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Welcome at last to the Part Ten! I previously posted a ‘preview’ (i.e., unfinished) version of this instalment comprising “Deus Ex Machina”, “Going with the Flow”, “Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Rain”, and “The Jungle Girl Versus the Crawling Death”. I have made revisions to most of these chapters, and added “Battle Fatigue”, “New Encounters”, “Nightfall” and “Pilgrimage”. The new chapters more than double the word-count, from 6,600 to 13,700. I hope you think it was worth it. As we’re both aware, it took long enough!
The story takes place several hundred light years from Earth in about AD 3502, give or take a century or three.
You can take the girl out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the girl.
We’re so sorry, we told you not to hurry,
Now it’s just too late, you’ve got a certain date.
--Madness, “Cardiac Arrest”
Deus Ex Machina
Mavrida’s left hand moved toward the pocket in which she kept the blue crystals, but to her surprise something seemed to be restraining her from reaching them. She felt her gaze being drawn back to Ruthyar’s.
Ruthyar? she thought. Is it you? Are you doing this?
As if in answer, his gaze moved from her eyes to her right hand. There was a growing warmth in her middle finger, and she realised to her astonishment that it was coming from her wedding ring.
The red stone, she thought. The key to Ruthyar’s hidden gold. But what else might it be a key to? Ruthyar understood its sorcery, and now I have brought it back to him...
Slowly Mavrida withdrew her left hand from her pocket. Meanwhile she reached out with her right hand and stroked Ruthyar’s face... allowing the red jewel in her ring, as if by coincidence, to brush against his forehead.
Ruthyar, she thought. You are a part of this, aren’t you? Just like the stone Maiden. You were not just an innocent victim of Borvinn and the old man. Somehow you were playing a part in trying to counter their evil.
Somehow the look in his eyes told her he knew what she was thinking.
But then you were captured, and brought here to suffer years of pain and helplessness, while believing you dead, I mourned you every single day. she thought. Or was that also part of the plan? Were your pain and my anguish part of some higher purpose?
She sighed wearily. Oh, Ruthyar, I’m so confused. If only there were some way you could tell me what to do.
Ruthyar’s eyes burned into Mavrida’s hypnotically. The warmth in her finger became an almost-painful heat and the red jewel blazed, replacing the room’s frigid light with fiery radiance.
Mavrida was vaguely aware of the old man crying out in rage. Watched by the paralysed lupinoids he leapt toward her with inhuman speed, but he was already too late. Before he could reach her she was swallowed up by a hole in nothing.
Howling like an enraged striagon, the old man turned back toward Red and Grey, ready to tear their helpless bodies to pieces... but before he could reach them two more holes appeared, and the lupinoids too fell out of his trap.
The sorcerer walked back to where Ruthyar lay helpless and knelt before him.
“This is your doing,” he snarled. “I should have known you were a pawn of that damned Maiden.”
Ruthyar could not even wince as the sorcerer’s claws raked his face.
“I will not punish you further... yet,” the sorcerer told him. “But I promise you this: once my powers are fully mature, and that will not be long now, you and all those you love will understand the true meaning of suffering.”
Ruthyar scarcely heard him, scarcely felt the sting of his claws. The fact that the sorcerer was venting his frustration upon Ruthyar meant that he could not attack Mavrida directly, at least for the moment. Ruthyar prayed that the Maiden could keep her and her companions safe until the final confrontation.
Going with the Flow
The shattered cliff edge fell into the gorge, taking Suvanji and Nipper with it. Over the sound of Nipper’s terrified howl she could hear herself screaming, “Lendriiiiiin!”
There would be no chance of swimming to safety. From this height, even if they managed to get clear of the cliff fragment, just hitting the water would be fatal.
Then Suvanji seemed to hear a voice in her head. It was not Lendrin.
+...anji! Suvanji, can you hea...+
The voice faded in and out as if carried by an erratic breeze. It was a woman’s voice. Could it be Mavrida? Surely that was impossible.
The next ‘voice’ Suvanji heard was clear enough, though. It was Nipper.
+Hey, two-leg, what’s happening? We’ve stopped falling!+
Suvanji couldn’t explain it. In fact they were still falling, but far more slowly than before. It was as if their bodies had become feathers drifting on the breeze.
+Suvanji!+ called the unknown voice. +Listen carefully. I am the one they call the Maiden. I don’t have much time. I’ve managed to slow down time just long enough to talk to you.+
+Maiden?+ thought Suvanji. +Are you what the two-legs call a god?+
+No,+ replied the Maiden, +and neither is the old sorcerer. We just happen to have certain powers, that’s all. He uses his for evil, and I try to use mine for good. Suvanji, I don’t have enough power to get the two of you to safety, and I can’t keep up this connection for long. The best I can do is slow your fall so the impact won’t kill you. Then you’ll both have to swim to safety. It’s a long way and the current is fierce, but Ketrin and Silverpaw and even Borvinn managed it, so you should have a fighting cha...+
The Maiden’s voice faded again. Suvanji and Nipper’s fall accelerated, then slowed down once more as the Maiden’s voice returned.
+...orcerer’s trying to block me,+ she said. +All right, get ready. I’m going to lift you clear of the rock slab and drop you into the water from a safer height. Just remember one thing: whatever happens, stay on the left side of the river. If you follow the right channel you’ll be carried over the waterfall and killed. The left channel eventually flows into the Lake.+
+But...+ Suvanji thought, +Lendrin... and Mavrida, Red and Grey...+
+I’ll do what I can for them,+ said the Maiden. +I’ll give them directions to find you. Now get ready to swim.+
Time sped up again. The girl and the lupinoid felt their bodies lifted clear of the cliff fragment, which impacted against the opposite cliff face somewhere behind them, and then they were plunged into the rushing water.
+...member...+ came the Maiden’s fading voice, +...eep to the left channel. The lef...+
And then she was gone.
+All right, Nipper, you heard her,+ thought Suvanji. +Swim for your life, and keep to the <<< side of the river.+
The two of them had had some experience at swimming, in small forest rivers and lakes, but nothing could have prepared them for the great river. The torrent was carrying them past the cliffs at a frightening rate, and the eddying currents constantly threatened to drag them under or dash them to pieces against submerged rocks. The water was also far colder than anything they had known (it was fed by melting ice from the distant mountains) and the cold seemed to sap their strength. It took every ounce of determination and strength to hold their own against the current, but Suvanji was sustained by one overriding thought: I will not die. I will see Lendrin again, and Mavrida and Red and Grey. I need them, and they need me.
Nipper had similar thoughts, although she was not able to express them so articulately. Roughly translated, they were: Fuck this. I wanna live. I wanna be with my pack.
The light was dim and hazards hard to see, but by a combination of jungle instinct and sheer luck they managed to avoid the worst of them. Although the trees did not, for the most part, overhang the water, there were some fallen branches and even the occasional section of trunk in the river, and on more than one occasion they had to dive to avoid hitting them.
The current sped up, churning and frothing, and powerful eddies began dragging them to the right.
+This must be the place where the water goes two ways,+ Suvanji told Nipper. +We have to fight the current and stay on this side, otherwise we’ll end up at another big fall and this time there won’t be anything to stop us.+
And so they fought with all their might to stay in the left channel. Up ahead they could just make out the fork in the river, where an arrowhead-shaped spur of rock divided the streams. The current almost slammed them against the point of the spur, and Nipper began drifting into the right-hand stream, but Suvanji was able to grab the lupinoid’s shoulders and drag her into the left stream, fighting the current all the way.
Finally the division was past, but the danger was not over. The current accelerated again, taking them through three or four more sets of rapids, before the channel finally began to broaden, shallow and slow down.
+We safe yet?+ thought the exhausted Nipper.
+Nearly,+ thought Suvanji. +Still can’t see a place to climb out yet.+
Eventually, though, the cliffs on either side fell away to a broad plain. The current, now slowed to a ghost of its former fury, deposited them into a broad span of water, far larger than any lake they had ever known. To their right lay more rocky cliffs, over which two roaring falls merged into a huge fan of spray. The right channel would have carried them into one or other of those falls, to their certain deaths.
To their left a grassy embankment rose gently toward the treeline, and they swam toward it with the last of their strength. Weary and bedraggled but grateful to be alive, the swimmers dragged themselves onto the muddy grass and slept soundly despite the waterfall’s constant roar.
Mavrida and Lendrin
Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Rain
Mavrida felt the floor drop away from under her. The world seemed to spin, and then she found herself falling alongside raindrops onto stony ground. She landed roughly, twisting her ankle painfully, and spent some time massaging it while being drenched by the rain, as she tried to figure out what had happened, and where she was.
Obviously she was no longer in the stone ruins. She was outside somewhere, seemingly close by the edge of the gorge.
Before she could figure out how she had come to be there, a shimmering appeared in the air nearby, disgorging a furry grey figure. The figure emitted a startled yelp as it fell roughly to the ground, just as Mavrida had.
Finding that she was no longer paralysed, Grey rolled onto her feet and would have bounded over to Mavrida, except that at that moment another shimmering suddenly appeared in the air, disgorging a furry red figure which emitted a startled yelp as it fell roughly on top of Grey.
Once the lupinoids had untangled themselves they had a brief quarrel over who should have looked where they were going and who should have got out of the way. Mavrida ignored them, knowing that it wouldn’t last long.
It must have been Ruthyar that had helped them escape the old man. Somehow, she realised, he still retained power over the red crystals in their wedding rings, even while he was paralysed.
She had always known that the ring he had given her possessed some kind of power. He had shown her how to use that power to open a hole in the rock spire where his gold was stored. The hole did not lead to the interior of the spire, but to some other place entirely. Apparently the rings, under Ruthyar’s silent command, had also opened the holes through which she and the lupinoids had just escaped. It also seemed that the red crystals were able to neutralise the blue crystals, which was how Red and Grey had been freed from their paralysis.
Mavrida looked at the ring. If it was able to transport humans and lupinoids many cubits through solid rock walls, maybe it could transport them over even greater distances, could she but figure out how to use it. If only she was able to use it to transport herself to wherever Ketrin was, instead of laboriously trekking through the jungle for countless days. But if she had been able to do that from the start she would never have met her new friends.
In any case it was probably pointless to speculate about what the rings might do, when she barely understood what they did. One thing was certain, though: the red jewels contained a power that the sorcerer could not control, and that was encouraging.
Having settled their quarrel without too many additional scratches or bruises, Red and Grey loped across to greet Mavrida. Once they had done so they set their noses to the ground to search for their other packmates’ scent. It only took them a moment to find it, and they looked expectantly at Mavrida.
“All right, lead on,” she said.
Red and Grey followed the scent a few hundred cubits further up the gorge, and there they found Lendrin sitting dejectedly by himself. There was no sign of Suvanji or Nipper.
Lendrin was almost bowled over by the lupinoids’ greeting. When he finally managed to disentangle himself he embraced Mavrida fiercely.
“Thank the gods,” he moaned. “I thought I’d lost you too.”
“Lost?” replied Mavrida. “What do you mean, lost? Where is Suvanji, and Nipper?”
Lendrin sighed. “Far away by now. Fighting for their lives against the river. Even if they survive the current, they’ll be swept so far downstream we might take moons to find them, if ever.”
Lendrin moaned. “Oh, Suvanji. Just when we’d really begun to understand each other...”
“Fighting the river?” muttered Mavrida. “I don’t understand. Lendrin, take a deep breath and tell me, slowly, what happened.”
Lendrin sighed and nodded, then told Mavrida how the girl and her lupinoid had been thrown into the gorge.
“I was so distraught I was just about to throw myself in after them,” he said, “but at that moment the Maiden appeared to me. She told me she’d managed to slow their fall so it wouldn’t kill them, but she couldn’t fish them out of the river. So it’s like I said: they’re both fighting the current, somewhere far downriver by now. The Maiden told me she’s sure they’ll make it.”
Mavrida knelt beside him and put an arm around his shoulder. “So am I,” she said. “Ketrin and his lupinoid brother Silverpaw already survived the same journey, did I tell you that?”
Then another thought struck her. “You know, Suvanji and Nipper may even find Ketrin before we do. They’ll be in roughly the same part of the forest.”
“It’s just so unfair,” Lendrin sighed. “She only just taught me how to share thoughts with her, and now there’s no telling when we’ll meet again, if ever.”
Mavrida was taken aback. “She... she taught you how to...?”
Groaning, Lendrin buried his head in his hands. “I love her, Mavrida, and she loves me. I could feel it when our minds touched. She’s so fierce and protective, just like a lupinoid, but at the same time she’s all woman. I wanted to spend the rest of my life getting to know her, and now there’s no telling if I’ll ever see her again.”
“Now there you go again,” said Mavrida. “Stop talking like that. We will find her again, and we’ll find Ketrin, and maybe Sherinel too.”
That was always assuming Sherinel wasn’t on the bridge when it collapsed, but she kept that thought to herself.
“Now come on,” she told Lendrin. “We’ve got a long way to go, but with the Maiden on our side, not even the old man can stop us.”
Perhaps the sorcerer heard her. At that moment their hair stood on end as another lightning bolt struck the cliff nearby, almost immediately followed by a burst of thunder that half-deafened them and rattled the ground on which they stood.
Without hesitation the four of them ran for the forest, hoping to put as much distance as they could between the stone ruins and themselves. Once they entered the forest proper their progress was hampered by the dense vegetation, but by nightfall they reckoned they were several thousand cubits to the south west of the ruined city and its sinister occupant.
There was no telling if they really were safe from the old man’s wrath, but they were too exhausted, to go any further, so they made what camp they could in the roots of a forest giant. The lupinoids had no trouble getting to sleep, but the humans took a little longer. Fortunately the lupinoids had learned how to sleep through the two-legs’ yapping.
“Did Suvanji really teach you how to share thoughts with her?” asked Mavrida.
“Yes, it’s true,” said Lendrin, then gave a small chuckle. “When she stared at me and said ‘blood,’ I thought she was talking about shedding mine. But it turns out, all she wanted was to mingle her blood with mine.”
“Mingle her blood?”
“That’s right. It seems that whatever allows lupinoids to exchange thoughts is carried in their blood. Their cubs ingest it when they suckle lupinoid milk...”
“...And so do any human ‘cubs’ that they adopt,” concluded Mavrida.
“Right. And when Suvanji mixed her blood with mine, that something passed into me as well.”
Lendrin sighed deeply. “I could hear her thoughts, Mavrida, as clearly as I can hear my own. We could feel exactly what we meant to each other. From that moment I never wanted to be parted from her, not for a single... oh, gods damn that old bastard!”
“We’ll find her, Lendrin, I swear it, even if we have to search to the end of the world. But there’s something I have to tell you too, Lendrin, something important. I still haven’t really come to terms with it myself yet.”
“Why, what is it?” asked Lendrin. “Is it about something that happened to you in the ruined city? Does it have to do with how you escaped from the old man?”
“Yes. It... it’s about my husband, Ruthyar.”
“Ruthyar? You told me he was killed by a striagon during a hunt, many years ago.”
“That’s what Borvinn always told me,” said Mavrida. “But it turns out that Borvinn didn’t actually see the striagon kill him.”
“Then... does that mean the striagon didn’t kill him?” said Lendrin. “I don’t understand. If he was still alive, then why...”
“The striagon didn’t have a chance to kill him,” said Mavrida, “because the old man paralysed them both before it could close its jaws. All these long years I believed my husband was dead, but for all that time he was lying in the old man’s lair with the striagon’s fangs in his throat, frozen between life and death.”
“Oh, gods have mercy,” breathed Lendrin.
“The old man said I had a choice,” Mavrida continued. “Either let him continue to live in that half-dead state, or release him and let the striagon put him out of his misery.”
“So... what did you choose?” whispered Lendrin.
“I... I was going to release him,” Mavrida murmured. “Only I never got a chance because at that moment the lupinoids and I were hurled away from that place. I... I think Ruthyar freed us, though I couldn’t say how. I’m beginning to suspect he was working for the Maiden all along.”
Mavrida was careful to avoid any mention of the red crystals. She was sure Lendrin was trustworthy, but her instincts warned her that knowledge of them was best kept to herself.
“So,” she concluded, “that’s all I know. My husband is alive, but he remains helpless and in the old man’s clutches. Even if we could get to him, there’s no way we could free him from the paralysis without freeing the striagon as well, and the old man told me Ruthyar’s throat is already crushed. Ironic, isn’t it? The paralysing spell prevents him from dying, yet it also prevents him from truly living. We can only hope the Maiden is helping him to stay sane.”
“Dear gods, what a dilemma,” muttered Lendrin.
They both fell silent for a while, but neither of them was able to sleep straight away.
At length, Lendrin spoke quietly: “I know it probably isn’t your biggest priority right now... but if Ruthyar is alive, then you’re still married to him, and that means the two of us...”
Mavrida sighed. “Go to sleep, Lendrin,” she whispered. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
The Jungle Girl Versus the Crawling Death
Nipper yawned hugely and nuzzled her furless companion. +Hey, two-leg. You awake yet?+
Suvanji opened her eyes and stretched her aching limbs. +Yeah, I’m awake,+ she thought, hugging her lupinoid companion. +We’re alive, Nipper. We made it.+
Nipper lowered her head and tail morosely. +Lost our pack,+ she thought.
+We’ll find them again,+ Suvanji told her, +or they’ll find us. Meantime, we have each other.+
Taking Nipper’s face in both hands Suvanji looked her in the eyes and thought: +I’ll lead. Challenge?+
+No challenge,+ thought the lupinoid, abasing herself.
+Good,+ thought the human, rising to her feet. +Then let’s walk our stiffness off.+
The rain had eased off a little, but the clouds remained as thick as ever. At least the rain was warmer than the river. After waiting out the long dry season, new shoots were bursting through the soil all along the lakeshore.
+Not many critters about,+ thought Nipper.
+Probably sheltering from the rain,+ thought Suvanji. +Hungry?+
+Yeah. Aren’t you? We’ve got to get our strength back after that long swim.+
+Well,+ thought Suvanji, +if there’s not much game on the ground, let’s see what fish we can catch.+
+Wait,+ thought Nipper incredulously. +You want us to go back in the water after what we just went through?+
+This’ll be different,+ Suvanji insisted. +It isn’t fast water and we won’t be fighting to stay alive.+
+I suppose,+ thought the lupinoid dubiously.
Suvanji looked out across the lake to the falls on the opposite site. Swollen by rainfall the great fan of water was an impressive sight, at least to Suvanji’s human side.
+Look at that,+ thought Suvanji. +That’s what we would have fallen into if we’d taken the >>> channel.+
Nipper gave the waterfall a cursory glance. +Well, we didn’t,+ she thought. Lupinoids had little use for hypotheticals. As far as she was concerned the falls were just adding more water to an already-waterlogged environment.
They spent some time trying to catch fish, with limited success. Suvanji broke off a narrow tree branch to use as a crude spear, then swam out to where the lake seemed reasonably deep. She then trod water for a while, waiting for shoals of fish to swim by. Each time they did she would try to spear one, but despite her jungle-honed reflexes she missed more often than she hit. By midday she had only caught four fish, none of which was longer than her hand.
Nipper’s approach was more direct. She would swim after a school and try to grab any stragglers in her jaws. That was slightly more successful, and she managed to catch six that were a little larger than her human companion’s. Being the omega in her tiny pack, however, she did not eat any of her catch, but waited for her alpha to divide the spoils and eat first.
The division of the spoils was unequal. Suvanji swapped her smaller catch with Nipper’s, reasoning that since she was bigger than the lupinoid she would need more food. Nipper didn’t complain.
The fish were more succulent than any they had known. Suvanji supposed they were never found in the upper jungle because they couldn’t swim past the rapids.
While they were finishing their snack Nipper raised her head and sniffed the air.
+What’s up?+ thought Suvanji.
+Smell something,+ thought Nipper. +Could be bad.+
+Critter?+ asked Suvanji.
+Yeah.+ The lupinoid projected the mental image of a small reptile. +That’s what it smells like, only there’s too much scent for it to be a little thing like that. And I think it’s getting stronger.+
As if on cue, there came a basso profundo roar from somewhere behind them.
A creature was lumbering toward them, ungainly on four splayed legs. It resembled nothing so much as the small reptile Nipper had described, except that it was vastly bigger - many times larger than a striagon - and sported a large fin on its back, supported by multiple spikes. Suvanji might have described the fin as sail-like if she had had any knowledge of ships. The creature had an impressive set of jaws, and despite its seemingly awkward gait it was approaching them rapidly.
+Shit,+ thought Suvanji.
+I just did,+ thought Nipper.
They ran, howling in alarm. It was a long shot, but if there were any lupinoids in the area they might just help fight off the creature.
Suvanji was running as fast as she could, but the muddy ground made the going difficult and the reptile was gaining rapidly.
+Nipper! Run!+ she ordered. +You’re faster than me. Try and get help if you can.+
+But - +
+No buts. I’m gonna make for the trees. If I can’t shake it off maybe I can climb to safety. Now get going.+
Whining miserably, Nipper peeled off and ran full-tilt away from the lake. Suvanji turned and headed straight for the treeline. After weighing its options for a moment the reptile turned and followed her.
This close to the lakeshore the trees were not especially dense, but Suvanji was able to confound the creature a little by ducking and weaving between the trunks. At one point she even managed to double back on her path, causing the reptile no end of frustration. It wasn’t about to give up on a tasty morsel like her, though, and she was beginning to tire. A few small fish were not enough to sustain her for a long pursuit.
The creature roared again. Suvanji could feel its breath upon her back, followed a moment later by its fetid scent.
The wildling sprinted for the tallest tree she could see. Unfortunately the trees this close to the lake were not very tall, nor very thick. The best she could find was only about four times her height and had a trunk narrower than her body.
Suvanji wished she had kept hold of her fishing spear, not that it would have done much damage to the reptile’s thick scales.
She clambered up the trunk. When she was just over halfway to the top the tree began to creak and groan ominously under her weight.
The reptile caught up to her tree and hissed. Some insight had told her that with its low-slung gait it would be incapable of climbing. Prowling about the base of her tree the creature appeared to consider its options.
Suvanji howled again. At the moment she didn’t have many other ideas, and it was just possible that some wandering lupinoid might hear and investigate. Failing that, maybe her howl would attract a hungry striagon, and she could slip away while the two predators fought.
Or then again, maybe they would come to a truce and divide their human catch...
Suvanji treed - art by John Ridley
Suvanji shuddered, causing the tree to shed a few leaves. Sometimes, she reflected, having a human imagination was a curse. She could foresee all of the bad things that might happen to her.
The reptile took a few steps back, hissing angrily. Then, raising its fin to its full height, the creature charged the base of the tree. That was a bad thing she had not foreseen.
The tree shuddered as the reptile’s flat head rammed into it. The branch Suvanji was holding onto gave way and she felt herself slipping down the trunk.
The reptile couldn’t climb, but by rolling sideways it was able to reach up with one of its forelegs. Suvanji howled in pain as its claws raked her right calf. Frantically she tried to drag herself back up the trunk, but without much success. The rain had made it slippery, and none of the remaining branches were strong enough to use as handholds.
The reptile charged the tree again. Suvanji wrapped all four limbs around the trunk as tightly as she could, but the trunk itself was weakening under the beast’s onslaught.
One or two more impacts might bring down the tree completely. Worse still, Suvanji was bleeding profusely and had no way to staunch the blood.
Still, it might be a blessing if she passed out from loss of blood before the reptile began eating her.
The reptile stepped back and prepared to charge again, but before it could do so there was a howl and something slammed into it, knocking it off its feet. Something with fur and stripes. Two things with fur and stripes.
+Nipper!+ thought Suvanji. +You did find another four-leg!+
The two lupinoids harried the reptile, snapping at its legs and tail, and then a spear struck the creature’s back, becoming wedged beneath one of its scales.
Hissing angrily the reptile turned and ran, shrugging off the lupinoids and waddling away as fast as its splayed gait could carry it.
Sighing in relief, Suvanji slid down the trunk and slumped at its base. Nipper bounded over to her and began licking her wounded leg. The other lupinoid walked back to its human companion, the man who had thrown the spear.
+Found help,+ Nipper thought proudly. +A four-leg and a two-leg!+
Suvanji grinned wanly. +So I see,+ she thought. +Just in time, friend.+
The lupinoid’s saliva staunched her bleeding somewhat, but Suvanji knew that any movement was likely to open the wound again, and she was becoming dizzy from blood loss.
The human knelt before her. He was a handsome man, a little older and stockier than Lendrin, and dressed in a similar type of waistcloth. “It seems that you and your companion are servants of Lord Ral-ne-Sa,” he said. “I am Tharil, a hunter of Third Hill village, and my brave companion here is Fire.”
+Hi, Fire,+ thought Suvanji. +Thanks for the help.+
+Right,+ thought Fire. +No problem.+
Tharil spoke the human words a little differently from Lendrin and Mavrida, but Suvanji understood him well enough. She had no idea who Lord Ral-ne-Sa might be, but if he thought her his servant it seemed wise not to deny it.
“My two-leg friends call me Suvanji,” she told the hunter, “and my four-leg packmate, Nipper. Thank you for saving me.”
She was astonished at how easily speech came to her now. Her brief mental link with Lendrin seemed to have given her access to his entire vocabulary. She was able to translate thoughts into words, and words into thoughts, without conscious effort. She supposed that was how it must be for all humans who were raised by their own kind.
“Suvanji. Nipper. May I ask where the two of you came from?”
“We lived far upriver,” she told him, “It’s long and complicated to explain, but we got separated from our friends and thrown into the rapids. We only just managed to survive, and then when we finally thought we were safe that creature started chasing us. If Nipper hadn’t found you it would surely have killed me.”
“Fire and I were out hunting,” Tharil told her. “Normally we don’t come this close to the lake, but today Fire seemed to sense something. Maybe he caught the monster’s scent, it was certainly strong enough. Anyway, your little friend here came running so fast she almost knocked Fire off his feet. So after they’d tussled for a bit she led Fire off into the trees with me doing my best to catch up. That’s when I saw you up the tree, with the lupinoids fighting the gwanna nearby. I don’t suppose my spear will kill it, but I reckon it figures we’re too much trouble to bother with now.”
“Gwanna,” muttered Suvanji. “Is that what you call that thing? We never saw anything like that before. Nothing that big, anyway.”
“They’re pretty rare, fortunately,” said Tharil. “I think most of them live way downriver somewhere. Every once in a while you’ll see one or two of them prowling around the lake. One time I even found a couple of mutilated striagon corpses with gwanna tracks all around them. That was about the only time I ever felt any sympathy for those bastards.”
Tharil knelt to inspect Suvanji’s leg. “Lucky it didn’t bite you,” Tharil said. “They say that a gwanna bite won’t heal. No matter what you do the wound will just get more and more putrid and agonising until the poison eventually kills you. Luckily it seems their claws don’t have that effect.”
Tharil found a length of cloth in his pack and dressed Suvanji’s wound. “There, now. Can you walk?”
Suvanji allowed Tharil to help her to her feet. Her injured leg made walking uncomfortable, but her lupinoid upbringing allowed her to bear the pain with more stoicism than most humans.
“I can walk,” she told Tharil. “Not fast, though.”
Tharil offered her some water, but she insisted that as current leader of their merged pack he must drink first.
Tharil might not have understood pack protocols, but he did feel that his current situation was a delicate one. He had just saved the life of a beautiful young woman who happened to be as innocent of clothing as some forest nymph (though a nymph would hardly do something so crude as bleed). Under the circumstances, could anyone blame him for being tempted to exploit the situation?
It was true that Tharil mostly enjoyed male company, but even so he was not indifferent to the charms of women; certainly not to one who displayed them in such abundance as Suvanji.
His attentions did not go unnoticed by Nipper, who thought: +Does he want to mate with you?+
+Maybe,+ thought Suvanji. +As two-legs go he’s not bad looking, I suppose. I will if he asks, but I’ll be thinking of Lendrin the whole time, and I’ll eat thaal leaves to stop me getting Tharil’s cub.+
To take his mind off such things Tharil cleared his throat. “Well, then,” he said, “I suggest we head back to Third Hill. You and Nipper will be welcome there, and I have no doubt you’ll be wanting to meet Lord Ral-ne-Sa in the flesh.”
Suvanji was curious about who or what Lord Ral-ne-Sa might be, and equally curious as to what life might be like in a human village, and so she said, “Yes, Tharil. Nipper and I will follow you.”
And so they set off. Suvanji walked by herself as often as she could, only occasionally allowing Tharil to offer her support.
“I’ve never seen a two-l... human... hunting with a lupinoid before,” she told him. “Many of the human villagers upriver fear and hate lupinoids and try to kill them.”
“So we have heard,” said Tharil. “They lack the wisdom and compassion of Lord Ral-ne-Sa. We of Third Hill are proud to call the lupinoids our friends and partners. But what of you, Suvanji? What brings you and your companion to this part of the forest? Were you summoned by Lord Ral-ne-Sa?”
Suvanji considered this. Perhaps Ral-ne-Sa was a being of the Maiden’s kind, possessing benign powers. If so, maybe it was he who had sent Tharil to rescue her.
As they walked on Suvanji proceeded to tell Tharil her story. The more she spoke, the more thoughtful Tharil became. He showed no sign of doubting her tale, yet something about it seemed to puzzle him.
“Nipper and I have been torn from our friends, two-legged and four,” she told Tharil. “We have narrowly escaped death from rocks, currents and fangs. If all that we have suffered really was Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s will, I only hope some good comes of it.”
“This Maiden of yours sounds like a goddess,” said Tharil. “Perhaps it is her will that you are here. Maybe with your help and that of Third Hill, Lord Ral-ne-Sa and the Maiden together can defeat this evil old man.”
“I hope so,” she said. “From what Lendrin told me of him, he could cause great harm if he is not stopped.”
They walked on in silence for a while. Suvanji’s account had aroused certain suspicions in Tharil’s mind, but he chose not to voice them as yet.
The four companions made their way toward Third Hill. Tharil told Suvanji it would take a few days, and on the morning of the second day he led Fire in search of small game. Suvanji and Nipper wanted to join them, but Tharil insisted that she rest her injured leg and that Nipper stay behind to guard her. Suvanji grumbled a little, but in the end she had to obey her leader.
She sat beneath a tree with Nipper curled up at her side, while the warm rain continued to sluice over their bodies.
+Two-leg hasn’t mated with you,+ Nipper observed.
+No,+ thought Suvanji. +Just as well. I’m too tired for mating right now. Just wanna sleep.+
+I’ll watch, then,+ thought Nipper. +Don’t smell any danger. None of those big lizards, that’s for sure.+
+Glad to hear it,+ Suvanji thought, drifting off.
In her dream she found herself in a strange place. It seemed to be a two-leg village, but the houses were much taller than any she had seen, and some of them seemed to be made of stone rather than wood or straw. The houses surrounded an area of short, soft grass peppered with small bushes and trees. At the centre stood the white stone figure of a girl, life-sized, a little taller and thinner than Suvanji and with smaller breasts. Suvanji could not resist embracing the statue and licking her cool stone smile.
+You saved me,+ thought Suvanji.
+I gave you a chance, that’s all,+ replied the Maiden. +I’m glad you both made it. I’m grateful to Tharil and Fire too. If you go with them to Third Hill you’ll learn a lot about human ways.+
Suvanji made a small, thoughtful grunt. Then she asked, +Maiden, what about Lendrin and the others? Are they safe?+
+As safe as can be expected,+ the Maiden replied. +I’ll try to guide them to you, but there is no longer any way to cross the river, which means they’ll have to take a much longer route. I will contact you as soon as I have any more news. Farewell.+
Although the Maiden appeared as inanimate as ever, Suvanji seemed to feel a pair of cool stone lips brushing her own.
Then she woke up.
It was raining harder now. Tharil was kneeling before her with a couple of bush-hog carcasses. Nipper salivated beside her, awaiting permission to eat.
“Fire and I’ve already eaten,” said Tharil, offering the meat to Suvanji and Nipper, who (naturally) wolfed it down.
“How’s the leg now?” asked Tharil.
“Not so sore,” Suvanji told him with her mouth full. “I won’t slow you down so much, anyway.”
“Glad to hear it,” he replied. “About it not being so sore, I mean. We’ll get going as soon as you’ve eaten. It’s still a way to the village, and I really think you need to meet Lord Ral-ne-Sa.”
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully, “I really think I do.”
Suvanji believed she now knew who and what Lord Ral-ne-Sa was, and she was anxious to learn if she was right.
Now that he had met Suvanji, Tharil also believed he understood the truth about Lord Ral-ne-Sa. If he was correct it had the potential to shake his people’s faith in their gods.
After some days struggling southward through dense jungle Sherinel’s pack came across a stony path through the forest. Though the stones were cracked and partly overgrown the path afforded much easier passage.
Sherinel guessed that it must have been built at about the same time as the wooden bridge, when there had been far more commerce between human communities. For some unknown reason the routes had been abandoned, leaving the human populations in isolated pockets. Sherinel could not help wondering how and why such a dislocation could have occurred.
Local lupinoid packs also frequented the path, but mostly allowed Sherinel’s pack to pass unmolested. There had been only a few challenges, which Night, Silverpaw and Shadow had seen off without any fatalities.
The local packs warned them that they were heading into striagon territory. Sherinel thanked them with a portion of his pack’s kill, and proceeded southward with increased vigilance.
Further on the path crossed a deep ravine via a narrow wooden footbridge. After their experiences on the great bridge Sherinel and his four lupinoids were wary of setting foot on another. The wildlings, however, assured them that they had been this way before, and demonstrated by crossing without incident. Even so, Sherinel could not help feeling wary as he stepped onto the ancient structure, despite the fact that it barely shifted under his weight.
Beyond the bridge the path divided. Sherinel unhesitatingly took the right-hand path in order to stay close to the river. Before following, the lupinoids scouted out the left-hand path for some distance.
+What’s up?+ thought Sherinel. You scent something?
+Stripefaces,+ Night told him. +Scents aren’t too old. Probably still around.+
+All right. Everybody stay alert. Two-legs, keep your sticks ready.+
Sherinel had been training the wildlings in the use of spears, and had not been surprised when their skill quickly surpassed his own.
They did not have long to wait. There was a faint rustling in the bushes, and then a golden streak hurtled toward Sherinel with claws extended. But before it reached him it was brought down by another pair of streaks, one black and the other red-brown. Sherinel readied his spear and finished the striagon before its claws could inflict any serious damage upon his lupinoid defenders.
The striagon glared at Sherinel, the red glow of madness slowly fading from its eyes along with life.
“Sorry,” muttered Sherinel. Indeed, he felt a genuine pang of regret for having to kill the beast. He was beginning to understand that the madness which drove its kind to kill was not natural. Whatever sorcery was driving their behaviour must somehow be related to Borvinn’s plot against Ketrin and the lupinoids, yet Borvinn himself could not have cast the spell. Sherinel had a disturbing sense that something vast and unnatural was toying with the lives of every human, lupinoid and striagon in the jungle, to what end he dared not imagine.
Two more striagons attacked that day. One of them managed to slash Night’s left hind leg before the lupinoid tore its throat out. Night insisted that he was all right, but subsequently walked with a painful limp. A second striagon attempted to ambush the female and Ash when they were scouting ahead, but they surprised it (not to mention Sherinel) with the savagery of their response, managing to stab and bite it ten times or more while sustaining no more than minor cuts and bruises.
The expression on the female wildling’s face when she was done frightened Sherinel with its inhuman ferocity, but she allowed him to place a calming hand on her shoulder and her breathing gradually slowed. Her expression mellowed a little, but her purple eyes retained their intensity as they bored into his. Then she embraced him fiercely and had ferocious sex with him until they both passed out from exhaustion.
Sherinel slept fitfully, dreaming that the Maiden was trying to tell him something important. Though he strained and strained to listen her voice remained frustratingly faint and indistinct.
The following day Night tolerated Sherinel’s crude medical attention, flinching only a little when the human applied fresh water and pulped teska leaves to his wound.
+Trust me,+ Sherinel told him. +This may sting, but it’ll stop the wound getting poisoned.+
The lupinoid merely grunted sceptically. Night’s weak leg would cost him his leadership over the other lupinoids, if only temporarily, should Shadow or Silverpaw decide to take advantage of the situation by challenging him.
They saw no more striagons for two days and nights, but remained wary. On the third day they managed to bring down a pair of fleet-footed grazers of a kind Sherinel had not seen before. It was the best meal they had had for days, but Sherinel was worried that the scent might attract unwelcome attention.
Sure enough, before they had finished their meal they were surprised by three of the biggest striagons they had ever seen. Immediately the pack assumed defensive postures, and the humans took up their weapons.
+Maybe you should sit this one out, Night,+ thought Sherinel. +That leg isn’t healed yet.+
+And let you lot win without me?+ Night replied. +No chance. I can take the leader down by myself.+ And before Sherinel could stop him, Night made a charge for the biggest striagon’s throat.
Sherinel had no time to watch Night’s battle because he and the others were too busy fighting the other two striagons. The two wildlings fought one of them with Ash and the twins, while Silverpaw and Shadow helped Sherinel combat the remaining one.
Sherinel’s memory of the fight was a blur of snarling jaws, fetid breath, splashes of red, and the impact of spear against flesh. He thought he might have stabbed the striagon two or three times, and when its legs finally gave way his lupinoid companions finished it quickly.
Only then did Sherinel turn to his other companions. The wildlings had brought their striagon down and Ash was tearing at its throat. There was a splash of red on the female’s thigh, but Sherinel could not tell whether it was hers or the striagon’s. Meanwhile, Night was still engaged in a ferocious battle with the remaining striagon, and though his black fur was stained red in places he seemed to have the upper paw.
+Want any help?+ asked Sherinel.
Night’s response was emphatic. +My kill, two-leg. Don’t interfere.+
Sherinel had no choice but to stand clear as the striagon attempted to rally and lashed at Night with its claws. Night leapt clear just in time to avoid a lethal gash to his belly, and then barrelled into the wounded felinoid. knocking it off its feet. Before it could recover the striagon felt Night’s jaws close upon its throat, and that was the end of it.
Night stood over his kill and howled for victory, and the rest of Sherinel’s pack followed. The female wildling had a shallow gash on her left thigh, and several of the lupinoids had sustained cuts. After tending to them all with teska leaf poultices, Sherinel turned his attention to Night.
+Leave me alone, two-leg,+ thought the black lupinoid, snarling. +I’m all right.+
Night’s breathing was laboured, and during their brief telepathic contact Sherinel had felt pains in Night’s leg and chest.
+You’re not all right,+ Sherinel insisted. +You may have broken a rib. You should let me take a look at it.+
Night’s refusal was emphatic. +I’ll be fine once I’ve rested for a bit. Leader or no leader, I wish you’d mind your own business.+
Sherinel sighed. After fighting the striagon he was in no condition to subdue a stubborn lupinoid, so instead he instructed his pack to take a rest but remain alert. Silverpaw and Shadow came to sit on either side of him, and allowed him to rest his arms on their shoulders.
There were no further attacks that day, and they were all able to catch a little sleep before setting out again. Night continued to insist that he was fine, but Sherinel remained concerned about his laboured breathing, and the twinges of pain that underlay the lupinoid’s thought messages.
The male wildling was also worried about his lupinoid friend, but neither he nor Sherinel was able to persuade Night to let them tend his injuries.
The lupinoid’s health was not all that worried Sherinel. The striagon attack had left them all tired and sore. If the striagons continued to attack in force they would be weakened to the point where they could no longer defend themselves effectively. It was only the striagons’ lack of a collective strategy that had allowed Sherinel’s pack to survive for so long, but in the end they might still succeed through force of numbers.
For the first time since he set out Sherinel was beginning to fear that he and his friends might be killed before they came anywhere near finding Ketrin.
Lendrin and Mavrida
Lendrin and Mavrida made their way south-west, away from the river, pushing slowly through the dense vegetation. They had no clear plan beyond getting as far away from the old man as possible, and in the absence of a river crossing they had no idea how to reach Ketrin. They could only hope that the Maiden would provide them with some guidance.
They proceeded in awkward silence. Mavrida was still preoccupied with thoughts of Ruthyar and his plight, Lendrin was depressed at the loss of his wild goddess, and the knowledge that Mavrida’s husband had been alive all along filled them with both feelings of guilt and uncertainty about their erstwhile relationship.
The tension between their two-leg friends was making Red and Grey uncomfortable too.
+You two gonna fight?+ they asked Lendrin.
+No, we’re not gonna fight,+ he told them, kneeling to stroke their backs. +It’s just two-leg stuff. It’s... complicated, but we’ll get through it. And we still need the pair of you as much as ever.+
He could tell that the lupinoids were not entirely reassured, but they licked his face and went off to scout the terrain ahead.
Mavrida checked her crystals from time to time, and on the afternoon of the second day after leaving the ruined city they led her to a vine-wreathed figure nestled in the roots of a huge tree.
Cutting away the vines they found a naked girl of about twelve years, mute and immobile. They had never seen a human with her colouring before. Her skin was a reddish pink rather than brown, mottled faintly with the signs of infantile stipple disease, and her astonishingly voluminous hair was the colour of sunset. Her eyes, however, were the same purple colour as Ketrin’s or Suvanji’s. Between her budding breasts glowed the crystal that was holding her motionless.
“Another wild girl,” said Mavrida. “How many more wild humans are there in the forest?”
“Anybody’s guess,” said Lendrin. “Let’s get this one freed anyway. We can speculate about others later.”
“And that skin colour, and that hair! At first it might be a sickness, but it seems to be her natural complexion. I wonder where she’s from?”
“She may not remember,” said Lendrin. “If she’s anything like... like Suvanji, she won’t set much store by old memories. Lupinoids and their cubs live for the moment.”
Linking minds with the girl, Lendrin thought: +Just wait a few more moments and we’ll free you.+
The girl’s telepathic response was not one of gratitude, but rather of puzzlement. +Why help me? You’re not of my pack.+
+Because we want to help,+ replied Lendrin. +It’s the sort of thing two-legs do. Well, some two-legs, anyway.+
“All right, she’s as ready as she’ll ever be,” he told Mavrida.
Mavrida knelt before the girl. Taking one of her blue crystals in one hand and the girl’s in the other she thought: MOVE!
The moment she felt the spell begin to break Mavrida snatched the crystal off of the girl’s breast and added it to her own collection. The girl’s muscles spasmed for a moment before she regained control. Then she rose and stretched, testing her limbs and letting the warm rain play over her hair and body. Luxuriating in her new freedom she emitted a low howl, which was answered a moment later by another from somewhere deep in the forest. Then she began fawning on Mavrida, reaching up to lick her face.
“All right, all right,” Mavrida laughed, patting the wildling’s head and shoulders.
Lendrin linked minds with the wildling and asked her how she came to be paralysed. Her answer was a semi-coherent jumble of thoughts and impressions, which Lendrin eventually managed to sort into some kind of logical sequence:
One night while hunting she had somehow become separated from her pack and could not recognise her surroundings. While searching for a familiar sight or scent she heard something behind her, but before she could turn to confront it, it had reached around her and placed the glowing thing on her breast. Immediately she found she could not move or howl for help. She was afraid that the stranger might kill her, but instead it simply laid her down by the tree root. At no time had she been in a position to see it clearly, and in any case it was a moonless night.
The stranger departed, leaving her helpless. Days and nights came and went. The rainy season began and ended. Countless bugs and small animals crawled over her body, but fortunately very few of them had felt like biting her or crapping in her hair. Vines advanced, gradually enfolding her body. And all the while she could do nothing but sit and wait. Her biggest regret was that she couldn’t even use her fingers to comfort herself.
That was quite enough information for Lendrin, so to change the subject he asked the girl if she wanted to join his pack. After a moment’s thought she agreed, and bared her throat to Lendrin.
Lendrin decided to forgo the throat-biting ceremony, and instead simply clasped his hand firmly upon the girl’s shoulder for a few moments before releasing her. That seemed to satisfy her, and she returned to her slow gyrations in the rain.
While the wild girl luxuriated in her natural shower bath, Lendrin relayed her account to Mavrida.
“You think it was the old man that paralysed her?” Mavrida said.
“Unless there’s more than one of him,” replied Lendrin. “Gods, I pray there isn’t. What I don’t understand, though, is why. If he wanted the wild humans out of the way why didn’t he just kill them?”
“I don’t know,” Mavrida admitted. “Maybe because paralysing them forever was more cruel? Or maybe he was just saving them to torture later.”
“But what’s he got against them anyway? What have they ever done to him?”
“Does he need a reason?” shuddered Mavrida. “He’s just evil.”
They were distracted from their speculations by the return of Red and Grey from patrol.
+Was that you that howled just now?+ Lendrin asked them.
+Wasn’t us,+ thought Grey. +We heard a howl from this direction and another one answered from over there somewhere. There might be other packs about but we didn’t scent them. Who’s the youngun? Was it her that howled first?+
+Yes,+ thought Lendrin. +We just found her.+
+Is she pack?+ asked Red.
+Yes. We’ve accepted her.+
+Huh. All right, then.+
+So, did you scent any trouble ahead?+
+Some old four-leg scents,+ they told him. +Something else too. Hard to tell with all the sky-water washing out the smell, but it might have been stripefaces.+
+All right, we’ll keep alert. Get some rest now.+
Instead of resting straight away, however, the lupinoids insisted on greeting the new arrival, which involved a good deal of pushing and shoving and rolling on the muddy ground. Once they were done the girl and the lupinoids exchanged facial licks and then curled up side by side and fell asleep.
The sight of the sleeping wild girl was causing Mavrida’s maternal instincts to stir. “Just look at her,” she sighed. “In the village her hair would be cut and braided, she’d have the finest dresses our weavers could make, and we’d teach her to play reed pipes and sing. All the young boys would fall in love with her, and probably half the young girls too if truth be told. Yet here she is in the jungle, hair down to her bum, content to roll naked in the mud with lupinoids... and I honestly can’t say she isn’t better off this way.”
“Mavrida,” Lendrin mused, “you don’t suppose someone or something is deliberately separating children from their parents just so the lupinoids can raise them, do you?”
“Dear gods, I pray that it isn’t so,” said Mavrida. “I’d far rather believe that lupinoids adopt lost or abandoned infants out of what passes for kindness. Maybe the Maiden could tell us.”
“Can you be sure it isn’t the Maiden that’s doing it?”
“I refuse to believe that,” said Mavrida. “Whatever the Maiden may be, it’s inconceivable that she could be a child-snatcher.”
They sat in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts.
“That red hair of hers reminds me of our village’s altar,” Mavrida told Lendrin. “The statuette of the fire-goddess Pyrrika has red flames for hair. I think I’ll call our flame-haired wild girl Pyrri.”
Just then Red and Grey stirred, as if they had heard something. A moment later there was a distant lupinoid howl, followed by a distinctly unlupinoid roar.
+Stripetooth attacking a four-leg,+ thought Grey. +Maybe the same one that howled earlier.+
Lendrin knew she was only worried about the potential threat from the striagon. Its lupinoid victim was of no concern, since it wasn’t of their pack.
Nevertheless, Lendrin snatched up his spear and motioned for Red and Grey to follow. Briefly explaining the situation to Mavrida, he left her to watch over Pyrri.
Forcing their way through the dense vegetation, Lendrin, Red and Grey soon found themselves in a broad pathway that stretched away to the left and right. It was covered with flat stone slabs, now uneven and overgrown from countless years of neglect. Lendrin had little time to study their workmanship, for at that moment a small red figure darted past them at full tilt, swiftly followed by one of the biggest striagons Lendrin had ever seen.
In spite of the beast’s size Lendrin did not hesitate. Ordering Red and Grey to harry the striagon’s flanks, Lendrin hefted his spear and raced after them.
The striagon knocked Grey aside. Lendrin gave a wordless yell and the creature turned to confront him, its eyes blazing with unnatural hatred. Then it charged.
Feeling surprisingly little fear, Lendrin forced himself to wait until the last possible moment, then threw himself to one side and aimed his spear between the striagon’s ribs. The striagon’s own momentum did the rest, wedging the spear against a stone slab and driving the point deep into its chest.
The stricken beast gave a series of violent convulsions and then lay still forever. Gasping with exertion and emotion, Lendrin sat upright. Red and Grey padded over to him; like Lendrin they were bruised and battered but unbloodied.
+Great kill, two-leg leader,+ they thought.
+Thanks,+ he replied.
He almost felt sorry for the striagon. Devoid of the rage that had animated it, its body looked small and pathetic.
The other player in this drama stood cowering in the distance, unwilling to approach the newcomers yet reluctant to leave the scene.
+Hey, come on over,+ thought Lendrin. +Come on, we won’t hurt you.+
The striagon’s erstwhile prey came forward warily, head lowered and tail between his legs. He was small by lupinoid standards, not quite fully grown, with red-brown fur and black stripes. His features were more sharp and angular than most lupinoids, giving him a somewhat fierce appearance that was belied by his timid behaviour.
+Don’t hurt me,+ he thought. +If you’re going to kill me, do it quick.+
+We’re not going to hurt you or kill you,+ Lendrin insisted. +Are we, Red and Grey?+
+No,+ Red and Grey thought reluctantly.
+We’re going to protect you.+
+Looks like he needs a lot of protection,+ thought Grey.
+Yeah,+ Red agreed. +He’s such a runt, a vrix could beat him up.+
+Enough,+ thought Lendrin. +Well, stranger, what do you say? Do you want to join my pack?+
+Got nowhere else to go,+ thought the newcomer, approaching Lendrin warily.
Lendrin stroked the lupinoid’s back gently. +It’s all right, you’re safe now,+ he told it, as its trembling slowly subsided. +The striagon’s dead. Red, Grey, are there any more striagons about? Does this one have a mate lurking nearby?+
+No fresh scents beside this one,+ they told him.
+All right, then, let’s get back to camp. And no biting the new guy.
They returned to find Mavrida watching over the sleeping Pyrri as before.
Red and Grey rushed forward to reassure Mavrida that they were all right. The newcomer hung back, head bowed low, occasionally glancing at Lendrin.
+It’s all right,+ Lendrin assured him. +The female two-leg is pack too.+
Once Red and Grey had finished greeting Mavrida, Lendrin drew them aside and the newcomer approached her gingerly.
“Another stray?” said Mavrida.
“Go easy on him,” replied Lendrin. “We only just managed to save him from becoming striagon-fodder.”
With a little mental persuasion from Lendrin the newcomer allowed Mavrida to embrace him, and he whimpered quietly while licking her face.
“It’s all right, little lupinoid, you’re safe with us,” she crooned.
“He seems to have been abandoned by his pack,” Lendrin told her. “Probably just couldn’t keep up. I think he’ll be all right once he’s got some meat on his ribs.”
“So,” Mavrida said, “in less than a day we’ve gained two new companions.”
“Well, they’re under no obligation to come all the way with us,” Lendrin replied. “Though we did find - ”
He was interrupted by a loud yawn from the small lupinoid.
“Tired?” said Mavrida. “All right, we’ll watch over you.”
Looking a bit happier, the lupinoid gave Mavrida’s face another lick before jumping off of her lap and settling down to sleep.
“What should we call him?” said Mavrida. “We already have a lupinoid called Red.”
Gazing at the little slumbering lupinoid Lendrin said, “We rescued him in response to his howl, so why don’t we call him Howl?”
Mavrida nodded. “So... first a girl with red hair, and then a lupinoid with red fur,” she muttered. “I could almost imagine that the Maiden arranged that deliberately.”
“The Maiden can hardly be responsible for every coincidence that befalls us,” said Lendrin. “At least, I hope not.”
After they had rested Lendrin led them back to the stone pathway. Scavengers had visited the striagon’s carcass, leaving nothing but the bones. Seeing the beast’s skeleton gave Lendrin another pang of regret.
“It’s almost a shame to have to kill them,” he told Mavrida, “and yet they attack without warning or mercy, so there’s really no choice.” He gave a shudder. “When I saw that look in its eye... it didn’t look natural. Somehow that look scared me more than the prospect of dying.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” said Mavrida. “I think the old man may be controlling them somehow, making them unnaturally aggressive so they’ll kill humans and lupinoids without thinking.”
They surveyed their surroundings. To their right the stone path led off in the general direction of the river and the stone ruins where the sorcerer presumably still lurked. The path to the left headed south west through dense jungle.
“I think this must be what was called a road,” said Mavrida. “See how the stone slabs are higher in the middle? When they were whole the rainwater would have run off to the edges.”
Lendrin nodded. “I suppose it was built at the same time as the bridge and the stone houses. It must have been abandoned at the same time too.“
Mavrida looked along the road to the south west. “So we’re going this way?”
“It seems to go in more or less the right direction,” said Lendrin, “and it’ll be a lot quicker than hacking our way through the jungle.”
“We’ll have to stay alert,” said Mavrida. “If it really is such a convenient route there’s no telling who or what else might decide to use it as well.”
They set off to the south west, keeping to the edge of the road so that if danger threatened they could quickly take cover in the forest. Howl stayed close to Lendrin for protection while Red and Grey scouted ahead.
Lendrin glanced back at the wild girl Pyrri, who had hung back by the edge of the forest. For a moment it looked as if she might return to the jungle, but then she took a deep breath and ran to catch up with the rest of them.
Lendrin sighed wistfully, wondering what had become of his own wild girl.
There was no sign of striagons the next day, but the travellers remained wary. Night’s laboured breathing was still causing Sherinel concern, but the lupinoid continued to insist that he was all right.
They continued to struggle southward through thick vegetation, keeping the river on their right. From time to time their way was dampened by rain squalls, heralding the deluge to come. Sherinel knew that once the rains arrived in earnest their progress would become even more laboured. He could only hope that it would also discourage any striagons from stalking them.
The lupinoids caught some small game that afternoon, and they rested a while after eating. The two wildlings sat gently fondling each other’s naked bodies. Sherinel did not join them, but watched and quietly masturbated himself to sleep.
He dreamt of the Maiden, her stone face blurred and indistinct as if seen through rippling water, and pleaded with her for help.
+If the striagons keep attacking in these numbers they’ll wear down our resistance,+ he told her. +We can’t make it on our own. Can’t you send help?+
The Maiden’s reply was faint and indistinct: +Hard to get through... sorcerer’s blocking my sig... Vandri, can you boost the pow...? All right, listen, Sherinel: east. You need to turn eastward from your pres...+
Then her face and voice were gone.
Sherinel woke with a sigh. It seemed that even the Maiden was having problems lately. Still, she had at least had time to provide a direction before being cut off. After they had rested he turned his back to the river and led his pack into the forest.
The next day the lupinoids scented striagons again.
+How many?+ thought Sherinel.
+Two ahead,+ Night told him, +one to the left, one behind us on the right. There are others further away but I don’t know if they’ve scented us yet.+
Sherinel sighed. This was what he was afraid of. They were still sore and stiff from their last fight.
Could the Maiden have led them astray? He couldn’t believe she would have done so deliberately. Probably she had simply lost contact before she had a chance to warn him about the striagons.
They did not have to wait long before the striagons attacked. Silverpaw and the twins intercepted the striagon from the left and harried it with as little mercy as it showed, while the female and Ash held their own against the one from the rear. Sherinel and Shadow faced off against one of the two attacking from ahead, leaving the male and Night to face the other.
The fight proceeded much as the previous one, in a frenzy of snarling jaws, stabbing spears, raking claws, near-misses and a half-panicked determination to survive at all costs. Silverpaw and the twins were first to dispatch their attacker, at the expense of some cuts and bruises, and immediately split up to assist the other teams.
With Silverpaw’s help Sherinel and Shadow soon managed to slay the second, while the female, once again proving as ferocious a fighter as she was a lover, made short work of the third with a little help from Ash. That left only one, but it seemed to be the most formidable of them all.
The male’s first attempt to stab the creature only resulted in a vicious blow from its forepaw, and he fell back bleeding from a long gash in his side. Sherinel ordered him to stand down and replaced him. Shadow and Silverpaw held back to avoid getting in his or Night’s way, ready to join in immediately if needed.
Once again Sherinel could feel that Night was overexerting himself, but the big lupinoid refused to walk away from the fight. Sherinel had no choice but to give him as much assistance as he could.
Meanwhile Ash and the twins announced that two more striagons were approaching - probably the others that Night had scented earlier. Sherinel ordered the male wildling to rest and tend to his wound, so the female and the three smaller lupinoids had to face the newcomers between them.
+Want us to go help?+ asked Silverpaw.
+What I want is for Night to step down and let one of you take over,+ thought Sherinel as he leapt clear of the striagon’s claws. +I keep telling him he’s too fatigued, but he just won’t listen.+
Before long, however, it was obvious that the others would need help to defeat their newest enemies, and so Sherinel was reluctantly forced to allow Ketrin’s brothers to go to their aid while he and Night continued their own fight.
With the aid of Silverpaw and Shadow, the female and the other lupinoids managed to gain the upper hand over the striagons, though not without sustaining more minor wounds. Sherinel breathed a sigh of relief when the last striagon, momentarily distracted by his feints, fell victim to Night’s fangs.
Sherinel gave a huge sigh of relief as the beast shuddered and lay still, then went to tend the wildlings’ injuries. The male’s cut was long but fortunately shallow, and the local forest had no shortage of teska leaves with which to treat it. Most of the others including himself had less serious gashes, and he treated all of them in turn.
As soon as they felt able Sherinel and his pack started walking eastward. The lupinoids kept their noses alert, but for the moment could detect no more striagons in the vicinity. Sherinel breathed another sigh of relief, and prayed that he could lead his pack to whatever safety the Maiden claimed lay ahead before more striagons arrived.
Their journey was slow due to the thickness of the vegetation, but relatively uneventful until about midday, when it became apparent that Night was having difficulties.
+What’s up?+ thought Sherinel. +Are your injuries playing up?+
+Oh. stop worrying,+ thought the lupinoid irritably. +I’m all right.+
+I don’t believe you,+ thought Sherinel. +I can sense that you’re not feeling well. I’m still leader, and I’m ordering you to stop and rest right now. Do not argue.+
Night growled irritably, but lowered his head and obeyed.
The male wildling knelt beside his lupinoid friend and placed a hand on his back.
+You two-legs want to stop fussing over me,+ Night complained. +I still feel strong enough to take on a whole pack of stripefaces.+
+You’re not,+ Sherinel insisted. +You’ve fought harder than any of us these last few days, and we’re all exhausted. Just because you’re the biggest doesn’t mean you have to keep proving how tough you are.+
Night seemed about to argue, but was wracked by a sudden spasm of pain. Both Sherinel and the male could feel it through their shared thoughts. Sherinel also felt the male’s fear, far stronger than any he had felt while his own life was in peril.
+Oh, no,+ thought Sherinel. +Oh, gods, no! Damn it, Night, I told you to rest. Why can’t you ever listen to me?+
+Told you to quit fussing,+ thought the lupinoid weakly, as another spasm overtook him and his breathing became even more laboured.
Seeing his friend in such agony terrified the male wildling. Turning to Sherinel, he thought: +What’s wrong with him? Will he die?+
Sherinel took a deep breath, then released it with a shuddering sigh.
+Yes,+ he admitted, +I’m afraid he will. I think his heart has failed. I’m sorry. Oh, gods, I’m sorry.+
Overcome by emotions he could scarcely understand, the male embraced Sherinel fiercely and sobbed.
Then he thought, +What’s happening to me? My eyes are bleeding!+
+That’s not blood,+ thought Sherinel, stroking him. His own eyes were just as moist. +It just shows you have human feelings. I know they hurt, but you mustn’t fight them or they’ll only hurt more.+
Night lay quietly. The worst of the pain was over. His breathing was now shallow but steady, and a strange feeling of peace was slowly beginning to overtake him.
Shadow stepped over to where he lay and began licking his face. Night returned the gesture weakly.
+Funny,+ thought Night. +I can’t walk, but it feels like I’m going somewhere.+
+I’ve been there,+ Shadow told him. +It isn’t so bad.+
+All right. Hey, leader, do me a favour?+
+What’s that?+ asked Sherinel, as he and the wildlings moved to sit beside him.
+Don’t any of you eat me.+
+We won’t, Night. I promise,+ Sherinel replied, laying a hand on the lupinoid’s back.
The male wildling joined him and began to stroke Night’s shoulders. Shadow moved aside to allow Night to lick the wildling’s face.
+Doesn’t hurt now,+ thought Night.
The wildling was almost too upset to reply, but finally composed himself enough to think: +Good. That’s good.+
As the pack gathered around their stricken friend, they seemed to see a huge golden lupinoid approaching - from where, they could not tell. The newcomer bent his head to lick Night’s muzzle, then turned and beckoned him to follow. Then it seemed that Night bounded to his feet and ran to join his new friend. +Hunt well, pack,+ he thought, as the two of them loped off into the distance. +Hunt well for me.+
The vision faded, and the remaining humans and lupinoids found themselves sitting beside Night’s lifeless body.
+Was... was that real?+ thought Sherinel. +Did we all just see that?+
+I saw that big four-leg back when the stripeface got me,+ Shadow told him. +I wanted to go with him, but he said no, not yet, I had to go back to help you. I guess Night isn’t coming back, though, is he?+
Sherinel sighed. +No, Shadow,+ he thought. +He’s gone. There’s nothing we can do but leave him. I just hope his body doesn’t get eaten by a striagon.+
Although, privately, he reflected that if a striagon did eat Night’s body it might leave the rest of them alone for a while. The thought made him feel guilty, so he rose to his feet and turned to face the others.
The two wildlings were already standing. The female had an arm around the shoulders of the male, who was still wiping tears from his face.
+I’ve seen things die before and it never made me feel this bad,+ he thought. +What’s up with me now?+
Sherinel hugged him. +It’s a two-leg feeling,+ he replied. +Night was your friend. You loved him. He’s been with you all your life and now he’s gone. That’s why you feel so bad right now. But I believe that vision we saw was true. Night will be all right. That gold lupinoid we saw... I think that was what two-legs call a god. Wherever he’s taken him, I’m sure Night will be content there, and you may meet him there some day.+
The wildling’s sobbing had abated somewhat, and he took a deep breath and stepped back from Sherinel’s embrace. +Yes,+ he thought. +I’d like that.+
Sherinel smiled. +Just not yet awhile, all right?+ he thought. +Not for a very long time, I hope. However long you live, Night will wait for you. He’ll wait.+
Taking one final glance at their fallen comrade, Sherinel and his companions set off wearily for the east, leaving his body to the mercy of the forest.
Suvanji and the Villagers of Third Hill
Thanks to Suvanji’s rapid healing powers she was soon walking without a limp, and she and Tharil reached Third Hill at noon on the second day.
The sentries at the lower gate couldn’t help staring at the naked girl, but since Tharil vouched for her and her lupinoid they were admitted without incident. They received a similar greeting at the upper gate before being allowed to enter the village proper.
Suvanji looked around, taking in the motley collection of clay houses surrounding the small shrine in the muddy courtyard. Several villagers were abroad despite the torrential rain, and Suvanji was acutely aware of their scrutiny.
She was fortunately distracted by the arrival of a large gold lupinoid. The lupinoid greeted Fire and Tharil enthusiastically, before turning a critical eye and nose upon Suvanji and Nipper.
“Suvanji, this is Sun,” said Tharil. “As you can probably guess from his size, he’s the leader of our two lupinoids.”
Sun finished sniffing Nipper’s backside, then growled a challenge at her. Without hesitation Nipper rolled onto her back and bared her throat to the bigger lupinoid. Sun pinned her with his forepaw and closed his jaws about her throat.
Tharil looked worried for Nipper, but Suvanji knew it was merely a gesture of dominance. Sure enough, Sun simply held Nipper down for a few moments while she whimpered quietly. Then he released her without having left a mark on her throat. Nipper returned to her feet and the two lupinoids licked each other’s faces. Then with a small grunt Sun padded off to some other part of the village and Fire followed him, while Nipper panted contentedly.
While this was going on, another man had emerged from a nearby house and approached the arrivals.
“Suvanji, this is Tolar, chief hunter of Third Hill,” said Tharil. “Tolar, this is Suvanji and her lupinoid companion Nipper. Suvanji was about to become a gwanna’s lunch before Nipper alerted Fire and me. The creature scratched her leg quite badly, but she is recovering well.”
“All well and good,” said Tolar, “But would you care to explain why she’s naked?”
“Suvanji tells me she was raised amongst lupinoids,” replied Tharil. “She has acquired some human speech and customs, but no clothing as yet.”
“Raised amongst lupinoids?” said Tolar, looking the girl up and down for perhaps longer than was strictly necessary. “I seem to recall hearing tales of such wild children, but I never gave them much credence.”
“And yet,” replied Tharil, “what could be more natural for Lord Ral-ne-Sa than to raise children as lupinoids? We cannot cast out one of Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s chosen. We can surely forgive her ignorance of our ways, and we can provide her with clothing if she’s to stay with us for any length of time.”
After some consideration Tolar said, “Well, then...Suvanji... if you are truly from a lupinoid pack, I trust I shan’t have to set my jaw to your throat before you’ll accept me as chief.”
“Not if you don’t want to,” said Suvanji, looking almost disappointed.
“Well, now,” said Tharil, “Since her presence here is without doubt the will of Lord Ral-ne-Sa, it would only be fitting for Suvanji to pay her respects to him. That is, if he has no other, ah, visitors at this time?”
Tolar shook his head.
“Good,” said Tharil. “Well, in that case, Suvanji, I’m sure our beloved Lord Ral-ne-Sa is as anxious to meet you... in the flesh, as it were... as you are to meet him.”
So saying he led Suvanji to Lord Ral-ne-Sa’s shrine. Nipper watched Suvanji enter and then padded off to explore the rest of the village.
Tharil said, “You know, she’s really not bad looking. And the girl is quite pretty as well.”
“Very funny,” said Tolar. “How can you be certain she is what she claims to be?”
“She has such an affinity with lupinoids that I can’t help believing she was raised by them,” said Tharil. “And there’s another part of her account that you may find interesting.”
Tharil lowered his voice to avoid being overheard by the other villagers.
“Some time ago, she tells me, someone or something placed her under a spell. A paralysing spell. The spell kept her alive for many moons, unable to move or cry out. And if that part of the story doesn’t strike you as familiar, consider this. While she was paralysed a man found her lying in the jungle, and believing her to be a goddess he embraced her... just as you and I embraced the motionless youth we took to be Lord Ral-ne-Sa. So, Tolar... is he really Lord Ral-ne-Sa, or have our hopes and expectations misled us?”
Nipper took stock of her new territory. The villagers were used to having lupinoids around by now, but the children were fascinated by Nipper’s rare combination of dark fur and light stripes.
Their parents stayed close in case of accidents, but Nipper was far more passive and approachable than Sun or Fire, and indulged the two-leg cubs’ noisy greetings and petting without too much complaint. After a while she yawned and curled up to take a nap. A couple of the younger children wanted to join her, but their parents didn’t want them to lie down in the mud.
Within the shrine, Suvanji confronted the one they called “Lord Ral-ne-Sa”.
She had guessed his true identity as soon as Tharil first described him. She could have confirmed it by extending her thoughts to him as soon as she was within range of the village, but she had preferred to wait until she saw him with her own eyes.
He was a tall, handsome young man of about her own apparent age, with the distinctive purple eyes that indicated his lupinoid upbringing. Those eyes scanned Suvanji’s nude body from head to foot, not in lust but in surprise and fascination. She was his first sight of another wild human.
He sat like a doll, neither moving nor speaking in the slightest. Suvanji remembered that condition only too well, and how grateful she had been for Lendrin’s human touch. She considered the paralysed youth lucky to have been found and loved and worshipped by the villagers.
There was a great deal that she needed to tell him, and so she sat before him in the cool shrine, placed a hand on his shoulder and opened her mind to his for the first time.
+Hello, Ketrin,+ she thought.
February 2009 - February 2012
TO BE CONTINUED
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The “Deus Ex Machina” chapter underwent a number of rethinks before emerging in its current form. I originally had Ruthyar actually communicating with Mavrida telepathically via the red stones in their rings (yes, he’s wearing one too - they’re wedding rings, remember?), but once again I decided that that would give too much information away ahead of time. The way it’s written now, it almost seems as if Mavrida’s ring rescues her spontaneously, but in fact it was Ruthyar that was responsible. The old sorcerer wasn’t omniscient after all. The power of the red stones was something he never knew about... until now. Incidentally, there was an error in the original posting which I only just spotted: Mavrida was reaching for the blue crystal with her left hand, then reached out to Ruthyar with her left hand as well. It’s little details like that that catch me out every time. The ring with the red crystal was of course on Mavrida’s right hand - she doesn’t know what would happen if the red and blue stones touch, and she doesn’t care to find out either.
Now let’s talk about Suvanji and the gwanna. Hands up everybody who spotted the legend “Here be gwannas” on the revised map in Parts Nine and Ten? Well, now you know what a gwanna is.
What a gwanna actually is, of course, is my tribute to cheap special effects. Say it’s the mid 20th century and you’re making a movie about a lost jungle. Suddenly your heroes encounter - gasp! - dinosaurs! Only you can’t afford to hire Ray Harryhausen to produce your special effects, and anyway he’s busy working on a much better film. So what can you do?
Simple! You just get hold of a few harmless little lizards, stick plastic fins to their backs, put them in miniature jungle sets, film them close-up in slow motion and add bloodcurdling roars to the soundtrack. Voila - your friendly little iguanas are transformed into ferocious, man-eating iguanodons! Never mind that real iguanodons looked nothing like lizards and were of course herbivorous. What the heck does the moviegoing public know about palaeontology?
When they come to make the blockbuster movie of Ketrin (yeah, right) I will demand that this scene be shot using a real lizard and not expensive CGI. It’s meant to look like a cheap special effect.
And then there’s the flame-haired wildling. No sooner do Lendrin and Mavrida lose one wild girl than they find another, albeit too young to be a lover this time. Any fans of French Bandes Dessinnées out there? If the description didn’t tip you off, the blatantly parodic name “Pyrri” will have told you where I got the inspiration for this particular character. She’s not just a walk-on cameo, either. Then there’s her newfound lupinoid companion, a small, nervous, red-furred
wolf lupinoid. Anime fans out there may have twigged it already. It’s not like I haven’t referenced the series before, after all.
So to sum up: I’ve cloned a character from a French comic and another character from a Japanese anime, and stuck them both in my jungle, 1500 years in the future. Is that cool or just totally nerdy?!
By the way, when Red says, +He’s such a runt, a vrix could beat him up,+ the ‘vrix’ she’s referring to is a striped fox-like creature, not unlike a very small lupinoid. There’s been mention of vrixes before, but quite a few instalments ago, so I wouldn’t blame you if you’d forgotten.
Finally: the death of Night. I’ve written emotional scenes before, particularly Lendrin’s confession about killing lupinoids, but to my surprise this one didn’t hit me quite so hard. Back then I was working through some personal issues, and I’m a bit more settled these days. Even so, it wasn’t an easy scene to write, even though I got to slip in a quick shout-out to Peter Jackson’s Return of the King. All things considered, though, I think it turned out quite well. Then again, I could say the same for the story as a whole.
Sections of Part Eleven were written simultaneously with the expansion of Part Ten, which is why the delay between instalments is much shorter this time.
In our next un
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