak said, and Kerrick’s fear returned. “They were in the next valley, going back towards the sea. I think that they have lost our trail. Now we will eat.”

Herilak used the spear to open and gut the still-warm deer. Since they had no fire he cut out the liver first, divided it, and handed a piece to Kerrick.

“I am not hungry, not now,” Kerrick said, looking down at the raw and bloody lump of flesh.

“You will be. Do not discard it.”

Inlènu* was facing away from them, but her nearer eye moved and followed every motion Herilak made. He was aware of this and after he had eaten his fill he pointed a bloody finger at her.

“Does that thing eat meat?”

Kerrick smiled at the question and spoke swiftly, ordering Inlènu* to open her mouth. She did so, only her jaw moving. Herilak looked at the rows of glistening, pointed teeth and grunted.

“It eats meat. Should I feed it?”

“Yes, I would like that.”

Herilak hacked off a forelimb and stripped most of the skin from it, then handed it to Kerrick.

“You feed it. I don’t like its teeth.”

“Inlènu* is harmless. Nothing but a stupid fargi.”

Inlènu* closed her thumbs about the deer leg, then chewed slowly and powerfully on the tough meat, gazing blankly into the distance.

“What did you say it was?” Herilak asked.

“Fargi. It, well, I cannot say what the word means. Something like one who is learning to speak, but is not very good at it.”

“Are you a fargi?”

“I am not!” Kerrick was insulted. “I am Yilanè. That is, although I am Tanu, I speak like a Yilanè so I am considered one. Was considered one.”

“How did this happen? Do you remember?”

“Now I do. But I didn’t, not for a long time.”

His voice was halting, the words difficult to say, as he spoke aloud for the first time about what had happened to sammad Amahast. Relived the slaughter, the captivity, the fear of certain death and the unexpected reprieve. He stopped then because the words he spoke now did not seem capable of describing his years since that day.

Herilak was silent as well, understanding a little of what had happened to the boy Kerrick who had managed to live when all the others had died. A lone survivor who had somehow found a way to come to terms with the murgu. Who had learned their language and learned to live among them. He was a lot like them now, though he would not be aware of that. He moved about when he talked, then sat immobile when he was finished. They had done something to him; there was not a hair on his body. And he wore that pouch, made to look like his skin, as though they had taken away his maleness as well. Herilak’s thoughts were interrupted by a sudden splash of water.

Kerrick heard it too and the color drained from his face. “They have found us. I am dead.”

Herilak waved him to silence as he took up the spear, stood and faced downstream. There was more splashing, the sound of the bushes being pushed aside just around the bend. He raised the spear as the hunter appeared.

“It is Ortnar,” he said, then called out.

Ortnar recoiled at the sound, then straightened and waved back. He was close to exhaustion, leaning on his spear as he came forward. Only when he was closer did he see Inlènu*. He seized up the spear to hurl it at her, was stopped only by Herilak’s command.

“Stop. The marag is a prisoner. Are you alone?”

“Yes, now.” He dropped heavily to the ground. He laid his bow and empty quiver aside, but kept his spear in his hand and looked angrily at Inlènu*. “Tellges was with me, we had been hunting when the murgu attacked, we were just returning to the sammad. We fought until our arrows were gone. They came at us with the death-sticks. There was nothing more we could do. All behind us were dead. I made him leave, but he hung back, did not run fast enough. They followed and he turned to fight. He fell. I came on alone. Now tell me — what are these creatures?”

“I am no creature, I am Tanu,” Kerrick said angrily.

“Like no Tanu I have ever seen. No hair, no spear, tied to that marag…”

“Silence,” Herilak ordered. “This is Kerrick, son of Amahast. His mother was my sister. He has been a prisoner of the murgu.”

Ortnar rubbed his mouth with his fist. “I spoke in haste. This has been a day of death. I am Ortnar and I welcome you.” His face twisted with an expression of grim humor. “Welcome to the sammad of Herilak, much reduced in numbers.” He glanced up at the darkening sky. “There will be many new stars there tonight.”

The sun was low now and the air was cool at this altitude. Inlènu* laid aside the well-gnawed bone and looked in Kerrick’s direction.

“Humbly ask, low to high, where are the cloaks?”

“There are no cloaks, Inlènu*.”

“I am cold.”

Kerrick shivered as well, but not from the cold. “There is nothing I can do, Inlènu*, nothing at all.”

CHAPTER TWO

Inlènu* died during the night. Kerrick woke at dawn, shivering with cold. There was a beading of dew on the grass and mist was rising from the stream. When he turned towards Inlènu* he saw that her mouth was gaping open, her eyes staring sightlessly.

The cold, he thought. She died in the night of the cold.

Then he saw the pool of blood under her head. A spearpoint had been thrust into her throat, silencing her and killing her. Who had done this cruel thing? Herilak was still asleep but Ortnar’s eyes were open, staring coldly at him.

“You did this!” Kerrick cried out, jumping to his feet. “Murdered this harmless creature in her sleep.”

“I killed a marag.” His voice was insolent. “It is always a good thing to kill murgu.”

Shaking with rage, Kerrick reached out and seized Herilak’s spear. But he could not lift it; the big hunter held fast to the haft.

“The creature is dead,” Herilak said. “That is the end of it. She would have died soon of the cold in any case.”

Kerrick stopped tugging at the spear and sprang suddenly at Ortnar, seizing him by the throat with both hands, his thumbs digging deep into the hunter’s windpipe. His own throat hurt where the collar cut in; he had dragged Inlènu*’s dead weight after him, but he paid it no heed. Ortnar writhed in his grasp and groped for his spear, but Kerrick jammed the man’s arm against the ground with his knee, grinding down hard. Ortnar thrashed feebly, tearing at Kerrick’s back with the nails of his free hand, but Kerrick felt nothing in his rage.

Ortnar would have been dead had not Herilak intervened. He seized Kerrick’s wrists in his great hands and pulled them wide. Ortnar hoarsely gasped in breath after breath, then moaned and rubbed at the bruised flesh of his throat. Kerrick’s blind anger faded and, as soon as he stopped struggling, Herilak released him.

“Tanu does not kill Tanu,” he said.

Kerrick started to protest, then grew silent. It was done. Inlènu* was dead. Killing her murderer would accomplish nothing. And Herilak was right; the winter would have killed her in any case. Kerrick sat down by her still form and looked out into the sunrise. What did she matter to him anyway? Just a stupid fargi who was always in his way. With her death his last link with Alpèasak was severed. So be it. He was Tanu now. He could forget that he had ever been Yilanè.

Then he realized that he was holding the flexible lead that joined him to Inlènu*. He was not free yet. And this lead could not be cut, he knew that. With that came the realization that there was only one way that he could be freed. He looked up, horrified, into Herilak’s face. The sammadar nodded with understanding.

“I will do what must be done. Turn away for you will not enjoy the sight.”

Kerrick faced the stream, but he could clearly hear what was happening behind his back. Ortnar stumbled to the water to bathe his face and neck and Kerrick shouted insults at him, trying to drown out the sounds.

It was over quickly. Herilak wiped the neck-ring on the grass before handing it to Kerrick. Kerrick went swiftly to the stream and washed it over and over in the running water. When it was clean, he took it in both hands, stood and walked upstream away from the spot. He did not want to see what was lying back there.

When he heard the hunters approaching he turned quickly to face them; he had no desire to be killed from behind.

“This one has something to say,” Herilak said pushing Ortnar forward. There was hatred in the small hunter’s face and he touched his bruised throat when he spoke. His voice was hoarse.

“I was perhaps mistaken to kill the marag — but I am not sorry that I did it. The sammadar ordered me to say this. What is done is done. But you attempted to kill me, strange one, and that is something that is not easy to forget. But your bond to that marag was stronger than I knew — nor do I want to know more about it. So I say of my own free will that your back is safe from my spearpoint. How say you?”

The two hunters watched Kerrick in stern silence and he knew that he had to decide. Now. Inlènu* was dead and nothing could restore her life. And he could understand Ortnar’s cold hatred after the destruction of his sammad. He, of all people, should be able to understand that.

“Your back is safe from my spear, Ortnar,” he said.

“That is the end of the matter,” Herilak said, and it was a command. “We shall talk of it no more. Ortnar, you will carry the deer’s carcass. We will have a fire tonight and will eat well. Go with Kerrick, you know the path. Stop at midday . I will join you then. There is cover among those trees. If we are being followed by the murgu I will know it soon enough.”

The two men walked in silence for some time. The track was easy to follow, the ground deeply scored by the poles of the travois, leading up the valley almost to its end, then over the ridge to the next valley. Ortnar was gasping for breath under the weight of his burden and called out when they came to the slow-moving stream on the valley’s floor.

“Some water, strange-one, then we will go on.”

He threw the deer down and buried his face in the stream, came up gasping.

“My name is Kerrick, son of Amahast,” Kerrick said. “Do you find that too hard to remember?”

“Peace, Kerrick. My throat is still sore from our last encounter. I meant no insult, but you do look strange. You have just stubble instead of a beard or hair.”

“It will grow in time.” Kerrick rubbed at the bristles on his face.

“Yes, I imagine so. It just looks strange now. But that ring on your neck. Why do you wear it? Why not cut it off?”

“Here, you do it.” Kerrick handed over the ring he was carrying and smiled as Ortnar sawed uselessly at the transparent lead with the edge of his spear point.

“It is smooth and soft — yet I cannot cut it.”

“The Yilanè can do many things that we cannot. If I told you how it was made you would not believe me.”

“You know their secrets? Of course, you must. Tell me of the death-sticks. We captured one but could do nothing with it. Finally it began to smell and we cut it open and it was a dead animal of some kind.”

“It is a creature called a hèsotsan. They are a special kind of animals. They can move around like other animals when they are young. But when they grow old they become as you saw. They must be fed. Then darts are placed within them and when they are pressed in the correct manner the darts are fired out.”

Ortnar’s mouth hung open as he fought to understand. “But how can that be? Where are there animals like that?”

“Nowhere. That is the murgu secret. I have seen what they do, but I do not understand it myself. They can make animals do strange things. They know how to make them breed to do anything. It is hard to explain.”

“Even harder to understand. It is time to go. Now it is your turn to carry the deer.”

“Herilak ordered you to carry it.”

“Yes — but you are going to help eat it.”

Ortnar smiled as he said this and in spite of himself Kerrick smiled back. “All right, give it to me. But you’ll get it back soon enough. Didn’t Herilak say we would have a fire?” His mouth was suddenly wet with spittle at the memory. “Cooked meat — I had forgotten what it was like.”

“Then the murgu eat all their meat raw?” Ortnar asked as they started up the track again.

“No. Well, yes and no. It is softened in some way. You get used to it.”

“Why don’t they roast it properly?”

“Because…” Kerrick stopped in his tracks at the thought. “Because they don’t make fires. I never realized that before. I guess they don’t need fires because where they live it is always warm. Sometimes at night when it is cool, or on wet days, we wrap — there is no word for it — warm things around us.”

“Skins? Fur robes?”

“No. Living creatures that are warm.”

“Sounds disgusting. The more I hear about your murgu the more I detest them. I don’t know how you could bear living with creatures like that.”

“I had little choice,” Kerrick said grimly, then walked on in silence.

Herilak joined them soon after they had reached their stopping place for the night.

“The trail behind is empty. They have turned back.”

“Cooked meat!” Ortnar said, smacking his lips together. “But I wish we had brought the fire with us.”

These words touched a memory that Kerrick had long forgotten. “I used to do that,” he said. “Keep the fire in the bow of the boat.”

“That is a boy’s work,” Herilak said. “As a hunter you must make your own fire. Do you know how to do it?”

Kerrick hesitated. “I remember seeing it done. But I have forgotten. It was so long ago.”

“Then watch. You are Tanu now and must know these things if you are to be a hunter.”

It was a slow process. Herilak broke a branch from a long-dead and dried tree, then carefully cut and rounded a length of stick from it. While he did this, Ortnar searched deeper in the forest and returned with a handful of dry and moldy wood. He shredded and pounded this into a fine powder. When Herilak had finished the stick to his satisfaction he scraped another length of the wood flat, then drilled a shallow hole in it with his spearpoint.

When the preparations were done Herilak took Ortnar’s bow and wrapped the bowstring about the carefully fashioned stick. He sat on the ground, held the length of wood steady with his feet, then placed the pointed tip of the stick into the hole in the wood and began to draw the bow back and forth to make it spin. Ortnar pushed some of the powdered wood into the hole while Herilak spun the stick as fast he could. A tiny thread of smoke twisted up, then died away. Herilak gasped with the effort and sat back.

The next time he spun the stick the wisp of smoke became a tiny spark of flame. They dropped more wood-dust upon it, blew carefully, cupped it between their hands as the flame grew, laughing with pleasure. They built the fire high, adding more and more wood, then let it die back to a bed of glowing coals. Soon the meat was roasting in the coals and Kerrick breathed in the cooking odors that he had completely forgotten.

They burnt their fingers on the hot meat, hacked off great pieces, ate and ate until their faces ran with grease and sweat. Rested, then ate some more. Kerrick could not remember having eaten anything so good in his entire life.

That night they slept with their feet to the banked fire, warm and content, their stomachs full.

Kerrick woke during the night when Herilak got up to put more wood on the fire. The stars were bright points of light in the black sky, the star-group of the Hunter just above the horizon in the east. For the first time since their escape Kerrick was at peace, feeling the security of the hunters on both sides of him. They had not been followed. They were safe from the Yilanè.

Safe from the Yilanè? Would that ever be possible? He knew as these hunters did not how ruthless their enemy was. How strong. The raptors would fly and find every Tanu in every valley and meadow; nowhere could they be safe. The armed fargi would attack again and again until all the Tanu were dead. There was no possible escape. Nor could he sink back again into the blank escape of sleep.

Kerrick lay there awake, possessed by the knowledge of certain destruction. He watched as the sky lightened in the east and the stars vanished one by one. The new day had begun. The first day of his new life.

CHAPTER THREE

Kerrick’s feet were swollen and sore after the long walk the day before. Sitting on a large boulder, chewing a lump of tough yet delicious meat, he bathed them in the cool water of the stream. Although his soles were thickly callused and tough he was unaccustomed to walking on stony ground. Now his feet were scratched and cut and he was not looking forward to the strenuous day that lay ahead. Herilak saw what he was doing and pointed to the long gash that cut through the callus of Kerrick’s right foot. “We must do something about that.” He and Ortnar were wearing flexible but strong madraps, made from two pieces of cured leather that had been carefully sewn together with lengths of gut. They did not have the materials here to fashion anything for him this complex — but there were other raw materials close to hand. Herilak found stones that would chip correctly and hammered off small, sharp flakes. Under his direction Ortnar removed the deer’s skin, then scraped the adhering flesh from it in the running water. Herilak cut squares and strips from this, put the larger pieces around Kerrick’s feet and bound them into place with the thin lengths.

“Good enough for now,” he said. “By the time the skin gets stiff and starts to stink we will be far away from here.” Kerrick picked up the rest of the discarded deerskin and found that it would just fit around his waist, where it could be held in place with a prong of the deer’s horn. He scraped it clean of flesh, as he had seen Ortnar do, then took off the soft skin pouch that he had worn for so many years. It lay limply in his hand, the adhering suckers inside it gleaming wetly. With sudden revulsion he hurled it into the stream. That life was behind him forever; he was Tanu now.

But when he turned he tripped over the ring that had been around Inlènu*’s neck for all those years, that was still attached to the ring about his own neck. He held it out before him, loathing its smooth transparency and its solid strength. In sudden anger he smashed it down on the rock that rose from the stream bed, seized up another rock and beat at it until the anger died. It was not even scratched.

Ortnar looked on with interest, stretched out his hand and rubbed it over the unmarked surface.

“Won’t cut, won’t scratch. Stronger than stone. I’ve never seen anything like it. Water won’t soften it?”

“No, nothing.”

“Even hot water, boiling water?”

“I’ve never tried. We had nothing like that in the city. You can’t boil water without fire…”

As soon as Kerrick had spoken the words he stiffened, looking down at the ring and its flexible lead, then slowly raised his eyes to the smoking fire on the shore. Not water, even boiling water. But something that the Yilanè knew nothing about.

Fire.

It might just be possible. The substance wasn’t stone or metal. It might melt, or char, soften perhaps. If this happened it might then be weak enough to cut. Ortnar saw the direction of Kerrick’s gaze and struck his hands together with enthusiasm.

“Why not? Fire might do something to it. You said the murgu don’t have fire.”

“They don’t.”

“Let me try.”

Ortnar picked up the discarded ring at the other end of the lead and stepped over to the smoking ashes of the fire, poked it down into them.

Nothing happened. Kerrick looked on gloomily when he took it out and brushed the ashes from the smooth surface. It was unmarked — but he burnt his fingers. Ortnar sucked at them, then spat out bits of charcoal. Still determined he stirred the fire with a stick until it flamed up. When the stick began to burn he touched it to the ring.

Screamed and dropped it as it burst into scorching flame, crackling and exploding.

Kerrick saw the flame gush out surrounded by a growing cloud of black smoke, the ring burning, the fire flashing up the lead towards his face.

Unthinking, he hurled himself backward, away from the scorching heat. Fell splashing into the stream.

When he spluttered and rose to his feet again he saw the red weal across his arm and midriff where the burning lead had touched his body. It ended on his chest. With wondering fingers he touched the stub of the lead that ended there as well.

It was gone. This connection that had dominated his life, this restraint that had been with him all those long years. It was gone. He stood up straight, not feeling the burns, aware only that a great burden had been removed. His last tie with the Yilanè severed.

As they rubbed deer fat onto their burns, Ortnar pointed to the length of lead still hanging from the ring on Kerrick’s neck.

“We could burn that off too. You could lie in the water, just that much above the surface, I could get some burning wood…”

“I think we’ve done enough for one day,” Kerrick said. “We’ll wait until the burns heal before trying anything like this again.”

Ortnar kicked the hot metal ring into the water. When it had cooled he examined it with great interest, rubbing it with a stone. “It shines like skymetal. They have great skills, the murgu, to fit it about your flesh like that.” He reluctantly gave the ring to Kerrick when he reached out for it.

“It was molded in place by one of their animals,” he said.

“You will keep it?”

There was hope in Ortnar’s voice and Kerrick almost gave the ring back to him. But as he clutched it in his hands he felt the same repulsion that he had when he took off the breech covering for the last time.

“No. It is Yilanè, murgu.” He threw it out into the stream where it splashed and sank. “I still wear one about my neck. That is enough to have.”

They were ready now to leave, but Herilak stood, leaning on his spear, looking back the way they had come.

“If more had escaped they would be here by now,” he said. “And we have been running like frightened women. Now we must stop and consider our trail ahead. Tell me about the murgu, Kerrick, what are they doing now?”

“I do not understand.”

“Are they still following us? Are they waiting still on the beach where they attacked?”

“No, they will have gone by now. They were hunting for food and had brought very little preserved meat with them. The object of the expedition was to come this far north to destroy the sammad. Then return. Nothing would be accomplished by remaining here. With the Eistaa’s death no one else would be in command. There would have been a lot of confusion and they would certainly have returned to the city by now.”

“That is what the main body would have done. But would there be others left behind to search for us?”

“There might be. Stallan might be doing that — no. Of all of them she is the one who was closest to second in command. She would surely have ordered their return.”

“Then you believe they are gone?”

“Almost certainly.”

“That is good. We will return to the shore.”

Kerrick felt a thrust of fear at the words. “They may be hiding, waiting for us.”

“You just assured me — that they would not.”

“We are hunters,” Ortnar said. “We will know if they are there.”

“We have no reason…”

“Every reason.” Herilak was firm now, once more in command. “We have two spears, one bow without arrows, nothing more. When the snow falls we will die. All that we need is back there. We return.”

They went fast, too fast for Kerrick. It was too much like returning to certain death. By dusk they were in the foothills above the shore and could see the ocean beyond.

“Ortnar, you will go carefully,” Herilak ordered. “Without sound, unseen. Look carefully for any sign of the murgu.”

Ortnar shook his spear in acknowledgment, turned and slipped away through the trees. Herilak settled down comfortably in the shade and promptly went to sleep. Kerrick was too upset to do anything other than worry, to look towards the shore and let his fear populate the forest with stalking Yilanè.

The sun was below the horizon when a bird called out from the valley below. Herilak was instantly awake; cupping his hands to his mouth he answered the call. There was a crackling in the brush and Ortnar came into view running easily up the slope.

“Gone,” he said. “Gone the way they came.”

“You can’t be sure,” Kerrick said. Ortnar looked at him scornfully.

“Of course I am sure. I found no fresh tracks. And the carrion birds were everywhere — and they are quick to take fright. And I searched as well.” His drawn face spoke louder than words. He pointed to the arrows that now filled his quiver. “Everything we need is there.”

“We go now,” Herilak announced.

It was well after dark when they reached the site of the massacre, but the gibbous moon’s cold light enabled them to find the way. The crows and buzzards were gone with the daylight and now the mantle of darkness concealed the worst horrors of the massacre. The smell of decay was already strong. Kerrick stood on the shore, looking out to sea, while the others searched for what was needed. He turned back reluctantly to face the slaughter only when Herilak called to him.

“Put these on,” the sammadar said. “They belonged to a great hunter. May they bring you good fortune.”

There were fur leggings with solid leather soles, a cape, belt, and other heavy garments. Too warm for the summer, but they would make the difference between life and death when the snows came. A long spear, stout bow, arrows. Kerrick made a bundle of the things he would not wear and put it with the other bundles and baskets they were taking. Herilak had taken some of the crosspoles from one of the large mastodon travois and made a smaller one that they could pull. Everything they needed was now lashed into place upon it.

“We go now,” he said, his voice grim as death with the dead of the sammad on all sides of him. “We will never forget what the murgu have done here.”

They walked until the moon set, taking turns between the shafts of the travois, until they were too tired to go any farther. Kerrick still feared that Yilanè hunters were searching for him, but so great was his fatigue that he fell asleep while he was worrying and did not stir until dawn.

Herilak unlashed a bag of ekkotaz from the travois and they dipped out handfuls of the delicious mixture, dried berries and nutmeat, pounded together. Kerrick had been a boy when he last tasted it and childhood memories flooded back as he licked it from his fingers. It was good to be Tanu. But even as he thought this he was scratching at his waist, over and over. When he pulled the fur back he saw the red bites. His skin crawled as he realized that the brave hunter who had last worn these furs had been infested with fleas. Suddenly being Tanu was not that pleasant. His back was sore from lying on the hard ground, his muscles ached from the unaccustomed exercise — and if that wasn’t enough there was a sudden spasm of pain in his midriff. The burnt and tough meat was not sitting too well in his stomach; he hurried behind the nearest clump of bushes.

Racked with cramps he saw the flea crawl across his discarded garments. He cracked it between his fingernail, then wiped his fingers disgustedly on the grass. He was filthy and sore, flea-infested and ill. What was he doing here with these crude ustuzou? Why wasn’t he in Alpèasak? He had been comfortable there, at peace, close to the Eistaa. Why couldn’t he return? Vaintè was dead of a spear thrust — but who in the city knew that he had wielded the spear? He hadn’t been seen. Why couldn’t he go back?

He washed himself well, then went a few paces upstream to drink. On. the bank the two hunters were lashing the load back onto the travois. They could go on without him.

But did he want to go back to Alpèasak? For years he had been thinking of escape from the city — and now he was free. Wasn’t that what he had always wanted? That was the Yilanè’s world, not his. There was no place for him there.

But was there a place for him among the Tanu?

He stood knee-deep in the cool water, his fists clenched. Lost. Belonging neither to one world nor the other. Outcast and alone.

Herilak called out to him, his words cutting through Kerrick’s dark thoughts. He waded ashore, then pulled his garments slowly on.

“We leave now,” Herilak said.

“Where do you go?” Kerrick asked, still torn by conflicting feelings.

“West. To find other hunters. To return with them and kill murgu.”

“They are too strong, too many.”

“Then I will be dead and my tharm will join the tharms of the other hunters in my sammad. But first I will have avenged them. It is a good way to die.”

“There are no good ways to die.”

Herilak looked at him in silence, understanding something of the conflicting emotions that Kerrick was feeling. Those years of captivity must have done strange things to the boy who was now a man. But the years were there, they could not be taken away. There was no going back. The way ahead might be hard — but it was the only way.

Herilak reached up to his neck and slowly lifted the leather thong with the pendant skymetal knife over his head, then held it out.

“This was your father’s. You are his son for you still wear the smaller boy’s knife made at the same time. Hang this one about your neck beside it. Wear it now to remind you of his death and the death of your sammad. And who killed them. Feel hatred in your heart and the knowledge that you seek vengeance as well.”

Kerrick hesitated, then reached out and took the knife, held it, then clenched his fist tightly about its hard shape.

There could be no going back to Alpèasak. Ever. He must teach himself to feel only hatred towards the murderers of his people. He hoped that would come.

But now all he felt was a terrible emptiness inside.

CHAPTER FOUR

Es mo tarril drepastar, er em so man drija.

If my brother is wounded, I will bleed.

The hunting was very bad. Ulfadan had been out since before dawn and had little to show for it. A single rabbit hung from his belt. It was young and scrawny, with scarcely enough meat on its bones to feed a single person. How was his entire sammad to eat. He came to the edge of the forest and stopped under a large oak, looking out at the grassland beyond. He dared go no further.

Here there were murgu. From here to the end of the world, if the world had an end, there were only these despised and frightening creatures. Some made good eating, he had once tasted the meat from the leg of one of the smaller murgu with bills that grazed in vast herds. But death was always waiting for the hunter who sought them out. There were poisonous murgu in the grass, snakes of all sizes, many-colored and deadly. Worse still were the giant creatures whose roars were like thunder, whose tread shook the ground like an earthquake. As he always did when he thought of murgu, though he did not realize it, his fingers touched the tooth of one of these giants that hung on his chest. A single tooth almost as long as his forearm. He had been young and stupid when he retrieved it, risking death to show his bravery.

From the trees he had seen the marag die, seen the repulsive carrion eaters that quarreled and tore at the creature’s body. Only after dark had he dared to leave the shelter of the trees, to pry this single tooth from the gaping jaws. Then the night-murgu had appeared and only chance had saved his life. The long white scar on his thigh was witness that he had not returned unharmed. No, there was no game to be sought beyond the protection of the trees.

But the sammad must eat. Yet the food they searched and hunted for was growing scarcer and scarcer. The world was changing and Ulfadan did not know why. The alladjex told them that ever since Ermanpadar had shaped Tanu from the mud of the river bed the world had been the same. In the winter they went to the mountains where the snow lay deep and the deer were easy to kill. When the snow melted in the spring they followed the fast streams down to the river, and sometimes to the sea, where fish leaped in the water and good things grew in the earth. Never too far south though, for only murgu and death waited there. But the mountains and the dark northern forests had always provided everything that they had needed.

This was no longer true. With the mountains now wrapped in endless winter, the herds of deer depleted, the snow in the forests lying late into the spring, their timeless sources of food were no more. They were eating now, there were fish enough in the river at this season. They had been joined at their river camp by sammad Kellimans; this happened every year. It was a time to meet and talk, for the young men to find women. There was little of this now for although there was enough fish to eat there was not enough to preserve for the winter. And without this supply of food very few of them would see the spring.

There was no way out of the trap. To the west and east other sammads waited, as hungry as his and Kellimans’. Murgu to the south, ice to the north — and they were trapped between them. No way out. Ulfadan’s head was bursting with this problem that had no solution. In agony he wailed aloud like a trapped animal, then turned and made his way back to the sammad.

From the top of the grassy slope that led down to the river, nothing looked amiss. The dark cones of the leather tents stretched along the river bank in a ragged row. Figures moved about between the tents and smoke rose from the fires. Close by him one of the tethered mastodons raised its trunk and bellowed. Further along the shore some women could be seen scratching at the earth with their fire-hardened sticks, digging up edible roots. The roots were good food now. But what would happen when the ground froze again? He knew what would happen and he thrust the thought from him.

Naked children ran screaming, splashed in the water. Old women sat in the sun before their tents plaiting baskets from willow and reeds. As he walked by the tents Ulfadan’s face was set and stern, unreadable. One of his smaller sons hurried up to him, bursting with an important message.

“Three hunters are here, from another sammad. One of them is very funny.”

“Take this rabbit to your mother. Run.”

The hunters were sitting around a fire, taking puffs in turn from a stone-bowled pipe. Kellimans was there, and Fraken the alladjex, old and withered, but respected greatly for his knowledge and healing powers. The newcomers rose in greeting when he appeared. One of them he knew well.

“I greet you, Herilak.”

“I greet you, Ulfadan. This is Ortnar of my sammad. This is Kerrick, son of Amahast, son of my sister.”

“You have food and drink?”

“We have eaten and drunk. Ulfadan’s generosity is well-known.”

Ulfadan joined the circle about the fire, took the pipe when it was passed to him and inhaled deeply of the pungent smoke. He wondered about the strange hunter without hair, who should have been dead with the rest of his sammad but was not. He would be told at the proper time.

Other hunters were also curious about the newcomers and came and sat in a circle about them, for this was the way of the sammad.

Herilak was no longer as formal as he once had been. He waited until the pipe had passed only once before he spoke.

“The winters are long, and we know that. The food is scarce and we know that. Now all in my sammad are dead except two.”

There was a silence among the hunters after he had spoken these terrible words, wails of agony from the women who listened outside the circle. Many had relations who had married into Herilak’s sammad. More than one looked up at the eastern sky where the first stars were beginning to appear. When Herilak spoke again no sound disturbed him.

“It is known that I went with my hunters so far south that there was no snow and it was hot in the winter, to the place where there are only murgu. It was my thought that murgu had killed Amahast and all in his sammad. My thought was correct for we found murgu that walk like men and kill with death-sticks. It was one of their death-sticks that I found among the bones of sammad Amahast. We killed the murgu we found there, then returned north. Now we knew that death lay to the south and we knew what kind of death it was. But we were hungry this last winter and many died. In the summer the hunting was bad, as you know. So I took the sammad south along the coast because of the hunger. I led the hunters farther south for the easy hunting there. We knew of the danger. We knew that the murgu might attack us too, but without food we would be dead anyway. We were on our guard and there was no attack. It was only after we turned back that they fell upon us. I am here. Ortnar is here. The rest are dead. With us is Kerrick who is the son of Amahast, captured by the murgu, now free at last. He knows much about the murgu ways.”

There was a loud murmur of interest then and movement among those listening as those to the back tried to get a clear view of Kerrick. They pointed out his lack of hair and the shining ring about his neck, and the skymetal knives that hung there. He stared straight ahead and said nothing. When they were silent again Kellimans spoke.

“These are days of death for the Tanu. The winter kills us, the murgu kill us, other Tanu kill us.”

“Is it not enough to be killed by the murgu? Must we fight one another?” Herilak asked.

“It is the long winter and the short summer that we must battle against,” Ulfadan said. “We came to this place because the deer are gone from the mountains. But when we tried to hunt here the bowmen of many sammads from beyond the mountains drove us away. We have little food now and in the winter we will starve.”

Herilak shook his head sadly. “That is not the way. The murgu are the enemy, not the Tanu. If we battle one another our end is certain.”

Kellimans nodded agreement as Ulfadan spoke next. “I believe as you do, Herilak, but this is not of our doing. It is the other sammads you must speak with. If it were not for them we would hunt and not starve. They come from beyond the mountains and they are many and very hungry. They push us back and we cannot hunt. They would see us die.”

Herilak dismissed his words with a chop of his hand. “No, that is wrong. They are not the cause of your woes. The hunting must be just as bad beyond the mountains or they would not have come here. The Tanu have two enemies. The winter that does not end — and the murgu. Together they are uniting to destroy us. We cannot battle against the winter. But we can kill murgu.”

Others raised their voices then and joined the argument, but were silenced when Fraken began to speak. They respected the old man’s knowledge and healing powers and hoped that he could show them some answer to their problems.

“The murgu are like the leaves and as numberless as leaves. You tell us that they have the death-sticks. How can we fight against creatures like this? And why should we? If we risk death fighting them — what do we win? It is food and not warfare that we must have.”

There was a murmur of approval when he finished speaking. Only Herilak seemed to disagree.

“It is food you must have, revenge that I will have,” he said grimly. “A way must be found to kill these murgu to the south. When they are dead there will be good hunting down the coast.”

There was much discussion and crosstalk after this, but nothing could be decided. In the end Herilak signed to Ortnar and they rose and left. Kerrick watched them go — but hesitated to follow them. His lust for revenge did not match theirs. If they did not call to him maybe he would not have to join them. He could stay here by the fire and join the talk with the other hunters. Perhaps he might even stay here with this sammad and hunt and forget the murgu.

But this was not the answer. He knew what the others here did not. He knew that the Yilanè would not forget him nor the rest of the Tanu. Their hatred ran too deep. They would send out the raptors and find every sammad and would not rest until they had all been destroyed. Ulfadan and Kellimans and their people feared only the winter and their hunger and the other Tanu — when the certain killer was just over the horizon.

No one took notice when Kerrick picked up his spear and left. He found his two companions at a fire of their own and he joined them there. Herilak poked at the fire with a stick, looking deep into it as though searching for an answer among the flames.

“We are only three,” he said. “We cannot fight the murgu alone — but we will if we have to.” He turned to Kerrick. “You know about the murgu — which we do not. Tell us of them. Tell us how they wage war.”

Kerrick rubbed his jaw in thought before he spoke. Slowly and hesitatingly. “It is not easy to talk of. You will have to know about their city first, and how they are ruled. You must understand the fargi and the Yilanè and just how they go about doing things.”

“Then you will tell us,” Herilak said.

Kerrick found it difficult at first to speak of things in Tanu that he had never thought of in that language. He had to find new words for scenes he was familiar with, new ways of describing concepts totally alien to these hunters. They questioned him over and over again about things they could not understand. In the end they had some idea of how the Yilanè society worked, although they had little idea why it did so.

Herilak stared in silence at his clenched fists where they rested on his thighs, seeking to grasp the meaning of what he heard. In the end he had to shake his head.

“I will never understand the murgu and I think that I will not try. It is enough to know what they do. The large bird flies high to watch us, then returns and tells them where a sammad is so they can attack it. Is that right?”

Kerrick started to protest — then changed his mind and nodded agreement. The details were not important as long as they had some understanding of what the Yilanè were doing. “When they know where a sammad has stopped they prepare an attack. Fargi with weapons go out on the boats. They come from the sea suddenly and kill everything as you know.”

“But you spoke of more than that,” Herilak said. “Do they not camp on the shore the night before they attack?”

“Yes, that is the way that they do it. They stop as close as they can, spend the night, then leave their food supplies behind them in order to attack at dawn on the following morning.”

“Do they always do it this way?”

“Always? I don’t know. I’ve only been with them twice. But, just a moment, that doesn’t matter. The way they think, the way they do things, they would do it the same every time. As long as something is successful they will not change it.”

“Then we must find a way of using that knowledge to destroy them in turn.”

“How will you do that?” Ortnar asked.

“I do not know yet. We must think about it and plan until we find a way. We are hunters. We know how to stalk our prey. We will find a way to stalk and kill the murgu.”

Kerrick had been silent, lost in thought, seeing the destruction of a sammad as no one else could. He had once been on the shore when the attack had come, could still feel the horror when the dark forms had appeared from the sea. But he had also been there with the attackers, traveled from Alpèasak. He had watched the preparations for the attack, had listened to the orders and knew exactly how it all had been done. Now he had to combine these two opposite points of view and find some way of turning things around.

“Turn it around,” he said aloud. Then shouted it again when they looked up at him. “Turn it around! But in order to do that we will need Ulfadan and Kellimans and their sammads. We must explain to them, make them understand and help us. Here is what we will then do. We will march south with the sammads and hunt. The hunting will be good and there will be much food. But once we go south our presence is sure to be discovered by the murgu, for they will be told about us by the great bird. But we will keep close watch and when we see the great bird we will also know what is going to happen. When we see the bird we must send out hunters to watch the beaches. Then we will know when the attack is coming and we will be ready. Instead of running we will fight and kill them.”

“That is dangerous,” Herilak said. “If we take the sammads we will be risking the lives of the women and the children, all those who cannot fight. There must be a better plan or these sammads will not take the risk of coming with us. Think again. Wasn’t there something you told me that was very important, something about the night? The murgu don’t like to go about at night?”

“I don’t think it is just like that. Their bodies are different from ours. They must sleep at night, always. It is the way they are.”

Herilak jumped to his feet, roaring with sudden enthusiasm. “The way we are we sleep at night as well — but we do not have to, not all of the time. So this is the thing that we will do. We will talk to the hunters and convince them that they should go south along the shore and hunt because of the coming hunger. In this way the sammads will get food for the winter. But while we are hunting we will watch always for the great bird that speaks to the murgu. When the bird sees us we will then send hunters to hide where they can watch the beaches to the south. When the murgu stop for the night we will know where they are. We will then come forward during the darkness. The hunters only. We will go in silence and in silence come to the beaches.”

He clenched his fists and slammed them together. “Then we will fall upon them in the night. We will spear them while they sleep, rout them, kill them just as they have killed us.” Afire with enthusiasm he rose and walked rapidly back to the circle of hunters. “They must be told. They must be convinced.”

It was not an easy thing to do. Ortnar and Kerrick joined him and explained the idea over and over again. About how the murgu attacked and how they could be defeated. They repeated themselves and explained exactly how they could hunt and get food for the winter. And kill murgu.

Ulfadan was greatly troubled by all this, as was the other sammadar. It was too new an idea — and too dangerous a one.

“You are asking me to risk all of our lives on this plan,” Ulfadan said. “You ask us to stake our women and our children out like bait for a longtooth to take so that it can be speared. This is a great deal to ask.”

“It is — and it is not,” Herilak said. “Perhaps you have no choice. Without food few will last the winter. And you cannot hunt here. Come south, we know the hunting is good there.”

“We know the murgu are there.”

“Yes — but this time we will be on the lookout for them. If you like, we will not wait until we see the great bird, but will have hunters always hidden on the beaches ahead. They will warn of any attack. When the murgu reach the beach we will know the attack is near. The warning will be given. In that way the tents and all else can be loaded on the travois during the night, the boys will drive the mastodons inland away from the shore, taking the women and all the small children with them. They will be out of danger that way. It is a risk, but it is a risk that you will have to take. Either that or die in the snows this winter. Without food none of you will see the spring.”

“You speak harshly, Herilak,” Kellimans said angrily.

“I speak only the truth, sammadar. The decision is up to your people. We have said what we have to say. Now we will leave.”

It was not decided that night, nor the next day nor the next. But then it began to rain, a heavy rain that was blown about gustily by the cold wind from the north. Autumn would be coming early again this year. The food supplies were low and they all knew it. The three strangers sat apart from the others and were aware that people who passed looked at them with worry, many of the hunters with hatred as well for forcing this choice upon them.

In the end they began to realize that they had no choice at all. There was much wailing among the women when the tents were taken down and loaded on the travois. There was none of the usual excitement when a trek began. They might have been walking to their deaths. Perhaps they were. Subdued and wet they marched east through the driving rain.

CHAPTER FIVE

In the excitement of breaking camp Kerrick had been too busy to think about all the dangers that the future might hold. Unexpected memories had filled him with mixed emotions as the travois were lashed to the complacent mastodons. It was a wonderful sight when the great beasts leaned into their harnesses and pulled the creaking wooden frames slowly and steadily after them. They were piled high with tents and baggage, the children and babies sitting on top of everything. When the march began the hunters had fanned out ahead, scouring the barren country for any game they might find along the way. The sammad would not come together again until they met at the campsite in the evening, the hunters drawn by the fires and smell of cooking food.

For the first few days there was a great fear of what lay ahead, of the deadly murgu who would be stalking them. But the Tanu were fatalists, they had to be, for life changed constantly. They had always been at the mercy of the weather, the food that might not be there, the hunting that might fail. They were leaving behind starvation and certain death, had exchanged that for food and the possibility of continued existence. It was a fair enough bargain and their spirits rose as the days stayed warm and the hunting improved.

They even accepted Kerrick after the first few days, though the children still pointed at his iron collar and laughed at his bare head and face. But stubble was growing there, a finger’s length on his skull already, though his beard was wispy and thin. He was still clumsy with the spear and an awful shot with the bow — but he was improving. He was beginning to feel that the world was a good place to be alive in.

That is until they came to the ocean.

The first sight of the blue water filled Kerrick with a sense of dread so powerful that he stopped in his tracks. There was no one else in sight for he was well away from the low valley that the mastodon-drawn travois were following, nor were there any other hunters nearby at the time. With the fear came the desire to turn and run. Only death lay ahead. How could this handful of hunters imagine that they could stand up to the horde of armed fargi? He wanted only to flee, hide, seek refuge in the mountains. To go forward was certain suicide.

Warring with this overpowering emotion was the realization that he could not possibly leave at this time. This was too cowardly an action to contemplate. After all, he had helped originate the plan so he had little or no choice; he must follow it through. Yet the fear remained and it was with only the utmost reluctance that he could force himself to take a single shuffling step forward. Then another and another, until he was walking again, miserable and fearful — but still moving.

They halted close to the shore that evening. Even before the travois were unloaded the boys were already fishing in the brackish lagoon, baiting their bone hooks with earthworms. The waters were thick with hardalt, the small carapaced squid eager to take the bait. There was much shouting and laughter as they brought back their tentacled catch. They were quickly pried from their shells, gutted and sliced, were soon sizzling over the fires. Although tough and strong-flavored they were a welcome change of diet.

Kerrick spat out a gristly unchewable bit and wiped his fingers on the grass, stood and stretched. Did he have room for any more? He looked towards the fire — then caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. A seabird floating overhead.

No. He looked up at the great span of the creature’s wings, the white of its breast red now in the setting sun, and stood frozen. It was here already. He could not see the black lump with its never-sleeping eye looking down at them from the raptor’s leg — but he knew that it was there. Lower and lower it came, down towards the encampment. With an effort Kerrick broke the paralysis and hurried to Herilak sitting by the fire.

“It is here,” he said. “Flying above us. They will now know about us…”

There was panic in Kerrick’s voice which Herilak wisely ignored. His own words were quietly spoken and grim.

“This is very good. Everything is working just as we planned.”

Kerrick had none of his assurance. He tried not to watch the bird as it circled above them, knowing that the pictures it would bring back would be carefully examined. The Tanu must show no obvious interest in it, no knowledge that they were aware of its function. Only when it had finished a last lazy circle and started away did he turn and gaze after it. There could be no doubt now that an attack would come.

After dark, when the hunters gathered to smoke and talk, Kerrick told them what he had seen and what it had meant. Now that they were committed there were no complaints. They questioned him closely, then discussed arrangements for the advance party of hunters to leave before dawn.

In the morning the sammads marched south. Herilak was in the lead and took them on a slow curve away from the coast. Kerrick recognized the terrain and knew that they were passing the place where sammad Herilak had been destroyed. There was no need to give the Tanu such a grim reminder of what dangers could come from the sea. They reached the beaches again that evening. Later, when the hunters met and talked, the decision was made to make Herilak their sacripex, their leader in battle. He nodded acceptance and issued his first orders.

“It is Kerrick and Ortnar who go ahead now. They have seen the murgu, they know what we are looking for. They will make their way along the coast and spend the night keeping watch on the shore. Two other hunters will go with them to watch as well and to return with the warning when that is needed. They will do this every night from now on. Others will also stay awake each night to watch the sea near our tents in case something goes wrong. We must be sure that it does not.”

They proceeded along the coast for four days more in this manner, until the fifth day when Kerrick hurried back to the campsite at dawn. The hunters heard his running footsteps and seized up their weapons.

“There is no alarm, the murgu are not here. But I have looked at the coast ahead and there is something we can do.” He waited until the two sammadars and Herilak were present, then explained. “The hunting is good now and there is much fish in the sea here. You must agree not to break camp today but to stay in this place and fish, while the hunters bring in meat for smoking. South of here there are cliffs, then a long stretch of beach with a thick birch wood that extends down almost to the shore. The distance is right. If the murgu come, when they come, they will not be able to find a landing place where the cliffs are, so they are sure to come ashore on the beach below the forest.”

Herilak nodded agreement. “When we attack we can approach them unseen under the cover of the trees. Good. It will be done that way. Are we all of the same mind?”

There was some discussion, but no disagreement. Kerrick returned to the spot where Ortnar and the other two hunters were lying under cover and watching the sea.

The long wait began… They filled their time during the next days in constructing a birchbark shelter deep in the woods. The nights were cooler now and there was some rain. But two of them were always on the ridge above the ocean during the day, hidden but watching. By late afternoon all four of them would be there, for that was the time of most danger. It was at this time, after many days of watching, from full moon to full moon, that Herilak came to join them on the ridge.

“What have you seen?” he asked, standing under the trees beside them.

“Nothing. Just what you see out there. The empty sea. The same as always,” Kerrick said.

“The hunters in the sammads have decided that there is enough meat now. They are grateful that we showed them these hunting grounds. They are ready to leave.”

“That is a good decision,” one of the watching hunters said. “None of us want this murgu attack.” Kerrick agreed strongly with these feelings and felt a leap of hope, yet kept silent.

“You speak for yourself,” Herilak said bitterly. “Yes, the trek has been successful. There is food enough now for the winter so I can understand why they are so eager to return. With their stomachs full they can forget their hunger and remember instead what happened to the two other sammads on this shore. This is to be the last night. They are eager to leave tomorrow at dawn. We stay here and march one day behind them in case the murgu attack after all.”

“We will move fast,” the second hunter called out. “They will not catch us now.”

Herilak turned away from them scornfully. Ortnar was as bitter as he. “We did not do this just to fill your stomachs. We came to kill murgu.”

“We cannot do it alone,” Herilak said.

Kerrick turned and looked out to sea so they could not see the relief on his features. They might argue, but in the end the sammads would go. There was nothing to keep them here and every reason to leave. There would be no battle. Small white clouds drifted in the clear sky above, casting dark shadows on the clear water. Large shadows. Moving shadows.

He stood still, gazing at the shadows, and did not speak until he was absolutely sure. His voice was tight and he could not stop it from trembling.

“They are out there. The murgu are coming.”

It was just as he said. The black boats were clearly visible now as they moved out from under the shadow of the clouds. They were going rapidly north.

“Are they not stopping?” Herilak cried out. “Are they going on to attack the sammads?”

“We must warn them — there is little time!” Kerrick said. One of the hunters turned to run with the warning, but Herilak stopped him.

“Wait. Wait until we are sure.”

“They are turning towards shore now!” Ortnar said. “Coming towards the beach below us.”

The hunters lay in silent concealment, filled with horror as the boats came close, bobbing in the gentle surf. There were loud orders and the armed fargi splashed out of the boats and made their way onto the beach. There was no doubt that a landing was being made when they began to pass supplies ashore.

“Now go,” Herilak whispered to the two hunters. “Both of you. Go different ways so that one of you will be sure to bring the warning. As soon as it is dark and they cannot be seen the travois must be loaded as planned, then the sammads will move quickly, go inland. Trek until dawn and then take cover in the forest. As soon as the travois are loaded all the hunters are to leave the camp and join us here. Run.”

The scene on the beach below was a familiar one to Kerrick, but shockingly new to the two hunters. They watched as the supplies were taken from the boats and the fargi, wrapped in cloaks, bedded down for the night. The leaders were grouped farther down the beach but Kerrick did not dare to move closer to see who they were. There was every chance that Stallan might be in command, and at this thought he shared some of the emotions of revenge that possessed the other two. Stallan who had beaten him and hated him, who had as good as killed Alipol with her unwanted and brutal attention. What a pleasure it would be to run his spear through that creature’s hide!

There was no moon, but the stars clearly lit the white sand of the beach below, picked out the dark forms resting there. More stars climbed slowly from the sea until, at last, there was a slight rustling from the forest behind them.

The first of the hunters crept close. By dawn the attackers would be in position.

CHAPTER SIX

Herilak had been thinking only of this attack for days now, had planned it over and over so often that he could see clearly in his thoughts exactly how it would happen. Kerrick and Ortnar had been instructed so they knew what must be done just as well as he did. Herilak left them there at the edge of the grove, watching the beach, and ordered the first arrivals back through the forest to an open glade. Here they rested until all of the other hunters had appeared. He was the battle leader; they waited expectantly for his orders.

“Ulfadan, Kellimans,” he said quietly. “Go among your hunters and ask their names. When you are sure that they are all gathered here come and tell me.”

They did not talk or move about while they waited, for they were hunters. They squatted in silence, weapons ready, waiting for orders from Herilak, the sacripex, ready for battle. Only when he had been assured that they had all arrived did Herilak tell them what they were to do.

“We must strike as one,” he said. “We must kill without being killed for their darts are instant death. In order to do this we will spread out in a single line, with each sammad taking half of the beach. Then we must crawl forward silently until we are in the grass above the beach. The wind is from the water so they will not smell us when we draw near. But they can hear, and hear well, so there must be nothing for them to hear. You must each take your position, and your sammadar will be sure that you are in the correct place. When you are there you will wait and you will not move. You will look at the beach. You will wait until you see me, Ulfadan and Kellimans as well, appear before you on the beach. That will be your signal to come forward. Slowly and silently. With your spears you will then kill murgu, remaining silent as long as it is possible.”

Then Herilak reached out with the butt of his spear and touched the nearest hunter with it just below his chin, while all of the others strained forward to see what he was doing.

“Try to stab the murgu in the throat if you can, for that is where they are most vulnerable. Their ribs are many and unlike the animals we hunt their ribs cover the entire front of their bodies and do not stop just below the chest. A strong blow will penetrate, but a badly aimed thrust will be deflected by the bones within. Therefore — the throat.”

Herilak waited while they thought about this, then continued.

“We cannot hope to kill them all in silence. As soon as the alarm is raised we will shout as loudly as we can to cause confusion. And keep on killing. If they run use your bows. Arrows will stop them. Do not hesitate, do not tire, but keep on killing. We will only be finished with them when they all are dead.”

There were no questions. What they had to do was very clear. If any of the hunters felt fear they did not show it. They lived by killing and were very experienced at it.

Silent as shadows they moved through the trees, left the darkness of the forest, and crawled in equal silence across the grass above the beach. Kerrick was still on watch. He looked away from the sleeping fargi and started as he saw the moving shapes. There was not a sound from them, not the slightest. Herilak appeared among them and slipped forward. Kerrick touched him on the shoulder, then leaned close to breathe the words into his ear.

“Their leaders must be among the first killed. I want to do that myself.”

Herilak nodded agreement and moved away. Slowly then, a step at a time, Kerrick moved back from the edge of the bank and along it to the position he had marked earlier.

A night bird called from the trees and he froze, waited a moment then moved on. The only sound now was the lap of small waves on the sand. Other than that the night was still as death.

And death was on its way.

There was no impatience. Once they were in position not a hunter moved, nor was there the slightest sound to reveal their presence. Their eyes were on the lighter gray of the sandy beach, waiting patiently for the expected movement.

Tension twisted a tight knot in the pit of Kerrick’s stomach. He was sure now that too much time had gone by. Something had gone wrong. Herilak and the sammadars should be on the beach. If they delayed any longer it would be light and they would be the ones who would be trapped…

He knew his fears were groundless, but that knowledge did not take them away. His fists were clenched so tight that they hurt. Where were they? What was happening? Clouds were thickening in the sky and obscuring the stars. Would he be able to see the figures when they did appear?

Then they were there, so silently and suddenly that they might have been shadows. Moving shadows that were soon joined by other shadows, until the dark line of half-seen forms stretched the length of the beach.

They stayed ahead of Kerrick because they could move quickly in absolute silence. He had to feel his way forward, lacking their skill at silent stalking of prey. He was well behind them when the line reached the first of the sleeping fargi. There were some muffled grunts, nothing more.

Now Kerrick could feel the soft sand beneath his feet, he could go faster. He ran forward, raising his own spear. He had almost reached the mound of supplies that were his marker, behind which the Yilanè lay, when a terrible screech of pain cut the silence of the night.

It was followed instantly by more screams and shouts; then the beach was alive with moving forms. Kerrick shouted as well, leaping around the stacked supplies and stabbing down at the Yilanè who was just standing.

She shrieked hoarsely as the point imbedded in her flesh, pulled away. He thrust again into her throat.

It was yelling, running, falling, dark butchery in the night. The fargi were awake instantly, but were panicked and frightened and in absolute confusion. If they remembered their weapons they could not find them in the blackness. They ran and sought safety in the ocean of their youth. Yet there was no safety even there for they were speared when they ran by, while sharp arrows flew after those who reached the surf. It was slaughter without mercy. The Tanu were efficient butchers.

Yet the fargi were so numerous that some did manage to escape, to reach the sea and splash in panic through the dead bodies there, to dive and swim to the boats. The hunters waded after them into the breaking waves, their bows striking death until their supply of arrows was exhausted.

The killing stopped only when there was nothing left alive to kill. The hunters walked among the heaped bodies, kicking at them, spears stabbing down at any sound or movement. One by one they stopped, exhausted, silent — until a hunter shouted a cry of victory. They all joined in then, an ululating call that was more animal than Tanu, a cry that carried across the water to the surviving fargi in the boats who moaned and cowered with fear.

The first light of dawn revealed the gruesome details of the night of slaughter. Kerrick looked about in horror, shuddering away from the dead that were heaped on all sides, tumbled one on top of the other. This sight did not seem to bother the hunters in the slightest. They called out happily, bragging of their exploits while they waded among the corpses in the surf to cut their arrows free. As the light grew Kerrick saw that his hands and arms were thick with blood; he went along the beach away from the fargi bodies and washed them clean in the sea. When he emerged Herilak was waiting for him, shouting with jubilation.

“It has been done! We have hit back at the murgu, struck them down, avenged the sammads that they destroyed. It has been a good night’s work.”

Out to sea the boats were fleeing south — most of them empty, or with just one or two fargi aboard. The slaughter had been most efficient.

Kerrick felt drained of hate and fear, exhausted. He sat down heavily on the heap of bladders of preserved meat.

Herilak shook his spear after the fleeing boats, shouted after them.

“Go back! Tell the others what happened here this night. Tell the rest of the murgu that this will happen to all of them if they dare venture north again.”

Kerrick did not share his unreasoning hatred, for he had lived too long among the Yilanè. In the growing light he saw the face of the nearest corpse — and recognized her. A hunter he had seen many times with Stallan. He felt himself shaking and had to avert his eyes from the horrifying sight of her ripped-open throat. A feeling of immense grief possessed him — though he was not sure what he was grieving for.

When Herilak had turned about at last Kerrick shook himself and called out.

“Did we have losses of our own?”

“One. Isn’t that a true victory? Just one, stung by a poisoned dart. The surprise was complete. We have done what we came here to do.”

“We are not finished here yet,” Kerrick said, trying to be practical, to forget his emotions. He tapped the bladder that he was sitting upon. “These contain meat. As long as the outer skin is not broken the meat will not rot. I have eaten it. The taste is vile but it will sustain life.”

Herilak was leaning on his spear now, thinking. “Then we have won life as well as victory. With this even more Tanu will survive the coming winter. I must send runners to the sammads, bring them here for this treasure.” He looked about the corpse-strewn beach. “What else here can we use?”

Kerrick bent and picked up a discarded hèsotsan and wiped the sand from its dark body. When he pointed it towards the empty sea and squeezed in the correct manner there was a sharp crack and the dart vanished in the surf. Wrapped in thought he prodded it and the tiny mouth gaped open; he smoothed it shut again then held the weapon up to Herilak.

“Gather up the death-sticks. And the darts, I’ll show you what they look like. We cannot breed these things — but if they are fed they will live for years. The poison on their darts will kill murgu as easily as Tanu. If we had had them tonight not one murgu would have left this beach alive.”

Herilak struck him enthusiastically on the shoulder. “This victory will be only the first of many. I will send for the sammads at once.”

When he was alone Kerrick took up one of the drinking bladders and drank deep, then looked around at the excited hunters. It was a victory, the first one for the Tanu. But he had a dark sensation that any future victories might not be this easy. He looked at the nearest fargi corpse, then stood and forced himself to begin a search of beach.

It took a long time to be certain; he even worked his way through the surf looking at all the bodies there, made himself turn them face upwards one by one. When he had finished he dropped wearily onto the sand.

Some of the Yilanè he had recognized, mostly hunters, but there was even one he knew who had been a boat trainer. But he had searched in vain for one familiar face. It had not been there. He looked down the coast to the south, where the fleeing boats had long since vanished.

Stallan had been on one of them, he was positive of that. She had certainly led this expedition, and just as surely escaped with her own life in the darkness.

They would meet again one day, Kerrick was very sure of that. This defeat would not stop the Yilanè. If anything it would make them more resolute. This was not the finish of the battle, but only the beginning. Where it would finally end Kerrick had no idea.

But he did know that what was to come would be a clash such as this world had never seen.

A savage battle between two races who were united in only one thing; their absolute hatred of one for the other.

CHAPTER SEVEN

nu*nkè a›akburzhou kaseibur›ak umuhesn tsuntensi nu*nkèkash

The ring of bodies was good enough before we had the wall of thorns: the future will not change its suitability.

As a rain squall passed over the boats, gusts of wind set them to bobbing in the short waves. The heavy drops drummed on their wet skins and hissed into the ocean around them. The dark shore was hidden from sight now and the sea was empty behind. There was no sign of any pursuit. Stallan looked in all directions, then ordered her boat to halt and signaled to the others to do the same.

They came together in the gray light of dawn, without a command being spoken, seeking comfort in each other’s presence. Even the unmanned boats pressed close, staying with the occupied boats and confused because they were not being instructed. Stallan looked at the surviving fargi with growing rage.

So few! A panic-stricken handful, all that remained of the great striking force that she had led north. What had gone wrong?

Her rage grew: she knew what had gone wrong, but when she thought about this her anger was so great that she had to put all thought of it from her mind for the moment. It would have to wait until she had these survivors safely back in Alpèasak; this was her first responsibility.

“Are any of you injured?” she called out, turning as she spoke so all of them could understand her. “Raise your arms if you are.”

Stallan saw that almost half of them were wounded. “We have no bandages, they are gone with the rest of the supplies. If the wounds are open, wash them with seawater. There is nothing else. Now look around you, do you see the unoccupied boats? They will get separated soon and we cannot afford to lose a single one. I want at least one fargi in every boat. Make the transfers now while we are all together.”

Some of the fargi were still too confused and panic-stricken to think for themselves. Stallan ordered her own boat through the pack, pushing and calling to them loudly until they obeyed.

“This boat is not empty,” a fargi called out. “There is a dead fargi in it.”

“Into the ocean with it, and any others you find.”

“This boat is wounded, it has ustuzou arrows piercing it.”

“Leave them in place — you will do more harm than good by pulling them out.”

There were not enough fargi in the depleted force to enable Stallan to assign one to each boat. She was forced to leave some of the wounded boats to fend for themselves. As soon as all of the transfers had been completed she ordered the depleted flotilla south.

They sailed without stopping for the entire day. Stallan did not want to go near the shore until she was forced to by darkness. There could be other ustuzou there, watching from concealment, waiting to attack. They went on steadily with the shocked fargi collapsed in numb apathy, until the sun was below the horizon. Only then did Stallan order them towards the land, to the place where a stream ran into the sea. The fargi stirred with thirst when they saw the fresh water, but Stallan kept them in their boats while she scouted inland. Only then did she permit them to come ashore, a few at a time, to drink their fill. She held her hèsotsan ready and stood guard over them, the arch of her body stiff with her contempt for the stupid creatures. Hers was the only weapon they had. The rest of them had simply panicked and fled, their weapons completely forgotten.

“Lowest to highest,” one of the fargi said after she had drunk her fill. “Where is there food?”

“Not here, you of little talk, less brains. Perhaps tomorrow. Get back into your boat. We do not sleep on shore tonight.”

There were no cloaks to keep up their body temperature during the night so that all the fargi were sluggish and incapable of movement until the sun had warmed them in the morning. Their retreat continued.

On the third day, when there still had been no sign of pursuit, Stallan took the chance of going ashore to hunt. They needed food if they were to return alive. She picked the spot carefully, where a river delta had formed countless swamps and small islands. It was in the swamps that she managed to stalk some multicolored animals that were grazing among the reeds. They looked like urukub, only much smaller, with the same long necks and small heads. She managed to kill two of them before the herd fled. They were too large for her to move so she went back for the fargi and had the bodies dragged to the beach. They ate well, if primitively, tearing at the flesh with their teeth since they lacked cutting instruments of any kind.

Two of the injured fargi died during the voyage. Their only other losses were the pilotless and wounded boats which drifted off one by one during the nights that followed. Only Stallan’s strength of will and firm command kept the survivors together until they finally reached familiar waters. It was midday when they passed some fishing boats, then rounded the headland that opened out into the harbor of Alpèasak . Their approach must have been seen and their depleted numbers noted, for there was no committee of welcome at the harbor when they arrived. It was deserted save for a single figure, Etdeerg who was now fulfilling the functions of Eistaa. She stepped forward when Stallan climbed from the boat, but said nothing. It was Stallan who spoke first in a most formal manner.

“When we stopped one day on a beach we were attacked during the night by the ustuzou. They move well in the dark. There was nothing we could do to defend ourselves. You see here the only survivors.”

Etdeerg looked coldly at the fargi who were urging the boats towards their pens. “This is a disaster,” she said. “Did this happen before or after you made your own attack on the ustuzou?”

“Before. We gained nothing. Lost everything. I did not expect an attack, I posted no sentries. I am at fault. I die now if you order me to.”

Stallan did not breathe as she waited, unmoving. Death was just a single, short command away. She looked stolidly out to sea, but one eye rolled back to watch Etdeerg.

“You will live,” Etdeerg finally said. “Although you are at fault there is still need of your services in Alpèasak. Your death is not yet.”

Stallan signaled acceptance and gratitude and her relief was clear.

“How could this possibly have happened?” Etdeerg asked. “Such a disaster is beyond my understanding.”

“Not beyond mine,” Stallan said, hatred and anger in every motion of her body. “It is very clear to me how it was done.”

A movement caught her eye; she stopped speaking and turned to face the city as the palanquin was carried from beneath the trees. Four large fargi moved smoothly beneath its weight, while the fat figure of Akotolp waddled after them. The fargi placed the palanquin carefully on the ground and stepped back. Akotolp hurried up behind it, mouth wide open, then bent over the figure that rested there.

“You are to move only slightly, speak little, for there is still danger,” Akotolp said.

Vaintè signed agreement, then turned to face Stallan. She had lost a great deal of weight, so much so that her bones could be clearly seen beneath her skin. The spear wound had healed, was now only a puckered scar, but her internal injuries had been great. When she had been brought to Akotolp she had been torpid for many days with all of her body activities slowed to a small fraction of their normal function. Akotolp had repaired the injuries, stopped the infection, transfused blood, done everything possible to keep the Eistaa alive. It had been a very close thing and only Akotolp’s immense scientific kills, combined with Vaintè’s own strength and will, had enabled her to survive. Etdeerg had taken her place in command and had served as Eistaa during the long illness, but Vaintè would soon resume her full functions. It was as Eistaa that she spoke now.

“Tell me what happened,” she ordered.

Stallan did, leaving out nothing, speaking as carefully and unemotionally as she could about every detail of the expedition, the landing and the massacre, ending with their flight back to Alpèasak. When she was done she finished with the same words that she had spoken to Etdeerg.

“I am at fault. I die now if you order me to.”

Vaintè waved the suggestion aside with a sharp motion that had Akotolp leaning forward and hissing with alarm.

“Fault or not, we need you, Stallan. You live. We need you for revenge if nothing else. You will be my arm. You will kill the one who did this. There can be only one.”

“The Eistaa is correct. There was no second group of ustuzou to be seen in the pictures from the raptor. Everything about the ustuzou group looked as it should. But it was not. Someone knew of the raptor and ordered the night movements of the ustuzou. Someone knew we would land on the beach the night before we attacked. Someone knew.”

“Kerrick.”

There was death in the name, so much so that Akotolp protested.

“You risk your own life, Eistaa, speaking in that manner. You are not well enough yet for such emotions.”

Vaintè leaned back on the soft coverings and signaled agreement, resting before she went on.

“I must give this much thought. When we attack the ustuzou in the future we must do it in a new and different manner. Our knowledge has been diminished because now we can believe the raptor’s pictures just half of the time. The daylight half. The ustuzou can move concealed by the darkness of night.” She turned to Akotolp. “You know of these things. Can pictures be made during the night?”

Akotolp stroked her fat wattles as she thought. “Such a thing may be possible. If it is, there are certain birds that fly at night. Something may be done.”

“You will start at once. Another question — is there a way to look at the pictures from the raptor in greater detail?”

“The meaning of your question escapes me, Eistaa.”

“Then listen again. If the ustuzou Kerrick arranged the attack, then he must have been with the band. Therefore he will be in one of the pictures. Can we discover that fact?”

“The question is clear. Details in the pictures may be expanded, enlarged so that a small detail will be many times bigger.”

“You have heard, Etdeerg. See that it is done.”

Etdeerg signed acceptance of the command and hurried away. Vaintè turned her attention back to Stallan.

“We will attack in a different manner in the future. Night defenses must be prepared as well. It will take much thought. This must never happen again.”

“We will need many more fargi,” Stallan said.

“That is one problem that already has a solution. While you were away we received the glorious news that all of the preparations have been completed. Inegban* comes to Alpèasak before the end of summer. The two cities will be one again, strong and complete.

“We will have all the resources we need to sweep the ustuzou from the face of the earth.”

Both Akotolp and Stallan signed happy acceptance of this fact, as did Vaintè herself. If this had happened any time before she had been wounded she would have had to find more formal ways of speaking of it, around it. Then her desire to rule Alpèasak had been her drive in life, her only and strongest ambition. Her hatred of Malsas‹ had been extreme because the Eistaa of Inegban* would be Eistaa of Alpèasak in her place when the two cities became one.

Now she welcomed Malsas‹’s arrival. The spearthrust that had driven her into darkness, illness, and pain had changed everything. As first dim consciousness had returned after her injury, she had remembered what had happened. What that ustuzou had done to her. The ustuzou whose life she had saved, the one that she had raised up to stand close beside her and to do her bidding. The ustuzou that had repaid all of this by attempting to kill her. This brutal act would not go unpunished. Thinking of Kerrick only made her more resolute in her desire to rid the earth of the blight of his kind of creature. All Yilanè would feel the same when they discovered what had been done to the fargi who had been sent north. When Inegban* came to Alpèasak the Yilanè would realize that existence here was far different from the life that they had known before this, at peace in a city of peace. When their own lives and future were threatened as well by the ustuzou there would be an upswelling of support.

All of the might, the science, and the energy of the Yilanè would then be united behind a single idea. Destroy the ustuzou. Wipe all trace of them from the face of the earth. Mount a crusade that would sweep them away like the blight, the obscene disease that they were.

A crusade that could have but a single leader.

Vaintè saw her destiny at last.

CHAPTER EIGHT

The air was so still beneath the tall trees that the cold fog hung there, unmoving. This chill silence was broken only by the dripping of water from the leaves, the distant calling of a bird. A rabbit hopped cautiously from under a bush and began nibbling at the thick grass in the clearing. It stopped suddenly and sat up, ears turning to listen, then disappeared in a single frightened bound.

The heavy, slow footsteps were like the sound of distant thunder, coming closer. The creaking of leather bindings could now be heard and the loud rustling of wooden poles being dragged across the forest floor. Moving silently ahead of the column of mastodons, two hunters appeared at the edge of the clearing, eyes searching, spears ready. Although they were wearing fur robes and leggings, their arms were bare and beaded with moisture. Other hunters came from under the trees and advanced across the clearing. Then the first mastodon appeared, a great hump-backed bull. His trunk reached up and broke a branch from a tree; he stuffed the leaves into his mouth as he walked, chewing them contentedly.

One by one the other mastodons emerged from the forest, the poles of the travois they pulled cutting deep grooves into the soft loam. The women and larger children walked between them while another party of hunters brought up the rear. The Tanu were on the march that never ended.

It was late afternoon before they reached the campsite at the bend in the river. In the dark twilight the first snow was already swirling down through the trees. Ulfadan looked north and sniffed the cold wind.

“Early,” he said. “Even earlier than last year. The snow will be as thick here in the valley as it will be in the mountains. We must talk of this tonight.”

Kellimans nodded reluctant agreement. After the slaughter of the murgu the decision to return to this last campsite had been taken without any discussion or real thought. Once they had loaded the murgu weapons and supplies they had all been in a hurry to get away from the shore, suddenly frightened of the possibility of murgu revenge. It had been the most natural and easiest thing to do to retrace their steps. This also put off the need for any more decision making until they were safely away from the coast. Their old pattern of life had been broken; they could no longer winter in the mountains. Then what should they do? The question was spoken often — but never answered. Now they would have to face up to it and come to some agreement. Once the tents were set up and they had food in their stomachs they gathered around the fire and the talking began.

Unlike the settled, city dwelling, crop-harvesting Yilanè, the Tanu were hunters. They lived a nomadic life with no fixed base, constantly on the move, going to the place where the hunting was best, or the fish were running, or where seasonal fruit or tubers could be found. They claimed no single stretch of land for the entire earth itself was their home. Nor did they form large social groups like the Yilanè. Their sammads were small bands of individuals who were joined together for mutual aid. This enabled the older women to show the young girls where the best places were to dig for food. Boys could learn the skills of the hunt, while all the hunters could join together to bring down more game than each could individually.

Their sammadar was not a leader who issued orders, but rather the hunter who made the most sensible plans, the one who found the most game, the one who made sure that the sammad thrived. He wore no badge of office and was not marked out from the other hunters in any way. His rule was by mutual agreement. Nor could he issue unpopular orders; a hunter, and his family, could vote with their feet, vanishing into the trackless forest to join with another sammad if they were not pleased with the sammadar.

Now there were decisions to be made. The fire blazed high as more wood was loaded onto it, while the circle of hunters grew larger. They laughed and called to each other as they tried to get the best places near the fire, where they could be warm but out of the smoke. Their stomachs were full, there was food for the winter, and that was enough for the moment. Still, there were important decisions that must be made. There was much argument about what must be done which died away when Ulfadan stood and turned to face them.

“I have heard many say that they want to winter here in this place that we know. The hunting is bad here, but we have food enough to last until spring. But that is not what we should be thinking about. If we stay here will the mastodons be able to survive? Is there enough grass, are there enough leaves on the trees? This is the important question that should be asked. If we live through the winter but they die, then we will die too when the time comes to move on — and we cannot. That is what we must think about.”

This began the discussion in earnest for the fate of the mastodons had been in the back of all their minds. Those who wanted to be heard stood and spoke to all of the hunters and there was very little crosstalk now. Herilak and Kerrick listened but did not say anything themselves. Herilak was sacripex as long as there were battles to be fought. Now, with the battle won, he sat among the others. As for Kerrick, he was pleased enough to be admitted to their circle and not have to sit on the outside with the women and children. It was enough to be here and to listen.

There was much rambling talk about their problems, some complaining, even more bragging. When the talk bogged down Ulfadan called for Fraken for guidance and others took up the cry. The old man was much respected for his memory and knowledge of healing; he was the alladjex who knew the secrets of life and death. Perhaps he could show them a way. Fraken came close to the fire, dragging after him the boy-without-a-name. When the boy was grown, and Fraken died, he would take the old one’s name. Now he had no name for he was still learning. He crouched in front of Fraken and rooted in a leather bag to produce a dark ball which he placed carefully on the ground by the fire. Fraken teased it open with two sticks until tiny mouse bones were disclosed. Fraken treasured these bundles that the owls regurgitated, for in their contents he could read the future.

“The winter will be cold,” he called out. “I see a journey.” There was more like this and his audience was very impressed. Kerrick thought little of it. Anyone could have said the same — without the mouse bones. There were no answers here. Nor did any of the others have anything better to say. As he listened he realized that there could be no solution to their problems. Not unless they did something very new and changed all their old ways of doing things. Eventually, when he saw this clearly, and no one else seemed to be talking about it, he arose reluctantly to speak.

“I have listened to everything that has been said here, and have heard the same things said over and over. The winter-that-does-not-end has come to the mountains. The deer have left the mountains since the snow stays on the ground most of the year and there is no pasturage for them. If there is anyone who does not believe this and wishes to go north I would like to hear what that hunter has to say.”

There was no answer other than that of a peevish hunter named Ilgeth who was well known for his bad temper. “Sit down,” he called out. “We all know that, little-hair. Let hunters speak.”

Kerrick was all too aware of his thin beard as well as the hair on his head that did rtot yet cover his ears, so he felt shame and started to sit down. But Herilak rose to his feet and stood beside him, touching his arm so he would remain standing.

“This hunter has the name of Kerrick, not little-hair. Although Ilgeth should know much about little-hair, since each year he has more skin than hair reaching up above his own eyes.”

There was a great amount of laughter and thigh-slapping at this so that Ilgeth could only scowl and be silent. When Herilak had been sammadar he had used humor often to convince others. But he had other things to say as well and he waited for silence before he spoke again.

“Kerrick’s hair is of importance only to remind us that it was removed by the murgu when they held him prisoner. We must not forget that he can speak with them and understands them. Our stomachs are full because he showed us how the murgu could be killed. We hunted where we knew they could strike. He showed us how we could attack them first and we killed many. When Kerrick talks we will listen.”

There were grunts of agreement at that, so much so that Kerrick had the courage to go on.

“Then we are all of the same mind then that we cannot go north. To the east the land is as barren as here until the shore is reached where the murgu can strike. There is no place to winter there. Nor is there to the west where the land may be good but where the way is barred by Tanu who will not let us pass. Now I ask the question; why do we not go south?”

There were murmurs of astonishment at that, and at least some laughter that died away when Herilak scowled fiercely. He was much respected, for his skill as a battle leader as well as for the strength of his arm, so laughter faded before his displeasure. It was Ulfadan who rose then and spoke of the south.

“I have gone to the edge of the forest to the south, and when I was young even out into the grass that goes on forever. This I found there,” he touched the long tooth strung about his neck. “I was young and foolish enough to risk my life for it. There are no deer there but only murgu that fight and kill. Murgu as tall as trees. There is only death for us to the south. We dare not go that way.”

There were cries of agreement and Kerrick waited until there was silence before he spoke again.

“Let me tell you of murgu, because for many years I lived so far to the south that the snow never came and it was warm always. In that warm land there are murgu that eat grass and graze in the forests and in the swamps. Though they are not like the deer or other animals that we hunt, they can be eaten and their flesh is good. I know, because that is what I ate all those years.”

There was only silence now. Even the women stopped talking to each other, the children ceased their play, as they all listened to Kerrick’s strange and frightening story.

“What Ulfadan has told you is true. There are great murgu who eat the smaller ones. I have seen them and have seen even stranger things as well. But that is not important. What is important is this. How do the murgu-who-walk-like-Tanu live there? How do they exist among the killing murgu? They eat the meat of animals just as we do. Why are they not killed by the murgu as high as trees?”

There were many reasons he could have mentioned, but none of these were relevant now. Only one thing was and he was determined to speak of that and that alone.

“They are not killed because the murgu-who-walk-like-Tanu kill anything that threatens them or their meat animals. They kill them with this.”

He bent and picked up the hèsotsan that lay on the ground beside him, held it up high. There was not a sound now and every eye was upon it.

“No matter how large the beast, this will kill it. A murgu that would need all your spears and all your arrows to kill will fall dead when a single dart from this pricks its hide.”

“I have seen this,” Herilak broke in, bitterness in his voice. “I have seen the murgu come from the sea with these death-sticks, seen all in my sammad fall before them. Have seen the largest mastodon fall before them when the death-stick cracked. Kerrick speaks the truth.”

“And now we have many of them,” Kerrick said. “Many of them, darts as well. I know how to care for these death-stick creatures and I can show you the manner in which it is done. I know how to make them send out the darts of death, and will show that to you as well. If you go south there will be good hunting, good forage for the mastodons. And with these—” he held the weapon high above his head so all could see “—only certain death for the murgu.”

After this there was excited talk and much argument, but no decision. Kerrick had eaten little during the day and when he saw Herilak leave he went after him. They went to the fire where the women were roasting meat on green boughs, brewing bark tea as well. Merrith, the woman of Ulfadan, saw them sit down and brought them food to eat. She had few teeth left, but she was wide and very strong and the younger women did as she ordered.

“I hope the death-sticks will obey us as they do you, or we will all leave our bones in the south.” Her voice was husky, almost like a hunter’s. She spoke her mind freely.

“Do you think, then, that we will go south?” Herilak asked, talking with difficulty around the mouthful of meat.

“They will argue all night, but that is what they will decide in the end. They talk too much. We will go south because there is no other way to go.” She looked at Kerrick with frank curiosity. “What are these murgu like who held you captive? Are their tents big? Do they use mastodons — or giant murgu to pull their travois?”

Kerrick smiled at the thought, then tried to explain. “They don’t live in tents, but grow special trees like tents that they sleep in.”

Merrith laughed loudly. “You are telling me wicked stories. How can you load a tree behind a mastodon when you move to another campsite?” The rest of the women around the fire were looking their way, listening as well, and there was much giggling at this thought.

“It is the truth — because they stay in the same place all of the time so they do not have to move their sleeping trees.”

“Now I know that you are telling me stories. If they stayed in one place they would hunt and kill all of the animals there. They would pick all the fruit and then they would die of starvation. Such a funny story!”

“This is true,” Herilak said. “That is the way that they live. I have been there and I have seen them, but I did not understand them. They do not need to hunt because they keep all of their animals in one place so they cannot escape, then kill them whenever they want to. Is that not the way it is?” he asked Kerrick.

Merrith had shrugged her shoulders at such useless stories and gone back to her fire, but the other women remained, eyes wide as they listened to this wild talk. True or not, the stories were worth hearing.

“That is only part of it,” Kerrick said. “A lot of things happen, and different murgu do different things. Some clear the land and build the fences so the animals can be kept safe, yet kept apart. Then there are the guards who take care of the males during the breeding season so the young are born safe. Some raise food for the animals, others kill them when the time comes. Others fish. It is all very complex.”

“The males take care of the babies?” one of the women asked in a quiet and nasal voice. The older woman beside her struck her.

“Be quiet, Armun,” she said.

“It is a good question,” Kerrick said, trying to see who had spoken, but she had her face turned away with her hair held over it. “The murgu lay eggs and the males hatch the eggs. Then when the young ones come out of the eggs they go into the ocean to live. They do not take care of babies the way we do.”

“They are filthy and should all be killed!” Merrith called out, for she had been listening all the time. “It is not right that women should hear these kind of stories.”

Their audience scattered at her command and the two men finished their food in silence. Herilak licked the last fragments of meat from his fingers, then touched Kerrick lightly on the arm.

“You must tell me more of these things because I want to know all about these creatures. I am not like the woman — I believe every word that you say. Like you I was their prisoner. Only a short time — but that was long enough. If you lead, I will follow you, Kerrick. A strong arm and a quick bow are what a hunter needs. But the Tanu need knowledge as well. We are Tanu because we can work stone and wood and know the ways of all the beasts that we hunt. But now we hunt murgu and you are the only one with the knowledge that we must have. It is you alone who can show us the way.”

Kerrick had not thought of it this way before, but now he had to nod reluctant agreement. Knowledge could be a strength — and a weapon. He had the knowledge and Herilak respected it. This was high praise from a hunter as wise and strong as Herilak. Kerrick felt the beginning of pride. For the first time he began to believe that he was not the complete outsider here.

CHAPTER NINE

Merrith had been correct; after talking far into the night the hunters had decided, with great reluctance, that they must go south to find grazing for the mastodons. With this decision made they had to face the next problem. How were they to go about doing this?

It was just after dawn when Herilak emerged from their tent. He was building up the fire when Ulfadan and Kellimans approached him. The two sammadars greeted him formally, then sat down beside him at the fire. Herilak poured them wooden mugfuls of bark tea and waited for them to speak their minds. Behind his back Ortnar looked out of the tent, then quickly pulled his head back inside.

“You would think after last night they would have enough of talking, but they are still at it,” he told Kerrick. “I don’t see any problem. Kill murgu, that is all we have to do.”

Kerrick sat up in the sleeping bag and shivered as the cold air hit him. He quickly pulled his leather shirt over his head, then ran his fingers through his short hair, yawned and scratched. Through the open flap of the tent he could see that the three hunters were still talking. He felt as Ortnar did; they had had enough of this the night before.

But this final meeting could not be avoided. Herilak rose from the fire and went to the tent and called to him.

“There is need of you, Kerrick. You will join us.”

Kerrick went and sat beside them at the fire and sipped the hot, bitter brew while Herilak told them what had been decided.

“The sammads will go south because they have no other choice. However they do not know what to do when we reach the murgu. But one thing is certain, the murgu must be killed, therefore there must be a battle leader. They have asked me to be sacripex.”

Kerrick nodded agreement. “That is as it should be. You led us in victory when we killed the murgu on the beaches.”

“An attack is a single thing and I know well how to lead in that. But we are now planning more than an attack. We are planning to leave the forest and go south into the grasslands where there are only murgu. Murgu of all kinds. Then we must kill these murgu with the death-sticks. Now I will tell you the truth. I know little of murgu and I know nothing of death-sticks. But you do, Kerrick. Therefore I have said that you must be the sacripex.”

Kerrick could not think of an answer. This was too unexpected. He turned it over and over in his head, then reluctantly spoke.

“It is a great trust, but I do not feel I know enough to be sacripex. Yes, I know much about the murgu, but little about hunting and killing. Herilak is the proven leader here.”

They were silent then, waiting for him to continue. The sammads were looking to him for leadership and he could not refuse. Ortnar had heard what had been said and had emerged from the tent and joined the waiting hunters. They wanted him to lead, but he did not have the skill. What could be done? What would the Yilanè do in this situation? Once he had asked himself this question an answer began to appear.

“Let me tell you how the murgu order these things,” he said. “In their cities there is a sammadar who is first in everything. Under this sammadar there is a sammadar of the hunters, another for the food animals, and others for the different work of the city. Why do we not arrange things in the same way? Herilak will be the sacripex as you have asked. I will serve under him, advise him on the ways of the murgu. But he will be the one who decides what must be done.”

“We must think about this,” Ulfadan said. “It is a new thing.”

“These are new times,” Kellimans said. “We will do as Kerrick has told us.”

“We will do it,” Herilak said, “but it is I who will serve. Kerrick will tell us about the murgu and what must be done to hunt them and to kill them. He will be the margalus, the murgu-counsellor.”

Ulfadan nodded agreement and stood. “That is the way it must be.”

“I agree,” Kellimans said. “The hunters of the sammad will be told and if all are in agreement we will go south when the margalus says.”

When they had gone, Herilak turned to face Kerrick. “What must we do first, margalus?” he said.

Kerrick pulled at the strands of his thin beard while the two hunters waited. The answer to this was easy, and he hoped that all the other problems would be as simple to solve.

“To kill murgu you must learn about the death-sticks. We will do that now.”

Herilak and Ortnar were armed with spears and bows as always, but Kerrick put his aside and took up a hèsotsan and a supply of darts instead. He led them upstream away from the tents, to a clear space beside the river. The trunk of a dead tree lay trapped here among the boulders, where it had been left behind by the high waters of spring.

“We will shoot at that,” Kerrick said. “If anyone else comes near we will be able to see them. There is death in these darts and I want no one killed.”

The hunters put their spears and bows aside and reluctantly came close when Kerrick held out the hèsotsan.

“There is no danger yet, for I have not put darts into the creature. Let me first show you how to feed it and care for it. Then the darts will be inserted and we will use the tree for a target.”

The hunters were well used to working with tools and artifacts and soon stopped thinking of the weapon as a living creature. When Kerrick fired the first dart they jumped at the sharp crack of the explosion, then rushed to the tree to see the dart stuck there.

“Will it shoot as far as a bow?” Herilak asked. Kerrick thought about it, then shook his head no.

“I do not think so — but it does not matter. There will be no need to kill at a distance if the murgu attack us. When a creature is hit by a dart the poison affects it almost at once. First it falls down, then stiffens, then dies. Now you must learn to use the death-sticks.”

As he began to hand the weapon to Herilak he saw a movement in the sky behind him. A bird, a large one.

“Get your bows, quickly,” he said. “The raptor is here, the one that speaks to the murgu. It must not return. It must be killed.”

The hunters did not question his orders but seized up their bows and nocked the arrows, waiting until the bird swooped low. As it drifted over them on wide-stretched wings their bowstrings twanged at the same instant. The well-aimed arrows flashed upwards, both thudding into the raptor’s body.

It gave a single screech and tumbled from the air, splashing into the river.

“Don’t let it get carried away,” Kerrick called out.

He stopped to place the hèsotsan carefully on the ground, and before he could straighten up the other two had dived into the water. Ortnar was a strong swimmer and he reached the dead bird first, seizing it by the wing and spinning it about in the water. But it was too large for him to handle alone and he had to wait for Herilak to help him drag it ashore. They emerged from the river, their fur garments wet and streaming, pulling the immense bird after them, then letting it drop onto the sand.

“Look there,” Kerrick said, “on its leg, that black creature.”

The bird was dead, but this animal was not. Its claws were locked about the raptor’s leg. The thing was featureless except for a bulge on its side. Herilak squatted to look closer at the beast — then jumped back as the eye opened and looked up at him, then slowly closed again. He reached for his spear, but Kerrick stopped him.

“There will be plenty of time for that. First we must show this to the hunters, show them the eye that watches us and the bird that carries it. These are the beasts that tell the murgu where we are. Once the hunters have seen it they will recognize it again. Whenever one appears it must be killed. If the murgu do not know where we are they cannot attack us.”

“You are right, margalus,” Herilak said respectfully. “You are the one who knows about these creatures.”

Herilak had used the title easily and with sincerity. He had spoken it so naturally that Kerrick felt a sudden burst of pride. Perhaps he could not hunt as well as they, while his arrows usually missed their mark, but he knew about murgu and they did not. If he could not be respected for his hunting prowess, it was enough that he led in something. They seized up the bird and carried it back to the camp.

The raptor itself was a wonder, for no one had ever seen a bird that big before. They stretched its wings wide, then paced out their length. The hunters admired the placing of the arrows; both had hit home in the creature’s chest. The children crowded close and tried to touch it, but were pushed away. One of the women bent over and prodded the black creature on the bird’s leg — then screamed when the eye blinked at her. Then everyone had to see this happen and pressed around. Herilak bent and cut the arrows free, then returned Ortnar’s to him as they walked away.

“Now let us learn to shoot the death-stick as well as we can the bow,” he said.

By evening both hunters felt as secure with the weapon as did Kerrick. Ortnar fed the creature a scrap of dried meat from his pouch, then rubbed its mouth shut.

“This will never kill a deer on the hunt,” he said. “It is hard to aim and the darts fall short.”

“We can kill deer easily enough with spear or bow,” Herilak said. “We need these for the murgu when we go south.”

“Before we start the journey I want all of the hunters to know how to use these,” Kerrick said. “Only then do we leave.”

After they had washed in the river the smell of cooking drew them back to the tents. It was a clear night and the stars were crisp and sharp above the flickering lights of the fires. Merrith served them meat, and Fraken the alladjex was there as well. The old man went to a different fire every night where people spoke to him of the things that only he knew. He looked suspiciously now at Kerrick who appeared to have knowledge that he did not. Herilak saw the look and drew the old man’s attention away.

“I had a dream last night that I was with others and we were hunting mastodon,” Herilak said. Fraken nodded and smacked his lips over the warm tea as he listened. “How could that be? I have only hunted mastodon once, and I was very young then.”

“It was not you who hunted this time,” the old man said. “It was your tharm.” There was silence about the fire as they listened with respect. “When we die the tharm leaves the body, but it may also leave during the time when we are asleep. Your tharm left you and joined a hunt, that is what happened. This is why a hunter should not be awakened if he is deep in sleep for his tharm may be away, and if he is awakened he will die because the tharm leaves the body when we die. Forever, never to return. If the hunter who dies has been strong in the chase his tharm will join the others among the stars.”

His voice lowered and there was a harsh rasp now when he spoke.

“But beware of the hunter who is a trouble-maker and has led a bad life, for there are hunters like that. When this hunter dies his tharm remains close by, causing trouble for others. Not so a strong hunter. His tharm will be there in the stars for all to see. A strong hunter’s tharm will return in dreams to help others and warn them of dangers.”

Kerrick listened, but said nothing. Now he remembered hearing old Ogatyr tell stories like this when he had been a boy, remembering shivering with fear when he tried to sleep, afraid that the tharm of another was close by. Now — they were just stories. The Yilanè would have laughed at this talk of tharms and stars. For them death was simply the end of being and there was no mystery involved. They knew the stars to be so far distant that their existence could have no possible effect on any events here on earth. He remembered Zhekak telling him about the stars, about how hot they were, the moon cold, the planets very much like Earth. That was the reality; these were just stories. But when Kerrick looked around at their faces he saw only respect and belief and decided that this was neither the time nor the place for him to speak of these matters.

When Fraken left to go to another fire many followed after him, leaving just a few hunters sitting close to the heat and talking. None of them took notice when the girl carrying a large handful of feathers came over and joined them. Her name was Farlan, Kerrick remembered, the elder daughter of Kellimans. She was tall and strong, her hair thick and plaited down her back. Kerrick felt a sensation he could not identify when she brushed past him, her body touching his, and he stirred restlessly. She went around the fire and sat next to Ortnar.

“These are the feathers of the great bird you killed,” she said. Ortnar nodded agreement, scarcely looking at her.

“They could be sewn to your robe so others would know your skill with the bow.” She hesitated a moment. “I could sew them for you.”

Ortnar thought about this for a long time, then apparently agreed.

“I’ll show you the robe.” He led the way into the darkness and she followed.

The hunters apparently took no notice of this — but one of them looked up and happened to catch Kerrick’s eye; he smiled and winked. Only when the couple were out of sight did the hunters begin to whisper to each other; one of them laughed aloud.

Something was happening, something important Kerrick knew, but no one told him what it was. He remained silent as well for he was too ashamed of his own stupidity to ask.

Ortnar was not in their tent when Kerrick returned, and it was only in the morning that he noticed that all of the hunter’s possessions were gone as well.

“Where is Ortnar?” he asked.

“Sleeping in another tent,” was all that Herilak answered, and appeared reluctant to say any more.

Kerrick was beginning to realize that there were things about Tanu life, as with the Yilanè, that were done and not talked about. But he was Tanu, he should know. He would have to find out, but did not know how to go about this. It would require some thought.

However Ortnar’s mysterious behavior slipped from his mind in the bustle of breaking camp.

They were on their way south, into the unknown.

CHAPTER TEN

Ulfadan, who knew this territory well, led the trek steadily south through the forest. It was only when the trees began to thin out and he could see the open grassland ahead that he ordered a halt and trotted back to report to Kerrick.

“The open country is ahead. Now we have stopped as you ordered, margalus.”

“Good,” Kerrick said. “Herilak and I have considered what to do when we go out on the plain to face the murgu. If we travel as we always do; in a single column, we will be open to attack at any time from the sides, where there is no protection. In the forest one mastodon must follow another because of the narrow track between the trees. But if there are no trees we will be able to move differently. Here is what we have decided.”

The hunters crowded close to look as Kerrick bent and scratched a circle in the ground with a stick.

“This is how we will move,” he said. “The mastodons will travel side by side, in a group. Herilak will go before them with one group of hunters, since he is the sacripex and will lead in any battle against the murgu. But an attack might come from the sides — or even from behind — so we must be on guard at all times. You, Kellimans, will be with the hunters of your sammad to the left side, Ulfadan the same to the right. I will follow in the rear with other hunters. All of us will be armed with the death-sticks, as well as bows and spears. In this way, with hunters on all sides, we will be able to guard the sammads in the center…”

He was interrupted by a cry of alarm from one of the boys who were watching the forest around them. The hunters turned, weapons ready. A strange hunter had appeared from the trees and stood motionless, looking at them. He was from one of the sammads from beyond the mountains, they could tell that by the birchbark leggings he wore below his knees. It was Herilak who went forward to meet him. When he came close the hunter bent and placed his spear on the ground. Herilak did the same, and when he did so the hunter called out to him. Herilak shook his head, then turned and called back to the others.

“He speaks, but I understand little.”

“Newasfar will talk with him,” Ulfadan said. “He has hunted beyond the mountains and knows how they talk.”

Newasfar left his own spear behind and went to speak with the stranger while they all watched. There was a brief exchange which Newasfar translated.

“He is a sammadar called Har-Havola. He says that their mastodons died in the cold of winter and they had to eat them in order to stay alive themselves. Now all their food has gone and they will die when the snows come. He has heard that there is much food here and he asks for some.”

“No,” Herilak said in instant response. The other hunters nodded agreement. Har-Havola stepped back at this, for it was one word that he knew. He looked around at the expressionless faces, started to speak, then must have realized that it was useless. He bent and picked up his spear, was turning away — when Kerrick called out.

“Wait. Newasfar, tell him not to leave. Ask him how many hunters he has in his sammad?”

“We have no food to spare,” Herilak said. “He must leave.”

“I speak now as margalus. Listen to what I have to say.” Herilak acknowledged this and was silent. “We have more food than we can eat right now. Meat from the hunt as well as the murgu meat that we captured. When we go out into the grasslands there will be good hunting and we will have even more meat. But there will also be murgu that we must defend ourselves against. When they attack the more hunters we have to fight them the more secure we will be. I say let them join us for we can use their spears.”

Herilak thought about this, then nodded in agreement.

“The margalus speaks the truth. We will need many hunters now because some must stand guard during the night. I say as well — let them come with us. Speak with him, Newasfar, tell him what we do and what the danger is. Tell him that if his hunters fight at our side, then all in his sammad will eat.”

Har-Havola straightened up when he heard this and struck his chest. They did not need Newasfar to translate his words. The Tanu from beyond the mountains were great hunters and fighters. They would come.

Then he turned towards the trees and called out a command. The file of frightened women emerged from the trees, clutching their children to them. The hunters came behind them. They were all emaciated and did not hesitate to take the food that was offered to them. When everyone had eaten, the column started forward again and moved slowly out onto the plain.

While the mastodons were being gathered together in a group Herilak spoke to the sammadars.

“Now that we have more hunters we have more security. Kerrick can join me in the fore since he is margalus. Har-Havola will march to the rear with his hunters, since there will be less danger there and they do not have death-sticks. As soon as the hunters are in position we will start.”

The grassy plain stretched before them to the horizon, a series of undulating low hills. There were clumps of trees scattered about, but most of the plain was grass. A herd of animals, too far distant to identify, was running swiftly away from them and soon vanished from sight. Nothing else moved: the plain had a deceptively peaceful air. Ulfadan knew better; his fingers touched the great tooth suspended about his neck as he looked carefully about. All of the hunters clutched their weapons tightly now, well aware that they did not belong here. Even the mastodons seemed to feel the tension, trumpeting and tossing their great heads.

At first the distant beasts were only dark specks coming up from a shallow valley. But they moved quickly and soon the rumble of their feet could be heard as more and more appeared, coming towards the Tanu. The mastodons were halted at a signal from Herilak, the hunters moving quickly forward to stand in line between this unknown threat and the sammads. Now the beasts in the herd could be clearly seen, unknown creatures with long necks and legs. The leaders swerved when they saw the Tanu and galloped across their front, throwing up a billowing cloud of dust. It was from this dust that the murgu struck.

There was more than one of them, large and indistinct creatures that pursued the fleeing herd. They bounded suddenly into sight. The nearest of them saw the shapes of the mastodon, screeched loudly, turned and attacked.

Kerrick had his weapon raised and fired at the charging figure, again and again. It rose into the air, screaming, then fell and crashed into the grass before them as the poison took effect. Close enough so that the beast’s bulging eye was just before Kerrick and seemed to be glaring into his. It kicked out its clawed feet in a spasm of agony, the mouth fell open and it roared fitfully. The rotten smell of its breath reached the hunters as it died.

The mastodons were screaming now with fear, rearing up and threatening to crush the travois and those nearby. Some of the hunters ran to quiet them while the rest still faced outward, weapons ready.

But the danger had passed. The herd was vanishing in the distance still pursued by the giant carnivores. Kerrick stepped forward warily towards the one they had killed. It lay unmoving now, a mound of dead flesh the size of a mastodon. A giant beast designed for slaughter, its rear legs long and muscled, its jaws filled with rows of pointed teeth.

“Can the flesh of this creature be eaten?” one of the hunters asked, turning to Kerrick.

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like this before. But it is a meat eater and the murgu only eat the flesh of the animals that eat grass and leaves.”

“Let us move on,” Herilak ordered. “We do the same. Leave this beast.”

The Tanu only ate the meat from carnivores when they were starving; the taste was strong and repellent and not to their liking. Now they had enough food and no desire at all to cut into this hideous creature. They went on quickly, the mastodons rolling their eyes and bellowing with fear as they passed the dead animal. Tanu and mastodon, they all wanted to be away from this place as quickly as they could.

The plain teemed with life. Dark creatures that were obviously not birds soared above them. Great forms wallowed in a shallow lake which they prudently made a large circle to avoid. Smaller murgu, half-seen, moved away from them in the high grass. Though they stayed alert, their weapons ready, they were not attacked again. The day passed in this manner without further encounters. The shadows were getting long when they stopped to water their beasts at a stream. Herilak pointed to a low hill nearby that was topped by a thick growth of trees.

“We will stop there for the night. The trees will give us protection and this water is close by.”

Kerrick looked up at the grove; it worried him. “We don’t know what might be concealed there,” he said. “Wouldn’t we be better here on the plain where we could see anything approaching?”

“We know now that this plain is alive with murgu during the day — but we don’t know what moves in the darkness in this place. The trees will be our shelter.”

“Then we must be sure that we are the only ones sheltering there. Let some of the best hunters search there now before it is too dark to see.”

They went cautiously, but the trees hid nothing of any great danger. Small murgu, tails held high, ran before them. There was a great flapping and screeching when they disturbed some birds feeding on fruit in the trees above. Other than this the grove was empty. It would be a good place to stop.

The mastodons quieted once they were freed of their burdens and were soon tearing at the green leaves. The boys brought the fire, carried in clay-lined baskets, and the tents were quickly set up. Guards were posted around the camp as darkness fell; they would be changed during the night.