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This instalment took two years to complete. That’s an average of about 20 words per day. If you’re reading this for the first time be thankful you didn’t have to wait that long.
The delay was entirely due some self-inflicted writer’s block that became a vicious circle: I spent so much time worrying about how to continue the story, that I couldn’t continue the story. Of course, once I finally managed to solve the plot problem that had held me up for so long the solution seemed absurdly trivial. After Part Four the words didn’t exactly come at a flood, but at least they trickled a bit more steadily.
Re-reading this instalment after several years I’m struck by how well the various plot strands intertwine. Keeping track of all the characters’ movements and interactions was tricky, but it seemed to work in plot terms. Anyway, I hope you find the action scenes as exciting as I did.
Because of all that running around the story’s geographical range is expanded, so you see a bit more of the map. You might want to keep an eye on that.
The story takes place several hundred light years from Earth in about AD 3501,
give or take a century or three and a few moons....
You can take the boy out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the boy.
It was crawlin’ and it stunk,
But of all the drinks I’ve drunk,
I’m gratefullest to one from Gunga Din.
--Rudyard Kipling, Gunga Din
Ketrin and Sherinel
Ketrin and Sherinel sat beside the lupinoids and tried to think.
“Suppose you send them away for a while,” Sherinel suggested. “The whole pack, I mean. Let them take refuge somewhere Borvinn can’t reach them.”
“That would take them into other packs’ territories,” Ketrin reminded him. “They’d have to fight the residents for acceptance, despite being weakened by the disease. Some of them would be injured, and one or two would surely be killed.”
“Right,” muttered Sherinel. “And physical contact with other packs would spread the disease as well. So what can we do to prevent Borvinn and his friends from slaughtering them?”
“Lead Borvinn and his hunters astray,” said Ketrin. “At least try to buy the lupinoids time to recover from the disease. If necessary, confront the hunters directly.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” said Sherinel. “I don’t see what I could do against an experienced huntsman, and you’re still not fully recovered. And anyway, Borvinn might paralyse us with his spell before we can do anything.”
“Yes, he might,” said Ketrin. “But we can’t stop trying just because of what might happen. If we do that we’ll be paralysing ourselves.”
Mavrida and Ketrin
Meetings and Partings
Before dawn Mavrida left the small house where she had lived for most of her life and followed Ketrin out of the village through a hidden gap in the fence. She carried only a jar of water and a little food and a carving knife to provide some small defence against animals or men. There was nothing else she needed to take with her. The only things of value that the house held were its memories of her time with Ruthyar.
Turning to Ketrin, Mavrida said, “You are still weak from stipple, aren’t you? And you came home late last night. You haven’t had much sleep.”
“No,” he admitted, “but while I did sleep I had a dream. A strange girl with pale skin, almost like white stone, came to me and told me I should chew teska leaves to regain my strength.”
“Teska leaves?” said Mavrida. “I have never heard that they had healing properties. Still, they’re not actually poisonous, so I don’t suppose it would hurt to try. There’s a stand of teska bushes just over there. Perhaps the girl you saw was one of the gods, and we are surely in need of their aid just now.”
Ketrin went to the teska bushes and tore off a clump of leaves. He began chewing on one of them, wincing slightly at the pungent, bitter taste, and stuffed the rest into his waistcloth.
Once he had finished the leaf he said, “I don’t feel any stronger yet, but perhaps it takes time. Anyway, it’s time you were making your way.”
Mavrida nodded. “My sister Selvrida’s village lies to the north-west of here,” she told Ketrin. “That’s where Ruthyar and I were going when...when we were attacked and lost you.”
Ketrin nodded. “My pack’s lair lies in the area, of course,” he told Mavrida. “That’s where they found me.”
“Ketrin, suppose there are still striagons in this part of the forest?”
“Don’t worry,, said Ketrin. “It’s my guess that Borvinn will be using sorcery to lure the striagons toward my brothers and Sherinel, so they’ll all be far from here by the time the hunt is underway. In any case, you didn’t think I would let you go without protection, did you?”
Ketrin gestured toward the bush. Mavrida was startled to see three pairs of purple eyes watching her. Nervously turning to Ketrin, she could not help being reminded that his eyes were exactly the same colour.
“Lupinoids?” she breathed.
“I have told them you are my mother. Lupinoids are loyal to their families. They will guard and protect you as fiercely as they would me. But first, there is another I want you to meet.”
One of the lupinoids emerged from cover. Mavrida took a nervous step backward. Ketrin placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“Mother,” he said quietly, “she will not harm you. None of the lupinoids want to hurt humans if they don’t have to. I wish I could make people understand that.”
While Mavrida did understand Ketrin’s words, she found it hard to fight her instinctive fear. That was hardly surprising. That fear had originated more generations ago than she could have imagined, in a time when primitive hunters trembled at the sound of distant howling in the night.
But the lupinoid made no threatening moves; she merely stepped forward and stood expectantly before Mavrida. Now that she was out in the open, Mavrida saw that the creature was somewhat unsteady on her feet. At one time her coat might have been dark and glossy, but now it was grizzled and patchy and its stripes had faded to a grey that was almost as pale as the rest. She must have been almost thirty years old - a highly advanced age for a lupinoid - and she was showing the effects of stipple as well. But her eyes were as keen as ever, and they gazed at Mavrida with the same violet intensity as Ketrin’s.
“Ketrin,” breathed Mavrida, “is this...?”
“Yes, mother. This is the lupinoid who fostered me. It is her milk that gave me the eyes and the instincts of a lupinoid. I always promised her that I would let her meet my...my other mother one day.”
Forgetting her earlier fears, Mavrida knelt before the ancient lupinoid and threw her arms about its neck. In reply, the lupinoid turned its head and rasped Mavrida’s cheek with its tongue.
“Thank you,” whispered Mavrida, with tears in her eyes. “Thank you for saving my son’s life. Thank you for giving him back to me.”
Ketrin’s lupinoid mother could not understand Mavrida’s words, of course, but Ketrin translated them telepathically, and then translated the lupinoid’s reply for Mavrida’s benefit.
“She says you are worthy of her respect,” he said, “as one fierce protector to another. For a lupinoid there is no greater compliment.”
And then, with a final, lingering glance at Ketrin and Mavrida, the lupinoid rose and walked away, shaky on her feet but dignified, until she was swallowed by the bushes.
“She is going away to die, isn’t she?” whispered Mavrida. “That’s why she came. To see you one last time, and to meet me while she still had a chance.”
“Yes, mother.” Ketrin spoke sadly, but his eyes remained dry. “With her grandchildren to hunt for her she might have lived a year or two more, but the stipple has weakened her too much. Another crime that Borvinn must answer for. But she has no regrets, and neither should we. She has achieved all that a lupinoid can hope for. She survived every danger the forest could send her and raised a litter of successful hunters...including me. And now she will go somewhere warm and quiet and lie down in the sun.”
Mavrida found herself wiping away tears. “She...she’s beautiful,” she muttered.
“Yes, Mavrida, she is. In their own way, they all are. That’s why we have to save them, no matter what. But first you must get away from Borvinn.”
Ketrin paused from speaking and his face took on a look of concentration. At his mental command, the other two lupinoids stepped out of the bushes. They seemed to be twins; a pair of lively young males with gold coats and brown stripes who greeted him enthusiastically before sniffing around Mavrida and taking it in turns to leap at her shoulders. Though she knew they were just being friendly, she still found it hard not to shy away from them. Sensing her discomfort Ketrin ordered them to keep still and they reluctantly obeyed.
“These are two of her grandchildren,” he told her, “Shadow and Silverpaw’s nephews. As you can see, the stipple hasn’t begun to affect them yet. That’s why I chose two of the youngest. What they lack in experience they make up for in strength and endurance. It may be a day or two before they start to lose their sense of smell, and you should have reached Selvrida’s village by then.”
“Do they have names?” asked Mavrida.
“No, they don’t,” Ketrin told her. “I just think of them as the Twins.”
Mavrida knelt down and the Twins began sniffing around her again. Gingerly she reached out a hand to one of them, and he warily allowed her to stroke his neck fur.
“I just hope news of the bounty hasn’t spread to my sister’s village yet,” she muttered, “otherwise these two may fall victim soon after I arrive. I’d hate to have their blood on my hands.”
“It won’t be on your hands, mother. If these two are as good at hiding and running as they should be it won’t be on anybody’s. But look, the sun’s coming up. It’s time to go.”
Mavrida hugged Ketrin fiercely. “May the gods keep you safe,” she said. “Promise you will come back to me.”
“I promise, mother. No matter what happens, we will see each other again. Now go on, and don’t look back.”
And with that he turned, walked back to the stockade and disappeared through the gap.
The lupinoids cast expectant glances at their new two-legged companion, who took a deep breath and sighed. “Well... come on, then,” she told them. “This way.”
Borvinn and the Hunting Party
Friends and Foes Prepare
Virtually the entire village had turned out to see off its brave hunters. It was a small party, just nine men including Borvinn, but he had assured the villagers that nine well-trained men were more than enough to eliminate the lupinoid threat to the village.
Each man was armed with a spear or bow and a knife for close combat, and wore only a waistcloth for the sake of mobility. Borvinn stood before the line, looking tall and proud and every inch the brave protector of the village.
Walking slowly along the line the chief hunter inspected each man in turn. When Sherinel’s turn came he somehow managed to conceal his nervousness, but he need not have worried. Borvinn wasn’t interested in humiliating him this time. He simply looked Sherinel over, nodded and passed on to the next man.
Sherinel breathed a huge sigh of relief. That went better than expected, he told himself. Now all I have to do is avoid getting killed in the forest.
And that would be the tricky part. Sherinel had been given the “honour of hunting with Borvinn’s group. He had no doubt that as soon as they were out of sight of the other groups Borvinn and his friends would arrange a little accident for him. He had at least been forewarned, but he didn’t quite see what good that would do him.
A little further along, in Korven’s group, stood Ketrin. Somehow managing to look overdressed in a waistcloth, with a spear at his side and his jewelled knife upon his chest, his long hair neatly tied at the back, and his feral, purple eyes seeming to glow with animal cunning, he could have been taken for some primitive warrior from the dawn of mankind. Borvinn was both impressed and aroused.
Only faint skin blemishes betrayed Ketrin’s recent bout of stipple, yet it was obvious that the wildling was not completely cured, however he might try to conceal his weakness. He kept shifting his balance when he thought no one was looking, and kept his eyes downcast to try and avoid squinting in the sunlight.
Never mind, my purple-eyed friend, thought the chief hunter. You’ll have plenty of time to rest and recuperate once I’ve captured you. You’ll have all the time in the world.
Aloud, he said, “What’s that stain on your lips, lad? Looks like you’ve been eating leaves.”
“Oh, that,” Ketrin muttered. “An old herbal remedy, Chief Hunter. Mavrida thought it might help with my recovery.”
“Speaking of Mavrida, where is your mother? I’d have thought she’d be here to see you off.”
“She said she had a headache,” Ketrin told him. “I think really she was just nervous about seeing me go.”
It was surprising how easily the lies came to his lips. But after all, words were only sounds, and sounds could be changed to convey different meanings, unlike lupinoid communications. Lupinoids could neither lie nor be lied to. That made them so much easier to deal with than humans.
“Yes, well I suppose you can’t blame her,” said Borvinn. “After losing her husband like that, it must be hard for her to watch you setting out in his footsteps. But never fear, lad. Korven is one of the village’s most experienced hunters. He’ll take care of you.”
“I’m sure he will,” said Ketrin innocently.
Once the inspection was complete Borvinn gave the hunters their orders.
“On this hunt we’ll be scouring the forest to the north, because that’s where most of the lupinoids seem to be concentrated. I will head due north with Jarnel and Sherinel; Sharavel, Tarvik and Sangrel will take the north-west; while Korven, Ketrin and Darshel will take the north-east. Remember, every lupinoid pelt is worth a gold piece to the hunter who brings it back to the village, so good hunting to all. You know what to do.”
They did indeed. Borvinn had given his allies their orders the night before. His own group was to lead Sherinel into the striagon’s territory and then leave him to face it alone. Korven’s group would capture and hold Ketrin, who would not be able to resist them in his weakened condition. Borvinn would then rendezvous with them and paralyse Ketrin. Meanwhile the men accompanying Sharavel were to dispose of him and double back toward the village to prevent Mavrida from slipping away.
Excellent, thought Borvinn as the crowd’s cheering faded behind him. Nothing can possibly go wrong.
Mavrida and the Twins
The Gap into Wealth: It’s a Two-leg Thing
Some distance to the north-west Mavrida and her playful companions were making good progress toward her sister’s village. With any luck she would be there by nightfall. From time to time one or other of the lupinoids would dash off into the forest and return with something small and bloody in his jaws. One or two of these morsels were offered to Mavrida, who forced herself to take a few bites just to please them.
About the time the hunters were setting out from the village Mavrida and the lupinoids came to a small clearing in the centre of which was a pillar of rock, somewhat taller than a man and less than a cubit in width. Mavrida was relieved to see it, not only because it confirmed her direction but because of the secret it held. Just how Ruthyar had discovered the secret, he never told her, but one thing was clear: there was more sorcery in the forest than even Borvinn suspected.
The lupinoids watched curiously as Mavrida removed her gold ring and carefully pressed it against a faint indentation in the stone. After a moment a small patch of the pillar’s surface began to shimmer, and a hole appeared that had not been there before. Mavrida thrust her arm deep into the hole and began feeling inside.
The lupinoids were puzzled. They could see her arm going into the hole in the pillar, yet they couldn’t see it coming out the other side. It was as if the pillar was eating her arm, yet there was no smell of blood. And a few moments later Mavrida removed her whole and uninjured arm from the hole, holding in her hand a small canvas bag.
The lupinoids exchanged puzzled glances, and then gave their equivalent of a shrug. It was a two-leg thing, and who could ever figure them out?
Mavrida took some small objects from the bag - in the sunlight the lupinoids could see them shining like reflections on water - and then replaced the bag in its impossible hole. The moment she took the ring from the stone the hole disappeared. Ruthyar’s secret hiding-place could never be discovered by accident.
Borvinn could never have imagined that Ruthyar had gained access to such wizardry.
The old sorcerer was a different matter. He knew a great deal more about Ruthyar, Mavrida, Ketrin and the lupinoids than he would ever reveal to Borvinn - or indeed, to anyone - and that knowledge was soon to stand him in good stead.
Heedless of sorcerous plots, Mavrida slipped the ring back onto her finger and concealed the shiny objects in a hidden pocket of her dress. Then she gestured for the lupinoids to follow and headed on along the forest path.
Sharavel, Sangrel and Tarvik
The First Betrayal
Mavrida was not aware that behind her, on the same path, Sharavel’s group was slowly catching up with her.
“This must be the path Ruthyar and Mavrida were on all those years ago,” said Sharavel. “Better keep an eye out for striagons.”
“Borvinn said the only striagon in these parts was last sighted to the east of here,” Tarvik told him. “If anyone runs into it it’s more likely to be Korven’s group.”
“That’s right,” Sangrel agreed. “This is lupinoid country. Lots of sightings around here. I just can’t wait to get my hands on one.”
“Even so,” said Sharavel, scanning the forest for any sign of trouble, “Keep your eyes peeled. You never know when you might be attacked.”
“That’s very true,” said Tarvik, clouting Sharavel on the head with a large rock.
As Sharavel fell, Tarvik turned to Sangrel and said, “Right, that’s him out of the way. Now let’s go see if we can’t offer some ‘friendly assistance’ to the Widow Mavrida.”
A Treasure Beyond Price
Deep within the forest, unseen by human eyes, the plumebirds carried out their mating rituals. The male birds danced for the benefit of the females, each in his own small patch of ground which he had carefully decorated with brightly-coloured objects. The males’ dances were not especially elaborate; they simply bobbed up and down, spun round to show off their bright plumes, and squawked unmusically.
A human would have been unimpressed, but the sight of a male bird dancing amidst his trophies was enough to send a female into an erotic frenzy, especially if the trophy was bright blue, crystalline and glowing. Between their mating dances the males with the best trophies often found themselves fighting other males for possession, and the blue jewel changed talons several times during the course of the short mating season. Its potency in attracting females was borne out by the fact that each of the males who had possessed the jewel had mated successfully with several females.
Unfortunately for the plumebirds, the jewel was lost when one male tried to retrieve it from another who had tried to fly off with it. During their brief aerial battle the thief dropped the jewel. The other bird tried to snatch it in mid-air but missed, and they could only watch as it fell into a stream. Dejectedly the birds returned to their perches. Something in their bird brains told them the mating season would never be the same again.
Borvinn, Jarnel and Sherinel
We’ll Be Right Behind You
After only a few hours Borvinn’s party was deep into what he claimed was striagon territory.
“Look here,” he told Jarnel and Sherinel. “These are striagon droppings. Stay alert.” To himself he thought: Good. The beast is right where the sorcerer said it would be. Now as long as his spells protect Jarnel and me as he claimed, we’ll soon be rid of a nuisance.
Sherinel knew nothing of the sorcerer, but he knew perfectly well that he was being set up. Unfortunately there seemed to be nothing he could do to prevent it.
“All right, Sherinel, said Jarnel, “you scout ahead for a bit.”
In his most reassuring tone, Borvinn added: “Don’t worry, lad. We’ll be right behind you.”
Yeah, thought Sherinel. Right where I can’t see what you’re up to.
Ketrin, Korven and Darshel
Waiting for the Moment
To the east Ketrin was struggling to keep up with Korven and Darshel.
“Come on, lad,” said Korven. “You oughter be got over your stipple by now.”
In fact Ketrin was feeling much stronger than someone recuperating from stipple ought to, either because the teska leaves were invigorating him, or because he believed they were. But for his companions’ benefit he kept up the pretence of being about to collapse.
Seeing him struggle to keep up, Korven and Darshel exchanged a wink and increased their pace. They were nearly at the clearing where Borvinn had told them to wait for him. Weak and exhausted, Ketrin would be easy to restrain, and once Borvinn arrived there would be no escape for him.
Korven and Darshel grinned. Seeing the wildling get his comeuppance was going to be a lot of fun.
Mavrida and Sharavel
Death in the Forest
By this time Mavrida had become so used to the lupinoids’ presence that she had quite forgotten to be afraid of them, and even found herself patting their backs or stroking their fur occasionally. As the sun rose higher they continued to wend their way along the path, taking brief rest stops, and Mavrida’s fear of attack by men or striagons began to diminish. It was beginning to look as if she might reach Selvrida’s village without incident.
But then one of the lupinoids gave a low growl and the other pricked up his ears and became alert. The first twin bounded off into the forest, then the second followed after giving Mavrida what she assumed was a warning growl. Mavrida walked slowly toward the edge of the trees into which they had vanished, and listened. After a few moments she seemed to hear distant snarling mixed with what might have been human screams.
Those screams were also heard by Sharavel. Tarvik’s blow had not knocked him out; he had anticipated it and jumped forward just as the stone struck his head. While Tarvik and Sangrel had thought him unconscious he had overheard them planning to capture Mavrida.
Once they were gone he had leapt to his feet. But the blow had affected him more than he had realised, and he had momentarily needed to lean against a nearby tree. Once recovered, he had picked up his spear, which they had obligingly left for him, and set off in pursuit, pausing only to rub his aching head. He had vowed that once he caught up with those two he would make them sorry.
Now, though, it seemed something was making them sorry already. Fearing that it might be a striagon, Sharavel raised his spear and raced toward where he had heard the screams. Ominously, he no longer heard them.
An opening in the trees revealed a grisly scene that brought him up short. Sangrel and Tarvik lay on the ground, their throats torn out. Standing over the bodies were two golden-furred lupinoids with bloody mouths. It seemed that the two men had attacked them and paid the price.
And now the lupinoids were snarling at him. Belatedly, Sharavel realised that confronting a pair of freshly-blooded lupinoids with a raised spear might not be the wisest thing to do.
As the lupinoids prepared to spring, Sharavel acted half from instinct and half from mortal terror, throwing aside his spear, crouching down and cowering.
The lupinoids refrained from leaping, and instead approached slowly. After a moment one of them slowly opened its jaws and took his throat in them. He could feel the sharp teeth pressing into his neck....
Sharavel desperately tried to remember which god was the best one to pray to in the event of being eaten by a wild animal. All he could think of was Lord Ranla-Shara, the god of small mammals, but he didn’t seem quite appropriate for lupinoids.
Well, come on, he thought. What are you waiting for, you dumb animal? Kill me and have done with it.
But then the lupinoid removed its teeth from his throat and stepped back. Astonished at having survived, Sharavel rubbed his throat with his hands. The lupinoid could have ripped out his throat, just as it and its companion had Sangrel’s and Tarvik’s, but it hadn’t even drawn blood.
It could have. That was the point.
Sharavel sat up. A low warning growl from the lupinoids convinced him not to stand up just yet.
Sangrel and Tarvik had attacked the lupinoids, hoping to claim the bounty on their pelts, and had paid the price. But Sharavel had not attacked and had shown submission, and so his life was spared with a warning.
Thank you, he thought. Thank you, Ranla-Shara, or whoever else was watching over me.
Just then there was a rustling in the trees and the lupinoids went to investigate. A moment later Mavrida appeared, and the lupinoids greeted her like an old friend.
Seeing Sharavel, she said, “Sharavel? What are you doing here - ?”
Then she saw the bodies and recoiled in shock.
“Oh gods,” she muttered. “Tarvik...Sangrel...oh, gods, I think I’m going to be sick.”
Rising slowly, so as not to alarm the lupinoids, Sharavel offered Mavrida a steadying arm.
“The lupinoids were only defending themselves, Mavrida. You know that the men would have killed them for their skins if they could.”
“I know, but those two... they were always rash and impulsive, but this... oh, Sharavel, the lupinoids were protecting me. I’m responsible for their deaths.”
Sharavel took her by the shoulders and looked her int he eye. “Mavrida, if anybody is responsible for their deaths it is Borvinn for persuading them to join in with his schemes. From what Sherinel told me, Borvinn lured Ruthyar to his death and now he wants to enslave you and Ketrin. He will be made to answer for his crimes, Mavrida, all of them, but right now you have to get to safety.”
Mavrida nodded slowly. “I was going to my sister Selvrida’s village. The lupinoids were escorting me. Gods, they’ve been so playful and friendly I’d almost forgotten how deadly they could be.”
“You can’t blame them for following their instincts, Mavrida. After all, where would your son be without those instincts? Now that this business is done with they’ll be just as playful as they were before, and they’ll escort you safely to your sister’s village. Meanwhile I must try to find Ketrin and see what I can do to protect him.”
“All right,” said Mavrida, who was beginning to recover her composure. “But what are we going to do about... about the bodies?”
“Well, we certainly can’t return them to the village for burial, and I don’t even have the tools to bury them here. It may seem heartless, Mavrida, but I think it would be best to just leave them here and let the forest take care of them.”
Mavrida was reluctantly forced to agree. “But we should at least pray for them,” she insisted.
“All right, but it will have to be a brief prayer. We can’t delay too long.”
Standing over the bodies of Tarvik and Sangrel, Mavrida raised her eyes to the small patch of sky that showed through the trees and intoned, “Oh, gods, receive the souls of Tarvik and Sangrel. Know them for what they were, two brave young hunters who were led astray by false promises. Condemn them not for their folly, but accept them for what wisdom they once possessed. May the gods be praised.”
Sharavel followed in a similar vein, and then clasped hands with Mavrida before watching her and the two lupinoids depart toward the path. Then he picked up his spear and headed eastward, hoping he could pick up Ketrin’s trail before anything happened to him.
Another Death in the Forest
Sherinel emerged into a broad clearing. Borvinn and Jarnel had said they would be right behind him, but now there was no sign of them. Gripping his spear tightly, Sherinel walked to the centre of the clearing and looked around. Borvinn might be planning to ambush him and make it look like an accident. Sherinel wouldn’t be the first hunter to be “accidentally” mistaken for game.
Then he heard a rustling in the bushes. “Jarnel? Borvinn? Is that you?” he called, but something told him it wasn’t a man.
After a few moments the creature emerged from the trees and stood staring at Sherinel.
It wasn’t a lupinoid. Sherinel could have dealt with a lupinoid, even if it hadn’t been one of Ketrin’s pack. Ketrin had taught Sherinel the signals that would convince a lupinoid he wasn’t an enemy.
The creature that Sherinel faced had prominent black stripes all over its golden pelt, but that was where any similarity to a lupinoid ended. The stripes covered its entire body including its muzzle. It was several hands taller than a lupinoid, and at least a cubit longer. It was emitting a low growl so powerful Sherinel could feel his chest resonating. And the creature was staring at him, not with the keen anticipation of a hunter facing down its prey, but with a cold-blooded rage that bordered on madness.
For the first time in his life, and almost certainly the last, Sherinel found himself face to face with a striagon.
Ketrin was right, Sherinel thought. The look in its eyes is unnatural. Someone’s using sorcery to enrage the beast.
But that insight wouldn’t help him escape. A man with a spear, even if he were faster and better-trained than Sherinel, would be no match for a striagon. It was just waiting for the moment to pounce, and once it did it would toy with him, ripping and tearing at his flesh for many long minutes before finally delivering a killing blow.
So, thought Sherinel, this is it.
He was amazed to discover that he was not overwhelmed by fear. He had always dreaded meeting a striagon. The worst thing he could have imagined had happened, and so there was no point in fearing it any more. Instead, his strongest feeling was regret: regret that he had not known Ketrin longer; regret that he had not been able to save the lupinoids; regret that he had not helped Ketrin and Mavrida to avenge Ruthyar’s death.
On a sudden impulse, he untied his garment and discarded it. No matter that Borvinn and Jarnel might be watching from concealment: he wasn’t doing it for their benefit. In honour of Ketrin he was determined to face his death naked and unashamed.
Slowly he crouched down and lowered the spear into a defensive position. Death is not the enemy, he told himself. Fear is the enemy, and I will conquer it.
The striagon continued to stand there, staring him down. It was playing a waiting game, trying to panic him into making the first move. It was growling deep in its throat, a sound so deep that it seemed to penetrate Sherinel to the core.
Come on, you bastard, hurry up, thought Sherinel. I haven’t got all day. And that struck him as incredibly witty and he felt like laughing, except that if he began to laugh he might not be able to stop. It seemed he had not so much conquered fear, as replaced it with hysteria.
And then suddenly a shadow detached itself from the undergrowth and hurtled toward the startled striagon.
Not just a shadow, he realised. It was Shadow himself, Ketrin’s black-furred lupinoid pack-brother. Ketrin must have ordered him to follow Sherinel. And despite the risk, despite the fact that Shadow’s strength and sense of smell must still be still impaired by his recent bout of stipple disease, he had followed Sherinel into the literal jaws of death.
For a moment Sherinel was almost as startled as the striagon itself, but then he stirred himself, stepping backward and raising his spear as the creature whirled to attack the upstart lupinoid that was attempting to deny its rightful kill.
Shadow continued to harry the striagon, jumping to the left and right to avoid its claws while searching for an opening. Sherinel raised his spear and attempted to get behind the striagon, but with a single blow of its paw it sent Shadow flying and whirled, roaring, to attack Sherinel.
Leaping backward, he threw the spear as hard as he could, but the angle was bad. The spear point merely lodged in the beast’s shoulder for a moment before being shaken loose to fall on the ground.
The striagon howled in outrage and would have disembowelled Sherinel on the spot if Shadow had not recovered his feet and leapt onto the striagon’s back, attempting to gain its throat.
The striagon momentarily forgot the human as it danced and cavorted in an attempt to shake off its lupinoid attacker, and Sherinel took advantage of the momentary distraction to recover his spear. The striagon rolled on its back in an attempt to crush Shadow, but the lupinoid leapt clear just in time. For a moment the striagon’s belly was exposed, but Sherinel was just a moment too late in throwing his spear and it merely grazed its flank.
Again the striagon lunged at Sherinel but found itself distracted by Shadow. By now it was beginning to dawn upon its tiny hate-fogged brain that its enemies were working together as a small and mismatched pack, but it seemed incapable of equating that fact with the possibility that it might actually lose the fight. And so, while it was attempting to claw Shadow’s belly, Sherinel darted in and recovered his spear. And this time, instead of jumping back and throwing the weapon, Sherinel risked staying close in order to stab the striagon in the lower back.
Screaming in fury, the striagon whirled and raked Sherinel across his abdomen. As he fell in agony he seemed to see Shadow leaping for the striagon’s throat.
“Shadow, no!” he cried - or tried to, but his voice emerged as a feeble croak. “Don’t get yourself killed for my sake! It’s not worth both of us dying! Run away! Please, Shadow, run away! Look after Ketrin, he’s more important than I am. Please run away!”
He was surprised to find that his cheeks were moist. He didn’t think he’d been wounded there.
And at that moment he saw the striagon fling Shadow aside like a rag doll. There was a crack as the lupinoid’s body slammed into the base of a large tree.
It might have been loss of blood or just shock that caused Sherinel to pass out, just as the striagon prepared to pounce. That was merciful, since striagons toy with their prey before eating it.
Jarnel and Borvinn
The Conspiracy Unfolds
Jarnel watched from the bushes. He saw Sherinel face down the striagon, naked like an ancient hero (or rather, as Jarnel thought, like a modern idiot); he saw the black lupinoid’s arrival and the desperate fight for survival that ensued; he saw Sherinel wounded and the lupinoid slammed against the tree; and when he saw the striagon preparing to pounce, he decided he had seen enough and went running back to Borvinn.
If he had stayed only a moment longer he would have seen something truly astonishing. But he did not.
Instead, he hurried back to Borvinn with the good news: not only had the striagon dispatched Sherinel, but one of Ketrin’s lupinoids had tried to intervene and had also been killed.
“Excellent,” said Borvinn. “Even better than I hoped. Pity there won’t be much left of the lupinoid’s pelt by the time the striagon’s finished with it, but you can’t have everything, I suppose.”
“So what now, Chief Hunter?” grinned Jarnel.
“You meet up with Korven and head back to the village. Make sure Mavrida doesn’t leave. I’m going after Ketrin.”
“Are you sure it’s wise to go alone? He’s bound to have a lupinoid with him, and I’ve seen how they can fight even when they’re sick. Anything less than a striagon wouldn’t stand a chance.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Borvinn reassured him. “I have sorcery on my side. Ketrin won’t even see me coming, and if he does have another of those fleabags with him it’ll end up just as dead as the one that tried to save Sherinel.”
He was right about one thing: by the end of the day Silverpaw would be every bit as dead as Shadow.
“Sorcery?” muttered Jarnel. “I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you?” said Borvinn. “Well, see if you can understand this!”
And then he vanished.
“Master Borvinn?” cried Jarnel. “Where did you go?”
Then something pinched his arm. Before he could react something struck his cheek painfully. And then for the next few moments he found himself leaping around like a maniac, frantically waving his arms in a futile attempt to fend off the invisible thing that was slapping, tweaking and poking him all over. Then he felt a tugging at his waist and his garment fell to his knees.
And then Borvinn reappeared out of thin air, laughing uproariously. “Oh, Jarnel, you should see your face right now!”
Flushed with embarrassment, Jarnel squatted and frantically tried to conceal his nakedness with one hand while attempting to replace his waistcloth with the other. This only seemed to increase Borvinn’s amusement.
“Oh, for the gods’ sakes, man,” he spluttered between fits of laughter, “even that weed Sherinel is less ashamed of his body than you are!”
Once he had finally restored what little was left of his dignity, Jarnel muttered, “How did you do that? How did you become unseeable?”
“I told you,” said Borvinn. “Sorcery. This is how I’m going to sneak up on Ketrin and trap him without his even noticing until it’s too late!”
Borvinn and the Sorcerer
Down and Down I Go
Borvinn had asked the old man to supply him with something that would mask his scent from Ketrin and the lupinoids, but what the sorcerer actually gave him was beyond his wildest expectations.
“This talisman will make you virtually invisible, not to mention inaudible and unsmellable,” he had told Borvinn.
“But how is that possible?” Borvinn had asked.
“It is not possible to become literally invisible, or the other things,” the old man admitted, “but this is as close as you can get. The trick is to cloud your enemies’ perceptions so that you do not register upon them. As long as you wear this talisman, any human, lupinoid or striagon who sees, hears or smells you will think they are seeing, hearing or smelling everything around them except you. Even if you stood in front of Ketrin and shouted in his ear, his mind would tell him he saw only trees and heard only the wind - although he might wonder why his ears suddenly hurt.”
“I think I understand,” Borvinn had said. “But he will still be able to feel me when I touch him, won’t he?”
“Of course,” the sorcerer assured him. “In any case, once you have paralysed him there will be no further need to hide, so you can then take off the talisman.”
“Yes,” said Borvinn, “once the lupinoids are taken care of.”
“Ah, yes, Borvinn. I had not forgotten about them. I have here a spell that will enable you to kill any beast with a single gesture, but it is only effective at a range of four paces. If you use it in conjunction with the invisibility spell the beasts won’t know what hit them.”
Once again the sorcerer stated his price. Borvinn had quailed at the expense - his coffers were becoming alarmingly depleted - but as always the sorcerer had held out, knowing that in the end Borvinn would pay any price to possess Ketrin.
Ketrin, Korven and Darshel
But had Borvinn been able to see Ketrin at that moment it would have seemed that the wildling was slipping from his grasp.
“Here we are,” said Korven, leading Darshel and Ketrin into a small clearing with a dark grey marker stone at its centre. “Now we can stop and rest for a bit.”
“Good,” said Ketrin, playing up his show of fatigue for all he was worth. Gasping and wheezing, he staggered forward and almost stumbled into a tree. For a moment he leant against the tree trunk, shivering a little. “Just a little rest,” he panted. “Just...a litle....”
“Now we’ve got him,” said Darshel, abandoning all pretence. “The bastard’s just about ready to collapse.”
“Well, don’t worry, lad,” said Korven, tenderly brushing aside a strand of Ketrin’s hair so that he could whisper in his ear. “Soon as Borvinn gets here you won’t never have to do anything strenuous again. You’ll never even ’ave to move a muscle.”
“And if you’re very lucky,” added Darshel, slipping a hand inside Ketrin’s waistcloth, “we might visit you when Borvinn’s busy elsewhere. Won’t that be nice?”
But then Ketrin abandoned his pretence as well, and the two hunters found their “helpless” companion transformed into a whirlwind of flailing arms and legs. There seemed to be no defence against such ferocity; no matter where they tried to strike him their blows almost always missed. His blows, on the other hand, always connected, and within minutes Korven and Darshel were down.
“Sorry,” he told the unconscious men, “but I am going to be busy elsewhere.”
Abandoning his attackers to the mercy of the forest, Ketrin raced westward, praying that he would be in time to save his companions.
Breaking the Rules
As it happened, somewhere far from the forest the fate of those companions was being discussed by people whose existence they could never have suspected.
+Shadow’s dead, J.+
+What? Are you certain, Vandri?+
+Of course I’m certain. The poor bastard’s back was broken. He didn’t stand a chance. As for Sherinel, even if the striagon doesn’t eat him - which it’s going to in about five seconds according to their frame of reference - he’ll bleed to death from his wounds anyway.+
+Ohhh, crap. We hadn’t planned on this. One dead, the other as good as, and the striagon about to eat them both. We don’t have enough energy to stop the striagon and save both their lives.+
+Well, we have to choose, and quickly. I was hoping we wouldn’t have to interfere directly at all - it’s a level five incursion, after all, and the legal and moral implications are pretty convoluted, not to mention the paperwork. But now it looks like we’ve no alternative. If we want to intervene there’s only a narrow window, even at full time-dilation. We can save one of them if we do it right now.+
+All right, J. Which one, though? It’s a terrible decision. Ketrin needs both of them, and not just emotionally.+
+It has to be Shadow, Vandri. Sherinel isn’t dead yet, and with Shadow’s help he might just make it to civilisation before he bleeds to death. If we restored Sherinel instead, there’d be nothing he could do to help Shadow.+
+All right, that’s settled then. First we need to remove the striagon from the equation, and then we’ll give Shadow his future back and pray that he can do the same for Sherinel. Here goes.+
Sherinel and Shadow
Not Out of the Woods
Sherinel woke, and wondered why he was still alive. He was still bleeding and in considerable pain from his wound, and when he tried to stand up the movement sent red-hot spears of agony lancing through him. But if he didn’t find some way to staunch the bleeding he really would be dead before long.
Moving as carefully as he could, Sherinel looked around. The only thing that could possibly serve for a bandage was his waistcloth. Assuming the striagon’s claws had not shredded it during the fight, it must be still be on the ground nearby.
He was so intent on finding the cloth that it took him some time to realise what was missing.
The striagon was gone. Sherinel’s spear was lying on the ground in a puddle of striagon blood, but of the striagon itself, dead or alive, there was no trace. There wasn’t even a blood trail leading away from the scene.
Slowly Sherinel turned around. The cloth was indeed lying on the ground a few cubits away, apparently undisturbed. Beyond it, lying against the tree where it had fallen was the body of Shadow.
“Oh, Shadow,” breathed Sherinel. “I’d forgotten about you. That was a poor reward for saving my life.”
He was surprised at how small and pathetic the lupinoid’s lifeless body looked. His vision blurred and his face became moist.
“I used to be so afraid of lupinoids,” whispered Sherinel. “I never dreamed I’d ever mourn one. I can’t bury you, Shadow. I don’t have anything to dig with, even if I wasn’t injured. But I guess something will use your body for nourishment. That’s how things are in the forest. Eat or be eaten. Maybe that’s the way you’d have wanted it. And now I have to think about the living, starting with me.”
Moving with infinite care so as not to open his wound any further, Sherinel crawled to where the waistcloth lay, picked it up and shook the dust from it. It didn’t seem too dirty, and in any case it was all he had, so he carefully folded it in two lengthwise and tied it around his torso as tightly as he could. Ideally he should have had a thicker bandage, but with any luck it would save him from bleeding to death before he reached help.
But where should he seek help? He could probably make it back to the village before he passed out, but Borvinn and his allies might be waiting in ambush. Or they might let him get back to the village, then poison him and claim he had died from his wounds.
Of course, he might well die from them anyway and save Borvinn the effort.
No; there was no safety in his own village. He would have to look elsewhere. He just hoped he could find somewhere before he bled to death. It would have helped if he had still had his spear to use as a walking stick, but it seemed to have vanished along with the striagon’s body.
As he prepared to leave he was surprised to hear a low growling behind him. For a moment he was afraid the striagon had returned. He had no strength left to fight it. But when he turned to look, he was astonished to see Shadow stirring.
“Shadow! You’re alive!” he breathed. “I don’t believe it. You’re alive!”
The black lupinoid gingerly rose to his feet. He seemed as astonished to find himself alive as was Sherinel. Although weak and unsteady, he didn’t seem to have any broken bones.
“When I saw you hit that tree I could have sworn your back was broken,” said Sherinel. “It’s a miracle you’re still alive.”
Of course the lupinoid did not understand his words, but he was pleased to see that Sherinel was also alive. After a moment he trotted over, rather shakily, to sniff at the pool of blood where the striagon had been, then circled the area, apparently trying to find the striagon’s scent. Sherinel sat and waited, pressing the makeshift bandage firmly against his wound.
Finding no trace of the striagon, Shadow turned back toward Sherinel and exchanged puzzled glances with him.
“No, I don’t know where he went either,” said Sherinel.
The Happiness of the Long-distance Predator
In fact at that very moment the striagon was alive and well and hunting in a different part of the forest. If Sherinel had been conscious when the beast sprang, he would have seen an astonishing sight: a hole had appeared in mid-air and swallowed it whole.
What he could not have seen was that in a distant glade a second hole had appeared and spat the striagon out again.
The striagon had looked around in bewilderment, enraged at the loss of its kill. But then its prey was forgotten as it began to feel an unaccustomed emotion. If anyone had looked into its eyes at that moment they would have seen the rage and madness that had burned there fade and die. The spell that had possessed the creature ever since it was born was broken. It was no longer an implacable killer, but a natural-born hunter as it was meant to be.
The new feelings that assailed the striagon were strange and unfamiliar, but by no means unpleasant. It didn’t realise it, but it was feeling happy for the first time in its life.
What was more, it was no longer wounded. There was an image in the striagon’s mind of fangs and pointed sticks raking its flesh, but there was no longer any physical evidence that those attacks had ever taken place.
The striagon was still feeling hungry, and so it began scenting for new prey. But some nagging shred of memory warned it against hunting humans or lupinoids again, and so it went in search of less combative fodder.
Far away, the sorcerer felt a small, nagging irritation as a tiny thread of his web snapped.
Sherinel and Shadow
The Maiden’s Warning
“Well, I don’t know where the striagon is now, and I don’t really care as long as it’s not here to threaten us,” said Sherinel. “All I know is, I have to get this wound seen to before it kills me.” With that, Sherinel rose painfully to his feet and started walking in what he hoped was the direction of a nearby village. Shadow followed, limping slightly, and Sherinel waited for him to catch up.
Shadow snorted as Sherinel placed an arm across his neck, but suffered himself to be used as a prop while the wounded man staggered away from the clearing with him.
In this manner Sherinel stumbled aimlessly through the forest for hours, half-walking, half-crawling, slipping in and out of lucidity. He had no idea where he was going, but he suspected Shadow might have some destination in mind.
Finally, after an hour or so, his arm slipped from the lupinoid’s back and he fell. Whining, Shadow tried to urge him on, but he was drifting in and out of consciousness.
In his delirium, Sherinel seemed to see a girl standing nearby. Or perhaps it was only the statue of a girl; in his confusion, Sherinel couldn’t seem to tell. But then he heard the girl speaking to him, so she couldn’t have been a statue...could she? But he seemed to be hearing her voice in his mind rather than his ears.
+Sherinel, wake up,+ she cried. +Sherinel, listen to me. It is vitally important that you wake up. When the time comes Ketrin will need your help, and you have to recover from your wound before you are in any fit state to do so.+
Sherinel didn’t seem able to speak. What he wanted to say was, +Who are you? Are you real? How do you know about Ketrin and me? Would you have sex with me?+
He would not actually have said the last sentence aloud, but he thought it along with the rest. And to his surprise and embarrassment, the girl heard his thoughts.
+I’m the Maiden,+ she told him. +I am as real as you and Ketrin are - for what that’s worth! I have been watching Ketrin from afar for some time now. You and I both know that he is a unique and wonderful being, but what you don’t know is that his survival may soon prove vital for the safety of all life on this world, not just the lupinoids. That’s why I persuaded my friends to break a few rules to help you. Unfortunately they only had enough energy to remove the striagon and heal one of you, and Shadow was the more badly injured. When you wake up you will know which way to go to find help. Then, once you have fully recovered, you must go and look for Ketrin.+
Then the Maiden seemed to smile.
+Oh, and yes, I wouldn’t have minded having sex with you, but being a statue I have to make love through other people nowadays. One day when you and Ketrin are together I’d love to tap into your minds and share in your lovemaking. Until then, farewell.+
And then the stone girl was gone, and Sherinel slipped into unconsciousness once more.
Ketrin and Silverpaw
The Maiden’s Other Warning
As Ketrin sped through the forest at a pace that few men could have matched, he came across a familiar scent. Silverpaw was nearby. The lupinoid’s familiar scent was still overlaid with the smell of sickness, and he had been making slow progress. Ketrin decided he’d better try to help his brother before looking for Sherinel.
A little further to the north in a secluded glade Ketrin found Silverpaw sleeping uneasily, growling and tossing fitfully. He didn’t seem to be in mortal danger from the disease, but he was certainly in a lot of discomfort.
His senses were obviously impaired. If he had been healthy he would have woken at the first sign of Ketrin’s presence. As it was, Ketrin had to get within three cubits of his brother before he awoke.
Silverpaw gave him a bleary-eyed stare that said: leave me alone, will you?
Ketrin reached into his waistcloth and drew out the remaining teska leaves. When he offered them to Silverpaw the lupinoid looked at him as if he had gone mad, but Ketrin also knew how to stare, and after a moment Silverpaw had no choice but to comply. The pale girl in Ketrin’s dream had not actually told him the leaves would work for lupinoids as well as humans, but it seemed like a reasonable assumption, and if it worked he could pass on the cure to the rest of the pack.
Silverpaw chewed the leaves without much enthusiasm. He had regained some of his sense of taste, and he obviously hated the taste of teska leaves. Ketrin told him to think himself lucky he couldn’t taste them properly.
After eating the leaves Silverpaw slumped down again, as if to say: There, I’ve eaten your stupid leaves, for all the good they’ll do. Now leave me alone.
After a few minutes he slept again, but this time his sleep was more peaceful.
Ketrin meant to stay awake and on watch, but within a few minutes he too was asleep with his head resting on Silverpaw’s broad back.
The pale girl appeared before Ketrin once more. She was beautiful and naked and Ketrin could not help wondering what sex with her would feel like.
+Oh, don’t start that again,+ she pleaded. +I’ve already been through that with Sherinel. Now listen, Ketrin, Borvinn is coming for you. He is aided by sorcery and is determined to paralyse you the moment he sets eyes on you.+
+But I have to find Sherinel and Shadow, and Mavrida,+ thought Ketrin.
+Mavrida is safe, at least for now,+ the girl told him. +The twins led her safely to her sister’s village. I’m sorry to have to tell you, but Tarvik and Sangrel tried to capture her and the twins were forced to kill them. Sharavel did not attack them and was spared.+
+That is unfortunate,+ Ketrin thought. +I had hoped this could be settled without killing on either side. At least I’m glad Sharavel is safe.+
+Well, what’s done cannot be undone,+ said the girl. +One thing at a time. Sherinel has been wounded, and Shadow is leading him toward a village.+
+Wounded? Then Silverpaw and I should go to him. I could tend his wounds and help him to reach safety much faster.+
+He is too far away,+ the girl told him. +By the time you reached him he would already be at the village. Anyway, Borvinn is already on your trail. He will catch you and paralyse you by this evening if you try to go westward.+
+Then it’s hopeless,+ thought Ketrin dejectedly. +If Borvinn can find me with sorcery, there is nowhere I can go to escape from him. No matter what I do he will paralyse me and I will never escape.+
+There is one way,+ said the girl. +To the north of here there is a deep gorge containing a fast-flowing river. If you can reach the river before Borvinn paralyses you the current will carry you out of range of his spell. It will be a dangerous swim, but if anyone can survive the rapids you can. Once you reach the slower part of the river you can lie low for a few days, while I try to come up with a plan for defeating Borvinn.+
Ketrin considered this. +All right,+ he thought at last. +If it’s a choice between a dangerous river and Borvinn, I’ll take the river. Thank you again...oh, and thank you for telling me about the teska leaves as well. If it hadn’t been for them I’d never have got this far.+
+You’re welcome. Wake up now.+
Ketrin woke. Judging by the position of the sun he had not been asleep for long. Silverpaw was also stirring, and seemed in much better spirits. He was feeling stronger and more alert, and was beginning to regain his sense of smell.
“All right, then,” said Ketrin. “Never let it be said that I don’t follow my dreams. North, to the river.”
Sherinel and Shadow
Sherinel stirred fitfully from the blackness. He was still terribly weak. His wound seemed less painful, but he was not sure that that was a good sign.
Somebody seemed to be breathing heavily nearby. Still only half-conscious, Sherinel muttered, “What are you getting all huffy about?”
When he opened his eyes Sherinel saw the source of the heavy breathing: Shadow’s snout was almost pressing against his mouth, and the lupinoid’s eyes were staring straight down at him. It was all he could do to prevent himself crying out in alarm. Even though he was now accustomed to Shadow’s presence, the sight of those feral eyes staring at him conjured up primal fears born - had he but known it - millions of years before on a distant planet.
“So, my friend,” muttered Sherinel, “you’ve come to finish me off, have you?” He chuckled grimly to himself. “Makes sense, I suppose. No sense wasting fresh meat, is there? You’ve got to keep your strength up. Just get it over with and make it quick.”
Shadow snorted impatiently, and as he did so Sherinel felt something drip onto his cheek. Was it raining?
No, he realised. The water had dripped from Shadow’s lips. Not saliva, but fresh water. At least, as fresh as water could be, when it was being held in a carnivore’s mouth....
And suddenly Sherinel remembered Ketrin telling him that when he was ill his lupinoid brothers had carried water to him in their mouths.
Far from wanting to eat Sherinel, Shadow was actually trying to help him. And that meant - Sherinel realised with a start - that the lupinoid thought he might live. Who better to judge one’s chance of surviving the jungle than one of its own inhabitants?
“I’m sorry, Shadow,” he muttered. “I shouldn’t have doubted you.” And he opened his mouth to receive the lupinoid’s gift. Shadow carefully positioned his mouth above Sherinel’s and let the water trickle from one to the other. Never mind that it was mixed with lupinoid saliva and had a faint tang of blood and meat. It was the sweetest water that Sherinel had ever tasted.
Once Sherinel had finished drinking, Shadow bounded off again. At least the lupinoid was getting his strength back.
Sherinel sat up stiffly and inspected his makeshift bandage. It was caked with dried blood and stuck fast. He knew that it would need to be changed, but removing it might reopen the wound, and in any case he had no other cloth with which to make a fresh dressing. There was nothing for it but to find fresh water so that he could soak off the cloth, clean it as best he could, dry it out and re-use it.
Before long Shadow returned and dropped a bloody hunk of meat beside Sherinel. There was no telling what kind of animal it had come from, and Sherinel didn’t really want to know. Not a large animal, at any rate. A lone lupinoid couldn’t tackle anything very big.
Oh, well, he told himself, Ketrin’s been eating raw meat all his life, and it doesn’t seem to have done him any harm. Somehow he managed to control his nausea enough to chew and swallow.
Stoical as ever, Shadow watched him eat. Despite being renowned for their ferocity, lupinoids could be remarkably patient creatures.
As it turned out, the meat didn’t taste half bad, and Sherinel knew he had to keep his strength up. In the event he managed to eat more than half of the carcass. Shadow sniffed disdainfully at the leftovers, then decided that good meat shouldn’t go to waste and tucked in.
“I’m glad you’re with me,” said Sherinel.
The lupinoid snorted in apparent agreement.
Once Shadow had finished eating, Sherinel set off again. He was still very weak and unsteady on his feet, but was able to make fairly good progress as long as he leaned on Shadow occasionally. The setting sun was casting shafts of light through the trees at a low angle by the time the tiny pack crept on into the forest in search of sanctuary.
Jarnel and Sharavel
Lie and Consequences
Meanwhile Jarnel made his way to the rendezvous where he was supposed to meet Korven, only to find Sharavel there instead, looking convincingly exhausted and dishevelled.
“I thought your party went north-west,” said Jarnel. “Where’s Tarvik and Sangrel?”
“We got separated,” Sharavel told him - which was true enough, discounting the fact that the separation had been voluntary on Sharavel’s part. He said nothing of what had happened to the others after that. “I got lost for a while. Then I thought I could hear a striagon roaring in the distance and I thought it might be attacking someone, so I came as quick as I could to see if I could help. I was just getting my breath when you turned up.”
“Right,” muttered Jarnel. “Well, the truth is...there was a striagon attack. It seems young Sherinel was stalking a lupinoid some ways north of here when a striagon burst out of cover. It was probably after the lupinoid itself and wasn’t too keen on a rival hunter muscling in.”
“Sherinel?” cried Sharavel. “Then...then he...”
“Aye. By the time we caught up there wasn’t much we could do for him.”
“Gods. I was only talking to him a day or two back.” Sharavel sank to his knees in apparent despair. “He was too young. If the striagon had to take any of us it why couldn’t it have been someone older? I’d have traded my life for his if I could.”
Jarnel made some sympathetic noises and patted Sharavel on the shoulder. He did not see the stone that Sharavel had plucked from the ground and concealed within his palm.
“Did...did you recover his body?” muttered Sharavel.
“Wasn’t much to recover after the beast had finished with him. Not much of the lupinoid either. We buried them side by side. Borvinn said he thought that’d be fitting, like...hunter and hunted united in death, sort of thing.”
“Buried them,” mumbled Sharavel. “Yes...yes, I suppose that would be fitting.” With a sigh he rose to his feet. “So where’s Borvinn now?”
“Gone to look for Ketrin,” Jarnel told him. “That striagon won’t be hungry again for a while, but there may be others about. Besides, someone has to tell him about Sherinel.”
“Do you know which way he went?”
“North-east, far as I could tell. Anyways, that’s not our concern now. We should wait for Korven to arrive and then get back to the village to recuperate and re-supply.”
“Suppose so,” said Sharavel, rising to his feet. “Pretty hard on Ketrin, losing his father and his friend the same way.”
“Yeah,” replied Jarnel. “Damn striagons’re a menace. They deserve to be wiped out, them and those damned lup -”
And then Jarnel stopped talking, because Sharavel’s stone had caught him sharply across the back of his head.
“Sorry,” said Sharavel. “I seem to have picked up some bad habits. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to try and find Ketrin before Borvinn does.”
Then he knelt and examined the unconscious man’s fingers.
“I don’t know if you were telling the truth about Sherinel being killed,” said Sharavel, “but I do know you don’t dig graves with spears, and there’s no dirt under your nails.”
Sharavel let Jarnel’s arm fall and considered his options. Korven was due soon, and he couldn’t find Jarnel like this. But if Sharavel left Jarnel in the forest there was a chance that a striagon might find him, and however much Sharavel might feel he deserved it, he couldn’t just abandon him to such a fate.
He remembered what Sherinel had told him of Borvinn’s spell that could supposedly freeze people like dolls. Sharavel wished he had such a spell, so that he could freeze Borvinn and all of his cronies. Yeah, if wishes were gold we’d all be princes he thought.
In the end Sharavel decided there was nothing to do but drag Jarnel’s unconscious body into the forest and drape him over a tree branch where a striagon might not be able to jump. Finding a suitable tree took some time, and dragging the unconscious man up into the branches was far more of an effort than Sharavel could have imagined, but eventually he succeeded. Gasping with exertion he climbed back down then slipped and fell the last two cubits, jarring his ankle as he did so. Swearing loudly he rubbed his ankle, then stood for a moment staring up at Jarnel’s dangling limbs and cursing all the trouble he had caused. It would serve him right if a striagon did get him.
Then Sharavel set off into the forest once more. He was desperate to find Ketrin before Borvinn did, but feared that with all the delays he had encountered he would be too late.
He was right.
Borvinn, Ketrin and Silverpaw
For hours Borvinn had stalked Ketrin and Silverpaw northward through the dense forest. As the chase wore on the ground rose and the trees began to thin out, and in the distance the sound of rushing water drew steadily closer.
At last the trees gave out onto a rocky plateau that was suddenly cut off by a sheer drop. Ketrin and Silverpaw had arrived only moments before Borvinn and were standing at the edge of the chasm considering their next move. Below them, perhaps five times the height of a man, was a broad river that flowed rapidly to the south-east.
Unseen behind them, Borvinn also made his way to the edge and looked down. There was no way to cross the river, and not even Ketrin would dare the suicidal leap into the torrent. Borvinn grinned and concentrated upon the crystal. At last his hunt was finished.
Borvinn could feel the crystal beginning to respond, but it was curiously sluggish. He didn’t know what was taking it so long.
The first time Borvinn had tried to use the spell against Ketrin, after the men’s campfire meeting, Sherinel had knocked him out and the crystal had rolled into the edge of the fire. Borvinn had recovered it from the ashes when he awoke and it had seemed undamaged, but in fact the fire’s heat had expanded the crystal slightly and created a tiny, undetectable flaw. That flaw was blocking some of the spell’s energy and making it slow to act. Frustrated, Borvinn concentrated harder.
Unfortunately for Borvinn, he had underestimated Ketrin’s bravery and his strength. The teska leaves had worked wonders; Ketrin felt positively aglow with health and confidence. Unfortunately for Ketrin, he could not feel the spell beginning to work upon him, and therefore did not realise the danger he was putting himself in. He took a few steps back, and then took a running leap over the edge, quickly followed by his lupinoid brother.
A moment later the two of them struck the water and began to struggle against the raging current.
And at that very moment Ketrin felt his limbs beginning to stiffen as the spell finally took hold.
Borvinn was horrified. Already the current was taking Ketrin’s rigid body around a bend and out of sight. It seemed that thanks to his misjudgement his great prize was about to drown.
There was only one way to save him. Cursing his own stupidity and the wildling’s impulsiveness, Borvinn took a deep breath, walked several paces backward and took the suicidal dive himself.
There was a swift rush of air, and then the shock of hitting the water almost caused Borvinn to pass out. The current took him, and he was forced to use every ounce of strength to prevent himself being swept against the rocky walls of the canyon. But while he had to concentrate on keeping his course, he also had to concentrate on the crystal to try and release Ketrin from the paralysis.
Several tens of man-lengths ahead of Borvinn, Ketrin felt himself sinking helplessly and was terrified that he might drown or hit a submerged rock before Silverpaw could get to him.
Fortunately the lupinoid had realised something was wrong even before Ketrin’s panicked mental cries reached him, and was already swimming frantically toward him. A moment later Silverpaw dived beneath Ketrin’s submerged body, only narrowly avoiding a boulder himself before managing to lift the helpless youth’s head out of the water.
Borvinn saw none of this. He was far too busy trying to keep his own head above water. For a moment he was swept under by an eddy, and gashed his leg painfully against the very rock that Silverpaw had avoided.
Still he concentrated upon the crystal, trying to focus the release-spell upon Ketrin. He didn’t realise it, but the crystalline flaw was not only blocking the spell, but was actually being enlarged by the energy flowing through it.
After a few minutes the current slowed a little, making Silverpaw’s task and Borvinn’s a little easier.
Silverpaw didn’t know how long he could continue to support Ketrin while keeping his own head above water. He would have liked nothing better than to carry his brother to shore, but the canyon walls still rose vertically on either side of them. There was nothing to do but struggle on.
Fortunately for Silverpaw, Borvinn had finally managed to persuade the spell to let Ketrin go. For a moment Ketrin’s limbs jerked and thrashed uncontrollably, almost drowning poor Silverpaw, before he regained control of them and dragged the lupinoid’s head out of the water.
Ketrin didn’t know why Borvinn had chosen to freeze him at such a foolish moment, or why the spell had let him go. Perhaps, he thought, the current had simply carried him beyond its reach. At the moment he was just grateful to have survived.
As always, escaping the jaws of death had made every experience seem sharper and more focused. Ketrin luxuriated in the physical sensation of the water and air rushing over and around his limbs, even as he concentrated on negotiating the current safely. Silverpaw swam beside him, linked with his mind and sharing his exhilaration. It was good to be alive.
Behind them Borvinn fought to keep pace. He might not share their excitement, but he was at least grateful that he and his quarry had survived.
But none of them was out of danger yet. Only a little further on the current began to speed up again and more submerged rocks threatened. If anything the walls of canyon were higher here, and both Ketrin and Borvinn began to wonder if the river would ever end.
Mavrida, Sherinel et al
The Mercy of Dorriven’s People
After arriving at Selvrida’s village Mavrida had spent hours discussing her situation with Selvrida and her husband Valizen. They had finally agreed to put her up temporarily until she could be given her own accommodation.
The three of them had been drinking to Mavrida’s future when they heard a disturbance outside. There was a babble of voices raised in astonishment. Mavrida, Selvrida and Valizen rushed outside to see what was wrong.
Standing - just barely - in the gateway was a naked man with long ragged hair. A crude, bloodstained bandage was tied about his stomach and he seemed about to collapse at any minute.
For a moment Mavrida dared to hope. Then she saw that it was not her son after all. And yet there was something familiar about his face.
“Why, it’s Sherinel,” she exclaimed. “He’s a friend of my son’s, from my old village. How did he come to be here, wounded like that?”
“We can ask him that later,” said Valizen, “if he lives. What are you people standing around for? Can’t you see the man’s injured?”
The young man who had been guarding the gate shuffled nervously. “Um, well, see, he’s a stranger, and Dorriven said not to trust anyone we didn’t recognise...”
“Idiot,” growled Valizen. “Dorriven isn’t here, is he? He’s gone off with half the able-bodied men in the village to hunt striagons again. If he were here he’d be the first to tell you that a wounded stranger is no threat.”
“Besides,” interjected Mavrida, “he’s not a stranger. He is from the village where I used to live. I can vouch for him.”
“There, you see? Mavrida is as honest as her sister. Now will somebody please tend to this man’s wound before he dies from shock?”
As if on cue the wounded man staggered and began to fall. Valizen and Mavrida rushed forward to catch him.
Sherinel was vaguely aware of being carried through the crowd and into a house where he was laid on a bed. The blurred face of a bearded man swam into view, muttering something like “...feverish... wound could be poisoned... how long has he been wandering in the jungle...?”
Then for a long time all conscious thought deserted him.
Borvinn, Ketrin and Silverpaw
Borvinn Paralyses Ketrin
For what seemed like days Ketrin, Silverpaw and Borvinn fought to avoid being dashed to pieces on the rocks while the canyon walls sped past at an alarming rate.
Eventually the canyon walls began to fall away and further on the river forked into two channels. They looked identical, but some instinct caused Ketrin and Silverpaw to choose the left channel. Borvinn was already heading for the right channel, and had to struggle against the current in order to change course.
Once they were a little further downstream, however, Borvinn was forced to admit that Ketrin seemed to have made the right choice. The current began to slow and the channel became deeper and less rocky. Eventually the rock walls fell away altogether revealing a broad forested plain. They were not quite out of danger yet; there were more rocky cascades to be negotiated, and all of them were tired, bruised and exhausted by the time the river finally gave out into a broad lake.
On the far side of the lake the land rose in a series of jagged cliffs, over which cascaded a huge waterfall. It was one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Neither Ketrin nor Borvinn had seen its like. Because of its remoteness few humans ever had.
In an ancient geological era, two broad, fast-flowing rivers had met near this place. Then, perhaps three million years before the first humans had arrived, some geological upheaval had caused the land to split in two as if cut by a wrathful god’s great axe, and the ground on one side had fallen away, taking part of the river beds with it.
Once the cataclysm was over the two rivers still raced toward each other at an acute angle, but before meeting they both ran out of land and surged over hundred-cubit-high cliffs. The two arched waterfalls, each carrying an enormous volume of water, collided in midair and exploded into a vast canopy of spray that cascaded into a deep lake at the base of the cliff.
After swimming ashore Ketrin spent some minutes just staring in awe at the sight. He guessed that if he and Silverpaw had taken the right-hand channel it would have carried them over the waterfall. The speed of the current and the height of the fall meant that they could not have survived. For a moment Ketrin imagined seeing two small figures, one furred and one naked, flailing their limbs as they fell through the cloud of spray and disappeared into the depths of the lake. He sighed and shook his head. It was only sheer luck that had saved them from such a fate.
Silverpaw couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Unimpressed by the sight and deafened by the sound, wet, exhausted and bedraggled, the lupinoid clambered onto the bank and shook himself dry, then padded some way into the forest, where the trees muffled the noise a little, and sat down. Ketrin, following, also sat, using the lupinoid’s broad back as a pillow. His waistcloth had long since been lost to the current, and good riddance. He was back in his element. He loved to feel the air, the sun, the rain and the river upon his bare skin.
And as he sat naked in the warm, humid forest, relieved to be temporarily free from danger, his fingers slowly began to caress his genitals as if of their own volition, and he was content to let them roam where they pleased. Linking minds with Silverpaw, he let the lupinoid feel everything he was feeling, and their pleasure built and built over the course of an hour until they both howled in ecstasy. Silverpaw never ceased to be amazed that a penis without a bone could be capable of such intense feelings. Ketrin found it pretty amazing himself.
Afterward, Ketrin and Silverpaw napped for a while. Their jungle-trained subconsciouses were ready to wake them instantly at the first sign of danger, but none came. When they woke, Ketrin stood and walked back toward the falls while Silverpaw remained quietly on guard.
Ketrin waded into the shallows and simply stood for a while, oblivious to the spray that was soaking him from head to foot, staring in awe at the huge plume of water. Sunlight refracted through the fall created a brilliant arc of colours. The noise of falling water was almost deafening. It was, he thought, surely the most spectacular natural display in the world. Few of the planet’s human inhabitants, had they been aware of its existence, would have disagreed.
Surely in spite of all the dangers of the jungle, in spite of all the sufferings human beings were capable of inflicting, if nature was capable of producing such wonders then life could not be worthless, as some of the more pessimistic villagers maintained.
No, thought Ketrin. Humans who think life is worthless often strive to make it worthless, just to prove themselves right. They are fools. In spite of its hardships, life can be good.
I will find Mavrida and bring here, he thought. I will show her that there is more in the forest than darkness and death. And then I will find Sherinel and we will join our bodies here, bathed by the water. And then...and then I will bring Borvinn here, at the point of a knife if I have to, and if even this does not move him then...perhaps I will kill him. Swiftly and mercifully, which is more than he deserves.
Ketrin shook his head. This was no place to be thinking of killing. Borvinn could wait. Sooner or later Ketrin knew he must confront his enemy, but at the moment he was far away.
But Ketrin was wrong. Borvinn had arrived at the lakeshore, gasping from exertion and relief, just a few minutes after Ketrin and Silverpaw, and now sat just four paces away, cloaked by the old man’s sorcery. Even if Ketrin had chanced to look straight at Borvinn, he would have seen nothing but the trees behind him.
In truth Borvinn was not moved by the spectacular waterfall, but that was probably because he was concentrating upon the more wondrous spectacle that was Ketrin’s naked body.
While Ketrin stood beneath the falls, Borvinn watched from the nearby bank, his clothing already discarded. Slowly he masturbated as he luxuriated in the sight of that perfect, slender, youthful body and imagined all the things he would soon be doing to it as it lay helpless beneath his touch.
I will start slowly this time, he thought. Since there is no danger of discovery here I can take all the time I want.
To begin with, I will simply tease him. A kiss here, a caress there, the merest touch in his most intimate places...he will suspect that it is me, but I will remain invisible to him, a ghostly presence whose moves he cannot anticipate. Then, after treating him to my most tender affections for an hour or two, I will start fingering his manhood and he won’t be able to prevent himself getting hard. And then...then maybe I’ll jerk him so fast it’ll hurt when he comes. Or maybe I’ll suck him instead, nice and slow, until at last he shoots his hot, sticky seed right in my mouth.
And then finally I’ll succeed where I failed before. I’ll lay him down and entwine my legs about his and slip my arms around him and stroke his firm chest and inhale the scent of his hair...and then I’ll slowly slide my red-hot shaft into his tight, firm arse and -
By this time Borvinn’s fantasies had brought him almost to orgasm, but he took a deep breath and released his fingers from his rocky phallus. His entire body shivered in frustration, but he forced himself to relax. No sense shooting my load too soon, he told himself. I’ve got to save it for the real thing.
After a few minutes beneath the spray, Ketrin’s body was thoroughly drenched, his hair plastered to his scalp. The water was cold, which was a rare and unpleasant experience for one raised in the sweltering jungle. Stirring himself, Ketrin stepped back from the water’s edge to where the spray did not reach, and stood in the sunlight, turning slowly with his arms outstretched so that the warmth would dry his bare skin all over.
The sight almost gave Borvinn a spontaneous orgasm, and once again he had to make a huge effort to restrain himself.
Once he was dry Ketrin turned and walked slowly back toward the clearing where Silverpaw waited.
Almost time, thought Borvinn. First I’ll freeze the boy, then kill the lupinoid, and finally resume our relationship from where it was so rudely interrupted before.
Borvinn took the blue jewel in his hand and concentrated. Immediately the jewel in Ketrin’s knife began to respond.
As Ketrin approached Silverpaw, he became aware of a subtle tingling in his upper chest. After a moment the tingling spread to the rest of his body, and his arms and legs began to grow stiff.
Sensing that something was amiss, Silverpaw sprang to his feet and began looking and smelling for danger.
Borvinn! thought Ketrin. He’s using his spell on me again!
The last time Borvinn had used the spell on Ketrin its effects had been instant. For some reason it was taking longer to work this time, but Ketrin knew it was only a matter of moments before he became totally helpless.
Silverpaw whimpered. The lupinoid sensed that something was seriously wrong with his two-legged brother but was at a loss to understand the cause.
Ketrin projected an image of Borvinn into Silverpaw’s mind. If Silverpaw were to kill Borvinn it might break the spell.
By this time the paralysis was almost complete. Ketrin stood facing the waterfall, his arms by his sides, legs slightly apart. The spell seemed to be keeping him balanced upright as his legs froze into rigidity.
Ketrin did his best to reassure Silverpaw that he was not wounded or poisoned or dying or in pain, but was nonetheless unable to move and therefore vulnerable to attack. Once again he showed the lupinoid an image of Borvinn. If Borvinn so much as showed his face in this vicinity, Silverpaw would attack - if he could. But Ketrin was very much afraid that Borvinn might possess some sorcery that could kill or at least paralyse the lupinoid as well.
And yet, if that was the case, why hadn’t he done that as soon as he had paralysed Ketrin?
Hours passed. Ketrin stood rigid as a statue. Silverpaw patrolled the edge of the forest, patiently waiting for Borvinn to make his move. Ketrin was no less patient, but he knew that Borvinn was not. So where was the hunter? What was he waiting for?
The truth was that Borvinn had no choice but to wait.
Borvinn had taken the blue jewel in his hand and concentrated. Immediately the jewel in Ketrin’s knife had begun to respond.
Good, he had thought, taking a step forward. It won’t be long before he’s mine and I can do whatever I want to him forever. But first, there’s just one more detail to take care of: that flea-ridden beast of his.
But as he had approached the crouching lupinoid and prepared to use his death-spell upon it, he had begun to feel a tingling and a stiffening in his own limbs.
Something was wrong! The paralysing spell was affecting Borvinn as well as Ketrin! Frantically he had tried to deactivate the crystals, but to no avail. He could no longer control them.
It’s a trick! he thought. The old man had this planned from the start!
Surprisingly, he was wrong. The old man was not to blame for the spell’s malfunction - although when, some time later, he came to learn of Borvinn’s plight, he laughed until he was short of breath.
And nobody but the sorcerer could have explained what had gone wrong. The flaw in the crystal was focussing some of the spell’s energy upon its wielder as well as its intended victim. More of that energy was trapped within the flaw itself, bouncing back and forth between its walls, blocking Borvinn’s desperate commands. Try as he might, he could not release himself from the spell, any more than he could have released Ketrin if he had wanted to. The spell had become permanent and self-sustaining.
And so Ketrin stood frozen in helpless immobility, never imagining that only a few paces behind him the invisible Borvinn stood equally helpless, mentally screaming with rage. The hunter could do nothing but stare at Ketrin’s beautiful, naked, paralysed body, the body he had coveted for so long, only to be denied it in so cruelly ironic a fashion just when he was about to get his hands on it....
The sight of Ketrin’s bare back had given Borvinn a powerful erection. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the wildling’s stunning legs and buttocks, which meant he was permanently aroused and permanently frustrated.
If Ketrin had known the truth, he would have been both relieved and alarmed. Relieved because Borvinn could no longer harm him or his friends, but alarmed because if Borvinn could not free him from the spell then no one could.
A microscopic crystalline fracture had created a prison for both Ketrin and Borvinn, a prison without bars or walls, yet a prison from which escape was impossible. Like the men in the cave who had frozen each other, both he and Borvinn were doomed to remain paralysed for eternity.
October 1999 - May 2003, definitely not in that order!
In Our Next Fascinating Instalment...
Ketrin is worshipped as an all-powerful god.
Which is ironic, since he doesn’t even have the power to move.
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