only be worn here before fall closed in. He had those spears and—yes—that was a bow lying with its quiver beyond. But it was much shorter than the one Fors carried and did not appear to be made of wood but from some dark substance which reflected light from the sun.

He must come from a land where his race was all-powerful and had nothing to fear for he camped in the open and sang while he cooked as if he did not care if he atracted attention. And yet he did this on an island, more easily defended from attack than the shore itself.

Just then the fisherman impaled the cleaned fish on a sharpened twig and set it to broil while he got to his feet and hurled a baited line back into the water. Fors blinked. The man on the island must tower a good four or five inches over the tallest of the Eyrie men and his thatch of upstanding hair could not account for more than two inches of that difference. As he stood there, still humming, his hand skillfully adjusting the fishing line, he presented a picture of strength and power which would daunt even a Beast Thing.

The odor of the fish carried. Lura made a faint slur-ruping sound as it reached them. Fors hesitated. Should he hail the dark-skinned hunter, make the peace sign, and try to establish friendly relations or—

That question was decided for him. A shout tore the serene silence of the lake. The dark hunter moved—so fast that Fors was left gasping. Spears, blanket, bow— and the broiled fish—vanished with their owner. A bush quivered and then was still. The fire burned—on a deserted pebbled beach.

A second shout bore down wind, reinforced by a trampling crash, and down to the edge of the lake trotted a band of horses, mares mostly, each with a small foal running at her side. Urging them on were two riders, bent nearly flat on the backs of their mounts to escape the low sweeping branches of the trees. They herded the mares to water and waited for them to drink.

Fors almost forgot the dark hunter. Horses! He had seen pictures of them. But living horses! The age-old longing of his race—to possess one of those for his own-made a strange ache in his thigh muscles, as if he were already mounted upon one of the sleek backs.

One of the horse guards had dismounted and was rubbing down the legs of his animal with handfuls of grass pulled up from the bank. He was undoubtedly a Plainsman. His sleeveless jerkin laced across the chest was almost twin to the one Fors wore. But his leggings were of hide and polished by hours of riding. He wore his hair shoulder length as the sign of free birth and it was held out of his eyes by a broad band on which was painted the sign of his family clan and tribe. The long lance which was the terrible weapon of the horsemen hung in its loops at his saddle and in addition he wore at his belt the curved, slashing sword which was the badge of his nation.

For the second time Fors wondered whether he should make overtures. But that, too, was quickly answered. Out of the trees came a second pair of riders, both older men. One was a chief or sub chieftain of the Plainsmen, for the metal badge in his headband had caught the sun. But the other-Fors’ body jerked as if an arrow had thudded home between his shoulder blades. And Lura, catching his dismay, voiced one of her noiseless snarls.

That was Jarl! But Jarl was the Star Captain—now exempt from travel in the lowlands. He had not been exploring for two years or more. It was his duty to remain at the Eyrie and portion out the tasks of other Star Men. But there he was, riding knee to knee with the Plainsman chief as if he were any apprentice rover. What had brought Jarl down to the lowlands against all rule and custom?

Fors winced—there was an answer to that. Never before had the sanctuary of the Star House been violated. His crime must have brought Jarl out of the hills. And if he, Fors, were captured—What would be the penalty for such a theft? He had no idea but his imagination could supply quite a few—all of them drastic. In the meantime he could only remain where he was and pray that he would not be detected before the herders moved.

Luckily most of the horses had drunk their fill and were turning away from the lake. Fors watched them longingly. With one of them to lend four feet and save his two, he could be well beyond Jail’s reach before the Star Captain knew of his presence. He had too great an opinion of Jarl’s skill not to believe that the man from the Eyrie could cross his trail within a day or so.

The second herder urged the last mares away from the water while his companion mounted. But Jarl and the chief still sat talking and looking out idly across the lake. Fors silently endured the bites of flies which seemed to have accompanied the horses, but Lura growled again softly. She wanted to leave, knowing full well that if she did not want her trail followed it would not be. Fors could not hope for such results himself, so he hesitated until the cat’s impatience or some change in the air current changed their luck as it carried Lura’s scent down to the peaceful herd.

Within seconds there was wild confusion. Mares squealed, wild-eyed with fright for their foals, tramping up the bank and bursting between the riders—dashing ahead to get away from that dangerous place. The Plainsmen had been caught off guard. One was borne along with the rush, fighting to regain mastery of his own mount—the other could only ride after the rout.

Lance in hand the chief went after them. But Jarl remained where he was for a long moment, searching the shoreline of the lake with narrowed eyes. Fors flattened against the rock, sending a stern warning to Lura to do likewise. Fortunately Jarl was on the opposite side of the water and the Star Captain could not match the keen sight of his quarry. But how limited Jarl was in that respect he had no means of telling.

Hardly daring to draw the shallowest of breaths, cat and boy inched back. Jarl stayed, alert, watching. Then came the thunder of hoofs, just as Fors’ boots struck earth. He was off at his best woods’ pace, heading north, away from the camp which must lie somewhere on the other side of the lake. He wanted a horse, needed a horse, but not enough that he dared brave Jarl to get one. Fors had a very hearty respect for the abilities of the Star Captain.

As he sped away he wondered what the hunter on the island had done and whether he, too, was now putting some miles between himself and the Plains camp.

At least he had that broiled fish to take with him. Fors munched a handful of parched corn from his emergency rations as he trotted along and some shreds of dried meat, giving the rest to Lura who downed it in a single gulp. Halfripe berries snatched from bushes as he passed were sauce of a sort. But there still remained a feeling of emptiness in his middle which grew with the lengthening shadows of the afternoon.

They had used the feeder stream of the lake as a guide, but the thinning of the trees around them now and the appearance of open patches where grass and bushes competed for life, suggested that the end of the wood was close. Fors paused and tried to plan. He was at home in the forest country and knew how to conceal his trail there. On the other hand, in the open, out in the once cultivated fields, one would make better time and be able to cover a good many miles before the daylight failed entirely. The hunters of the plains-if human-were mounted men and any pursuit would be easily seen. And there were plenty of the scattered clumps of trees and running tongues of brush to give him shelter in a pinch. He decided to venture out.

A brown animal with a black mask about its eyes surveyed him critically from a pile of rocks but was gone in a flash when Lura’s head came out of a tall stand of grass. - That was the only living thing they saw until they skirted the rotting timbers of a farmhouse, missing a tumble into the half-exposed cellar only by chance.

A sound answered Fors’ exclamation and hearing it his hand swept to the hilt of his sword. He skidded around, bare steel out. An ugly naked pink snout, still smeared with earth and slime, protruded from a tangle of brush, and the wicked tusks below it caught and held the light. Fors hurled pouch and bow from him and half crouched, waiting for that most dangerous of all rushes, the attack of a wild boar.

It came with all the deadly ferocity he had expected, the tusks slashing for his legs. He struck, but the creature dodged so that, though a red and dripping line leaped out along its head and shoulder, it was not sent kicking. It grunted loudly, and there came answers. Fors’ mouth dried—he was facing a whole pack of swine!

Behind him was a pile of the collapsed timbers which had once been the wall of a small building, but they were pulpy with rot and they dipped dangerously toward the cellar. If he jumped for them he might well crash through.

From the bushes came a squall of rage and pain. The boar tossed its tusked head and blew foam. Its eyes in the black-and-white spotted face were red and evil. Another squeal came from the herd and this time it was followed by an answering snarl. Fors loosed a thankful breath.

Lura was keeping the herd occupied. Under her ripping claws the younger and weaker ones would certainly break and scatter. But not this old leader. It was wily and there were scars and bare patches enough on the hide to mark it victor in other battles. It had always won before so it was confident now. And—The charge came again!

Fors leaped to the left, slashing down as he moved out of danger. That stroke cut across the grinning devil’s mask of the boar, chopping off an ear and shearing the sight out of one red eye. It shook its head, sending a spray

Вы читаете Daybreak—2250 A.D.
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