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"That bird of Lurgha's" said Ross, once they were out of sight of Cassca and Lal, "could it have been a plane?"
"Sounds like it," snapped his companion. "If the Russians have done their work efficientlyand there's no reason to suppose otherwisethen there is no use in contacting either Dorhta's town or Munga's. The same announcement concerning the Wrath of Lurgha was probably made thereto their good purpose, not ours."
"Cassca didn't seem to be overly impressed with Lurgha's curse, not as much as the man was."
"She is the closest thing to a priestess that this tribe knows, and she serves a goddess older and more powerful than Lurghathe Mother Earth, the Great Mother, goddess of fertility and growth. Nodren's people believe that unless Cassca performs her mysteries and sows part of the first field in the spring there won't be any harvest. Consequently, she is secure in her office and doesn't fear the Wrath of Lurgha too much. These people are now changing from one type of worship to another, but some of Cassca's beliefs will persist clear down to our day, taking on the coating of `magic' and a lot of other enameling along the way."
Ashe had been talking the way a man talks to cover furious thinking. Now he paused again and turned toward the sea. "We have to stick it out somewhere until the sub comes to pick us up. We'll need shelter."
"Will the tribesmen come after us?"
"They may well. Let the right men get to talking up a holy extermination of those upon whom the Wrath of Lurgha has fallen and we could be in for plenty of trouble. Some of those men are trained hunters and trackers, and the Russians may have planted an agent to report the return of anyone to our post. Just now we're about the most important time travelers out, for we know the Russians have appeared on this line. They must have a large post here, too, or they couldn't have sent a plane on that raid. You can't build a time transport large enough to take through a considerable amount of material. Everything used by us in this age has to be assembled on this side, and the use of all machines is limited to where they can not be seen by any natives. Luckily large sections of this world are mostly wilderness and unpopulated in the areas where we operate the base posts. So if the Russians have a plane, it was put together here, and that means a big post somewhere." Again Ashe was thinking aloud as he pushed ahead of Ross into the fringes of a wood. "Sandy and I scouted this territory pretty well last spring. There is a cave about half a mile to the west; it will shelter us for tonight."
Ashe's plans would probably have been easily accomplished if the cave had been unoccupied. Without incident they came down into a hollow through which trickled a small stream, thinly edged with ice along its banks. Under Ashe's direction Ross collected an armload of firewood. He was no woodsman and his prolonged exposure to the chilling drizzle made him eager for even the very rough shelter of a cave, so eager that he plunged forward carelessly. His foot came down on a slippery patch of mud, sending him sprawling on his face. There was a growl, and a white bulk rushed him. The cloak, rucked up about his throat and shoulders, then saved his life, for only stout cloth was caught between those fangs.
With a startled cry, Ross rolled as he might have to escape a man's attack, struggling to unsheathe his dagger. A white-hot flash of pain scored his upper arm. The breath was driven out of him as a fight raged over his prone body. He heard grunts, snarls, and was severely pummeled. Then he was free as the bodies broke away. Shaken, he got to his knees. A short distance away the fight was still in progress. He saw Ashe straddle the body of a huge white wolf, his legs clamped about the animal's haunches, his hooked arm under the beast's head, forcing it up and back while his dagger rose and sank twice in the underparts of the heaving body.
Ross held his own weapon ready. He leaped from a half crouch, and his dagger sank cleanly home behind the short ribs. One of their blows must have reached the animal's heart. With an almost human cry the wolf stiffened convulsively. Then it was still. Ashe squatted near it, methodically driving his dagger into the moist soil to clean the blade.
A red rivulet trickled down his thigh where the lower edge of his kilt-tunic had been ripped up to the link belt. Although breathing hard, he remained as composed as always. "These sometimes hunt in pairs at this season," he observed. "Be ready with your bow"
Ross strung his with the cord he had been keeping dry within the breast folds of his tunic. He fitted an arrow to the string, grateful to be a passable marksman. The slash on his arm smarted in protest as he moved, and he noted that Ashe did not try to get up.
"A bad one?" Ross indicated the blood now thickening into a stream along Ashe's thigh.
Ashe pulled away the torn tunic and exposed a nasty looking gash on the outside of his hip. He pressed his palm against the gaping wound and motioned Ross to scout ahead. "See if the cave is clear. We can't do anything until we know that."
Reluctantly Ross followed the stream until he found the cave, a snug-looking place with an overhang to keep it dry. The reek of a lair hung about its mouth. He chose a stone from the stream, chucked it into the dark opening, and waited. The stone rattled as it struck an inner wall, but there was no other sound. A second stone from a different angle followed the first, with the same results. Ross was now certain that the cave was unoccupied. Once they were inside with a fire going at the entrance, they could hope to keep intruders out. A little heartened, he cast about a bit upstream and then turned back to where he had left Ashe.
"No male?" the other greeted him. "This is a female, and she was close to whelping" He nudged the white wolf with his toe. His hands held a pad of rags against his hip, and his face was shaded with pain.
"Nothing in the cave anyway. Let's see about this . . ." Ross laid aside the bow and kneeled to examine Ashe's thigh wound. His own slash was more of a smarting graze, but this tear was deep and ugly.
"Second platebelt" Ashe got the words out between set teeth, and Ross clicked open the hidden recess in the other's bronze belt to bring out a small packet. Ashe made a wry face as he swallowed three of the pills within. Ross mashed another pill onto the bandage he prepared, and when the last cumbersome fold was secured Ashe relaxed.
"Let us hope that works," he commented a little bleakly. "Now come here where I can get my hands on you and let me see your scratch. Animal bites can be a nasty business."
Bandaged in turn, with the bitterness of an antibiotic pill on his tongue, Ross helped Ashe limp upstream to the cave. He left the older man outside while he cleaned up the floor of the cave and then made his companion as comfortable as he could on a bed of bracken. The fire Ross had longed for was built. They stripped off their sodden clothing and hung it to dry. Ross wrapped a bird he had shot in clay and tucked it under the hot coals to be roasted.
They'd had their share of bad luck, he thought, but they were now undercover, had a fire, and food. His arm ached, sharp pain shooting from fingers to elbow when he moved it. Though Ashe made no complaint, Ross gauged that the older man's discomfort was far worse than his own, and he carefully hid all signs of his own twinges.
They ate the bird with their fingers. Ross savored each greasy bit, licking his hands clean afterward while Ashe lay back on the improvised bed, his face gaunt in the half light of the fire.
"We are about five miles from the sea here. There is no way of raising our base now that Sandy's installation is gone. I'll have to lay up, since I can't risk any more loss of blood. And you're not too good in the woods"
Ross accepted that valuation with a new humbleness. He was only too well aware that if it had not been for Ashe, he and not the white wolf would have died down in the valley. Yet a strange shyness kept him from trying to put his thanks into words. The only kind of amends he could make for the other's hurt was to provide hands, feet, and strength for the man who did know what to do and how to do it.
"We'll have to hunt" he ventured.
"Deer," Ashe caught him up. "But the marsh at the mouth of this stream provides a better hunting ground than inland. If the wolf laired here very long, she has already frightened away any game. It isn't the matter of food which bothers me"
"It is being tied up here," Ross filled in for him with some daring. "But look here, I'll take orders. This is your territory, and I'm green at the game. You tell me what to do, and I'll do it the best that I can." He glanced up to find Ashe surveying him intently, but as usual there was no readable expression on the other's brown face.
"The first thing to do is get the wolf's hide," Ashe said briskly. "Then bury the carcass. You'd better drag it up here to work on it. If her mate is hanging around, he might try to jump you."
Why Ashe should think it necessary to acquire the wolf skin puzzled Ross, but he asked no questions. The skinning took four times as long and was far from being the neat job the shock-haired man of the record tape had accomplished. Ross had to wash himself off in the stream before piling stones over the corpse in temporary burial. When he pulled his bloody burden back to the cave, Ashe lay with his eyes closed. Ross thankfully sat on his own pile of bracken and tried not to notice the throbbing ache in his arm.
He must have fallen asleep, for when he roused it was to see Ashe crawl over to mend the dying fire from their store of wood. Ross, angry at himself, beat the other to the task.
"Get back," he said roughly. "This is my job. I didn't mean to fail."
Surprisingly, Ashe settled back without a word, leaving Ross to sit by the fire, a fire he was very glad to have a moment or so later when a wailing howl sounded down-wind. If this was not the white wolf's mate, then it was another of her kin who prowled the upper reaches of the small valley.
The next day, having provided Ashe with a supply of firewood, Ross went to try his luck in the marsh. The thick drizzle which had hung over the land the day before was gone, and he faced a clear, bright morning, though the breeze had an icy snap. But it was a good morning to be alive and out in the open, and Ross's spirits rose.
He tried to put to use all the woodlore he had learned at the base. But the classroom was one thing, the field quite another. He was uncomfortably certain that Ashe would not have found his showing very good.
The marsh was a series of pools between rank growths of leafless willows and coarse tufts of grass, with hillocks of firmer soil rising like islands. Ross, approaching with caution, was glad of it, for from one of those hillocks arose a trail of white smoke, and he saw a black blot which was probably a rude hut. Why one should choose to live in the midst of such country he could not guess, though it might be merely the temporary camp of some hunter.
Ross also saw thousands of birds feeding greedily on the dried seed of the marsh grasses, paddling in the pools, and setting up a clamor to drive a man mad. They did not seem in the least disturbed by that distant camper.
Ross had reason to be proud of his marksmanship that morning. He had in his quiver perhaps half a dozen of the lighter shafts made for shooting birds. In place of the finely chipped and wickedly barbed flint points used for heavier game, these were tipped with needle-sharp, light bone heads. He had a string of four birds looped together by their feet within almost as many minutes. For the flocks rose in their first alarm only to settle again to feast.
The he knocked over a harea fat giant of its racethat stared at him brazenly from a tussock. The hare kicked back into a pool in its death struggle, however, and Ross was forced to leave cover to retrieve its body. But he was alert and he stood up, dagger out and ready, to greet the man who parted the bushes to watch him.
For a long minute gray eyes stared into brown ones, and then Ross noted the other's bedraggled and tattered dress. The kilt-tunic smudged with mud, scorched and charred along one edge, was styled like his own. The fellow wore his hair fastened back with a band, unlike the topknot of the local tribesman.
Ross, his dagger still ready, broke the silence first. "I am a believer in the fire and the fashioned metal, the climbing sun, and the moving water." He repeated the recognition speech of the Beakermen.
"The fire warms by the grace of Tulden, the metal is fashioned by the mystery of the smith, the sun climbs without our aid, and who can stop the water from running?" The stranger's voice was hoarse. Now that Ross had time to examine him more closely he saw the dark bruise on his exposed shoulder, the raw red mark of a burn running across the man's broad chest. He dared to test his surmise concerning the other.
"I am the kin of Assha. We returned to the hill"
Not "Assha" but "Ashe!" Ross, though sure of that pronunciation, was still cautious. "You are from the hill place, where Lurgha smote with thunder and fire?"
The man slid his long legs across the log which had been his shelter. The burn across his chest was not his only brand, for Ross noticed another red stripe, puffed and fiery looking, which swelled the calf of one leg. The man studied Ross closely, and then his fingers moved in a sign which to the uninitiated native might have been one for the warding off of evil, but which to Ross was the "thumbs up" of his own age.
At that name the man shook his head. "McNeil," he named himself. "Where is Ashe?"
He might really be what he seemed, but on the other hand, he could be a Russian spy. Ross had not forgotten Kurt. "What happened?" he parried one question with another.
"Bomb. The Russians must have spotted us, and we didn't have a chance. We weren't expecting any trouble. I'd been down to see about a missing pack donkey and was about halfway back up the hill when she hit. When I came to I was all the way down the hill with part of the fort on top of me. The rest . . . Well, you saw the place, didn't you?"
Ross nodded. "What are you doing here?"
McNeil spread his hands in a tired little gesture. "I tried to talk to Nodren, but they stoned me away. I knew that Ashe was coming through and hoped to reach him when he hit the beach, but I was too late. Then I figured he would pass here to make contact with the sub, so I was waiting it out until I saw you. Where is Ashe?"
It all sounded logical enough. Still, with Ashe injured, Ross was taking no chances. He pushed his dagger back into its sheath and picked up the hare. "Stay here," he told McNeil, "I'll be back"
"Butwait! Where's Ashe, you young fool? We have to get together."
Ross went on. He was sure that the stranger was in no shape to race after him, and he would lay a muddled trail before he returned to the cave valley. If this man was a Russian plant, he would have to reckon with one who had already met Kurt Vogel.
The laying of that muddled trail took time. It was past midday when Ross came back to Ashe, who was sitting up by the mouth of the cave at the fire, using his dagger to fashion a crutch out of a length of sapling. He surveyed Ross's burden with approval, but lost interest in the promise of food as soon as the other reported his meeting in the marsh.
"McNeilchap with brown hair, light brown eyes, a right eyebrow which quirks up toward his hairline when he smiles?"
"Brown hair and eyes, okayand he didn't smile any."
"Chip broken off a front toothupper right?"
Ross shut his eyes to visualize the stranger. Yes, there had been a small break on a front tooth. He nodded.
"That's McNeil. Not that you didn't do right not to bring him here without being sure. What made you so watchful? Kurt?"
Again Ross nodded. "And what you said about the Russians' planting someone here to wait for us."
Ashe scratched the bristles on his chin. "Never underrate themwe don't dare do that. But the man you met is McNeil, and we'd better get him here. Can you bring him?"
"I think he's able to get about, in spite of that leg. From his story he's been stirring around."
Ashe bit absent-mindedly into a piece of hare and swore mildly when he burned his tongue. "Odd that Cassca didn't tell us about him. Unless she thought there was no use causing trouble by admitting they had driven him away. You going now?"
Ross moved around the fire. "Might as well. He didn't look too comfortable. And I'll bet he's hungry."
He took the direct route back to the marsh, but this time no thread of smoke spiraled into the air. Ross hesitated. That shelter on the small island was surely the place where McNeil had holed up. Should he try to work his way out to it now? Or had something happened to the man while he was gone?
Again that sixth sense of impending disaster, which is perhaps bred into some men, alerted Ross. Why he turned suddenly and backed against a bushy willow, he could not have explained. However, because he did so the loop of hide rope meant for his throat hit his shoulder harmlessly. It fell to the ground, and he stamped one boot down on it. Then it was the work of seconds to grasp it and give it a quick jerk. The surprised man who held the other end was brought sprawling into the open.
Ross had seen that round face before. "Lal of the town of Nodren." He found words to greet the ropeman even as his knee came up against the fellow's jaw, jarring Lal so that he dropped a flint knife. Ross kicked it into the willows. "What do you hunt here, Lal?"
"Traders!" The voice was weak, but it held anger.
The tribesman did not try to struggle against Ross's hold, and Ross, gripping him by the nape of the neck, moved through a screen of brush to a hollow. Luckily there was no water cupped there, for McNeil lay in the bottom of that dip, his arms tied tightly behind him and his ankles lashed together with no thought for the pain of his burned leg.
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