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"Due north" Zinga's gutturals reached him, and the Zacathan's keener perception was right.
"Can the lifeboat ride this?" Kartr's own experience with small air craft had been limited to those of the Patrol and the stability of their exploring sleds was provedthey had been designed for rough going under strange weather conditions. But the machine they had to use now did not arouse any confidence in him.
Zinga shrugged. "Well, it isn't the sled. But the force of the wind is lessening and we certainly can't start out on foot"
They sprinted through the wall of falling water. And a moment later gained the cramped cabin of the lifeboat. It was a relief to be out of the pounding rain. But, even as they settled into their seats, the light craft rocked under them. Get this up into the full force of the windthey would be riding a leaf whirled around in a vortex!
But, with that thought in both their minds, neither hesitated. Zinga started the propeller beams and Kartr sent out a mind probe, trying to touch the one who had asked for their help.
They were lucky in some things, the dusk of the storm clouds was clearing. And Zinga had been correct, the wind was dying. The light craft bucked, swerved, dipped and soared as the Zacathan fought at the controls to hold her on course. But they were airborne and high enough above the tree tops to escape the fate of the wrecked sled.
"Should we circle?" Zinga thought instead of spoke.
"Enough fuel?" Kartr asked in answer to that as he leaned forward to read the gage on the instrument board.
"You're rightcan't afford that," Zinga agreed. "A quarter of a tal of bucking these winds and we'll be walking anyway"
Kartr did not try to translate "tal" into his own terms of measurement. He had a suggestion to make.
"Pick out some good landmarks ahead and set us down"
"Then we take to our feet? It might work. It willif this deluge slackens. And there is your landmarkagreed? Put us in the middle of that"
"That" lay about a mile before them, a wide circle of bare and blackened ground covered with the charred stumps of trees among which the thin green heads of saplings were beginning to show. Sometime not too far in the past this section had been burnt over. Zinga brought them down where the stumps were fewer.
And just as they left the lifeboat that plea for help reached them again, the terror in it plainer. Kartr caught something else. They were not the only living things to answer that call. There was a hunter on the trail ahead, a four-footed hunter, hungryone who had not fed that day or the night before.
The slot of an old game trail led across the burnt land. Years of pressing hooves and pads had worn it so deep that it could be followed by touch as well as by sight. Kartr's boots slipped into it easily and he trotted on through the slackening rain toward a sharp rise of bare rock. The rock wall which had once kept the fire from advancing was broken in one place by a narrow gap through which the game trail led. And then it went down slope into the heart of a real forest.
Not too far ahead was the hunter, very close to its prey. Kartr caught the mind of the one who was trapped. It was humanbut not Cummi. A stranger, hurt, alone, and very much afraid. A different mind
Now the hunter knew it was being followed. It hesitatedand Kartr heard a cry which was hardly more than a moan. There was a screen of bushes through which he beat his way and then he stood looking down at broken tree limbs and at a small, pitifully thin body pinned to the ground by one shattered branch. A distorted face was turned up to himand he saw that the captive was no straggler from the city.
Kartr threw himself down in the soft muck and tried to lift the weight of the limb. But he could not shift it far enough for the other to escape. And now the hunter waitedjust beyond a neighboring clump of bushes.
"Yahhhhh" That rising, horrible bellow was the battle cry of a Zacathan warrior. A blaster cracked above Kartr's head.
The tawny-furred body had been met in mid-spring by a searing shaft of flame. And the power of the beam bore it back, already terribly dead, into the very nest of leaves from which it had just sprung. A thick stench of singed hair and flesh curled about them.
Kartr went back to work. He was scooping the soft earth from under the branch when a shriek of pure, unreasoning terror whipped him around.
The captive's face was a mask of naked fear, distorted out of human shape.
But there was nothing there to fearthe giant cat was dead. Only Zinga stood there, slipping his blaster back into its holster.
Only Zingabut it was the Zacathan who aroused that fear!
Kartr did not need to give warning, the other ranger had sensed what was happening and disappeared, melting back into the bushes instantly. Kartr saw the captive was limp now, eyes closedunconscious! Well, if he would stay that way for a while it would simplify the task.
As silently as he had vanished Zinga came back and together they worked until they had that slim body free and straightened out between them on the ground. Kartr's hands made quick and skilled examination.
"No bones broken. The worst damage is this." There was a deep and ugly gash across the ribs where a fold of the stranger's flesh had been pinned by a sharp stub.
The body was thin, outlines of ribs showed beneath the sun-browned skin. And the stranger was small and slightvery small to be full grown or close to that, as Kartr judged the boy to be. His head was covered with a tangled, mud-and-briar-filled mass of yellow hair and there were downy sproutings along the lines of his jaw and across his upper lip. His torn garments consisted of a sleeveless, open jerkin made of the hide of some animal and a pair of leggings of the same material, while there were strange bag-like coverings on his feet.
"Very primitivea native?" Zinga wondered.
"Or a survivor of another wreck"
The Zacathan bit at one talon. "Might be. But then"
"Yesif the stranger was the survivor of another galactic shipwreck why his terror at the sight of you?"
The Zacathans were widely known, and they did not arouse fearthey had never been raiders. ButKartr studied his companion objectively for the first timesuppose one had never seen a Zacathan before? Suppose one's world was only inhabited by beings more or less like one's self? Then the first glimpse of those pointed, fanged jaws, of that scaled skin, of the frill depending about a hairless head and neckyes, it would be enough to frighten a primitive mind.
Zinga nodded; he had followed that reasoning. Now he had an answer ready.
"I'll go back to the lifeboat and keep out of sight. You can try to discover where he came from and all the rest. If you move him, I'll follow. Natives here! What if Cummi finds them?"
But Kartr did not need that implied warning. "Get going now I think he's coming around!"
Eyelids flickered. The eyes they had shielded were light blue, almost faded. First there was terror mirrored in them, but when they saw only Kartr's human features the fear went and a sort of wary curiosity took its place. The sergeant probed lightly and found what he had suspicioned. This was no survivor of a space shipwreck, or, if the lad was descended from galactic rovers, their landing on this forsaken world was many generations back.
To make entirely sure of that Kartr asked his first question in the speech so common to all travelers of the stellar routes.
"Who are you?"
The boy was puzzled and his surprise deepened into fear once more. He was not accustomed to hearing a strange tongue, apparently, and galactic speech meant nothing to him. Kartr sighed and returned to the easiest methods of communication. He jabbed a thumb at himself.
"Kartr" he said slowly and distinctly.
The wariness remained, but the curiosity was stronger. And after a moment of hesitation the boy repeated the ranger's gesture and said:
Ord. That might be the native term for man, but Kartr thought it more likely a personal designation. Again, and with infinite caution, the sergeant tried mind contact. He expected some shrinking, fear But, to his surprise and interest, the boy appeared familiar with such an exchange. Yetsurelyhe was not a sensitive! Kartr went deeper and knew that the stranger was not.
Which meant only one thinghe had had in the past some dealings with a sensitiveenough not to fear the mind touch. Cummi! The sergeant's own signal went out to Zinga. The Zacathan was in the lifeboat ready and waiting.
Kartr turned to Ord. Making the boy comfortable on a bed of boughs under the drooping branches of a neighboring tree where the rain could not drench them so completely, he went to work. Sometime later, with mind touch and a fast-growing vocabulary, he learned that Ord was one of a tribe who lived a roving life in the wilderness. Any mention of the city sent him into shivering evasionit was in some manner taboo. Those "shining places" had once been the homes of the "sky gods."
"But now the gods return" Ord was continuing. Kartr's attention snapped to "alert."
"The gods return?"
"Even so. One has come to us, seeking out our clanthat we may serve him as is right"
"What is the appearance of this sky god?" asked the sergeant, keeping his voice carefully casual as if it mattered very little.
"He is like unto you. But" Ord's eyes widened"but then are you also of the sky gods!" And he made a gesture with crossed fingers pointed at the ranger.
Kartr took the plunge. "After your way of speakingyes, I come out of the sky. And I am trying to find the god who is now among your people, Ord."
The boy moved uncomfortably, inching away from the sergeant. His hand fell on his bandaged side and he looked up with the old wary suspicion.
"He said that there were those who might come hunting himnight demons and doers of evil. And"terror colored his voice again"when first you came upon me I thought I saw with you such a onea demon!" His voice slid up scale until it was almost a scream.
"Do you see him now, Ord? I, alone, am here with you. And you say that I look like the sky god who is with your people"
"You must be truly a godor a demon. You killed the silent hunter with fire. But if the god who came to us is your friend, why did he say that those who came after him were his enemies?"
"The ways of the gods," Kartr answered loftily, "are not always the ways of men. Had I been a demon, Ord, would I have brought you out from under that tree, bandaged your hurt, and treated you well? I think that a doer of evil would not have done that for you."
The other responded to this simple logic almost eagerly. "That is right. And when you come with me to the clan we shall have a great feast and later we shall go together to the Meeting Place of the Gods where you can be as you were in the very ancient days"
"I want very much to go with you to your clan, Ord. How may we reach them?"
The boy's hand pressed his injured side and he frowned. "It lies one day's travel awaydoes the camp. I will not be able to walk swiftly"
"We shall manage, Ord. Now this `Meeting Place of the Gods'that is where your people live?"
"Noit is much farther away. Ten days of travel from heremaybe more. We go once a year, all the clans together, and there is trading and warriors are raised up at the Man Fire, and the maidens make their choices of mates. There is fine singing and the Dance of Spears" His words trailed off.
Kartr smoothed the matted hair back from the boy's eyes.
"Now you will sleep," he ordered. The pale blue eyes closed and the boy's breathing came even and unhurried. Kartr waited for a few minutes and then slipped into the fringe of trees where seconds later Zinga joined him.
"This `sky god' he speaks of must be Cummi" the sergeant began.
"Cummi, yes, and with him at large time is of importance. This Ord is a member of a primitive, superstitious culturejust the type Cummi could wish for"
"He can start a fire in such tinder which would spread with ease," Kartr agreed. "We've got to get to him!"
His fingernails drummed on his belt. "We'll have to take the boy," he continued. "And he says that the camp is at least a day's journey away. I can't carry him that distance"
"No. We'll take the lifeboat."
"But, Zinga, he thinks you are a demon. He couldn't be dragged aboard that with you in it"
"No? But there is going to be no trouble. Use your wits, Kartr. You are a sensitive but you have no idea even yet of how much power you have to draw on at will. Ord will see and hear just what I want him to when we go and he will guide us to just the right spot, too. But we shall not land at his campI cannot control any number of mindsespecially where Cummi has been tampering. So you will carry him in to his people and he will have no memory of the flight or of there being a second ranger."
It went just as Zinga had promised. Ord seemed but half awake, lying between them in dreamy content. He answered the Zacathan's questions readily. The visibility was better than it had been all day and they were flying out of the rain.
"Smoke!" Kartr pointed to the right.
"That must be their campsite. Now for a landing placenot too far away. You take him in"
Ten minutes later Kartr grunted as he paused, the boy's limp body in his arms. He was on the edge of an open park-like expanse in which were set up, in no particular order, a cluster of skin tents. He could sense some twenty individuals within range of mind touch. But not Cummi.
A girl was running toward the ranger, long braids of the same yellow hair as the boy's swinging over her shoulders.
"Ord?" She stopped short, staring with a hint of terror at the sergeant.
To his relief the boy roused at her cry and turned his head.
There were others coming from the tents now. Three men, hardly taller than the boy, moved warily along, their hands not far from the hafts of the long knives at their belts. Their cheeks and chins were covered with thick mats of hairthey were furred almost like animals.
"What you do?" The demand came from the tallest of the three.
"Your boyhurtI bring him" Kartr shaped the unfamiliar words slowly and as clearly as he could.
"Fatherthis is a sky godhe seeks his brother" Ord added.
"The sky god is away. He hunts."
Kartr gave silent thanks for the chance to learn the ground before Cummi's return. "I will wait"
They did not dispute that. Ord was taken from him and established on a pile of furs in the largest of the tents. And the ranger was given a mat by the fire and offered a steaming bowl of stew. He ate hungrily but it was not appetizing stuff.
"How long ago diddid the sky god leave?" he asked at last.
Wulf, the hairy chieftain and Ord's father, squinted and sucked upon a tightly rolled stick of dried leaves which he hit lit with a blazing splinter and moved contentedly between his bearded lips, puffing out a gray, acrid smoke.
"With the first light. He is very clever. With his magic he holds fast the beasts until the young men can spear them. We feast in plenty since he came to us. He will go to the Meeting Place of the Gods and there call upon his people and they shall come to us. Our maidens shall marry with them and we shall be great and rule this land"
"Your people have lived here always?"
"Yes. This land is ours. There was a time of burning fire and the gods departed into the skythen we were left behind. But we knew that they would come again and bring a good life with them. And so it has come to pass. First came Koomee"he had trouble with the name"now you are here. There will be othersas the old ones promised."
He puffed silently for a moment or two and then added, "Koomee has enemies. He said that the demons fear that he may make us great again."
Kartr nodded. He gave every appearance of listening closely to what the chieftain was saying, but he was listening with more than ears alone. They were expert woodsmen, these natives. For the past five minutes they had been creeping into position in the dark behind him. They planned a sudden rusha neat enough ideait might have worked with a non-sensitive caught in the trap. As it was he could turn and put hand on every one of them. And he must make some move before that rush came.
"You are a great and clever chieftain, Wulf. And you have many strong warriors, but why do they lurk in the dark like frightened children? Why does he with a split lip crouch there"the sergeant pointed to his left"and the one with the two knives there?" His hand moved from side pocket to the fire as Wulf's head jerked around. A tongue of greenish flame shot up to bring light to the faces of the men who had believed themselves completely hidden.
There was a wild animal howl of fear as they threw themselves back out of that betraying light. They scattered. But to give full credit to the chieftain's courage he did not move. Only the roll of leaves dropped from his mouth to singe the hide legging on his right knee.
"If I were a demon," Kartr continued in his ordinary voice, "those would now be dead men, for I could have slain them as they hid. But I have no hatred for you or your people in my heart, Wulf."
"You are Koomee's enemy," returned the other flatly.
"Has Cummi said so? Or do you only guess that? Let us wait until he returns"
"He has returned." The chieftain did not turn his head but there was a subtle alteration in his voice, a quickening of intelligence in his eyes as if another personality now inhabited the squat body.
Kartr got to his feet. But he did not draw his blaster. He could only use that weapon for a last defense. Surely the Ageratan wouldn't hurl these poor fools at him!
"That I shall believe when I face him. Gods do not fight from behind others"
"So say the noble Patrol! The fearless rangers!" Wulf's lips twisted as he shaped words entirely alien to his own tongue. "You are still bound by those outmoded codes? The worse for you. But I am glad you have come back to me, Sergeant Kartr, you are a better tool than these brainless woodsrunners."
And before Wulf had half finished that speech a bolt of mental force struck Kartr. If Cummi had not betrayed himself by words he might have had a better chance. But the ranger was armed and prepared. And into him flowed Zinga's support, so that he stood smiling faintly in the firelight as he parried and thrust in the silent motionless duel.
Cummi did not try heavy assaults, instead he used quick rapier stings of attack which one must guard against constantly. But Kartr's confidence grew. And he was doing all the work, he realized with mounting exultationZinga was only in watchful support. Let Cummi be a mutant of unknown powers, he was going to meet his match now in a frontier barbarian from a vanquished planet. The ranger had a second's flicker of new knowledgeYlene had been burnt off because an Ageratan had realized the threat of that world.
His confidence grew. Perhaps Ylene had been the check upon the growing Ageratan ambition. Very well, a man from Ylene was about to avenge both his people and his world!
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