I was alone, at home. My wife was out of town, visiting our kids. The winter night outside was dark and intermittently snowy. I had just finished reading John M. Whalen’s latest Jack Brand story online. Splashing Maker’s Mark over ice, I turned off my computer and scanned my bookshelves, in the mood for more Old School adventure.
Kline … Farley … Fox … Brackett … the unrivaled Edgar Rice Burroughs. I scanned the row of well-worn paperbacks and reached for one. As I did so, light flickered on the periphery of my vision. I turned to look. My computer had powered up again, apparently of its own volition.
Moreover, automatically, it had somehow logged onto my email account, and was downloading a message. What scrolled across the screen, and then saved itself as a file, was the account that follows.
It purports to be a sequel to an earlier narrative of primitive adventure in Pellucidar. Is it simply the product of a hoax by someone who had found an unusual way to hack into my computer? Or … had someone – perhaps the same individual who had already given me the previous adventure featuring Dax of Pellucidar – contrived a new method of communication?
I wish I knew the answer to that question, and in the meantime, I wonder – will more such communications follow?
ONE: Dangerous Island
This is the story of what happened after Dax and Rama, two Mezop warriors, set off in pursuit of the captive daughters of Pellucidar.
You have heard one account from my friend Dax [Editor’s Note: As related in Lost Empire of Pellucidar]. Now I will tell of the adventures that I experienced after Dax and I separated. I am Rama.
As Dax continued the pursuit of the Su-lu pirates from the ravaged village of Tir, I returned to the villages of Phar, the father of Dax, and Fen, my father, to summon help. As the cry went from tribe to tribe, warriors seized their weapons and rallied. Never, since the great assault of the Emperor David against the Mahars, when my grandfather was a young warrior, had such an armada been launched from the Mezop isles.
Far beyond the isle of Tir our canoes ventured, following the direction in which Dax had gone in the pirates’ wake. We were a mighty flotilla – but as we soon learned, human might can seem as naught when the fury of nature is aroused.
My father noticed it first, as he and I paddled our war canoe at the head of our fleet, alongside that which carried Phar the Father of Dax, Ru the Brother of Dax, and the chieftain Tir. He pointed, and I marked what he had seen, an odd swirl of pearly luminescence in the far distance. It drew nearer and nearer, growing larger, driving before it great gusts of wind.
“Beware the squall!” my father shouted to our companions above the increasingly loud shrill of the wind. “We must all stay together as well as we can and ride it out!”
Phar glanced over and nodded. He said something in response, but the words were lost to our hearing as the storm broke upon us with a deafening scream and shriek. On the instant we were drenched in great sheets of rain. The sea bucked violently beneath our canoe. Now we dropped down into a dark trough of water, and now we were lifted on a dizzying wave. Descent and rise followed one on the other in bewildering succession. Murky darkness closed in around us, shot through with flashes of lightning. Thunder pealed deafeningly.
A wave surged over the side of the canoe, nearly capsizing us. I reached over to seize a musket that the water threatened to carry away. The movement put me off balance, and as a succeeding wave crashed against the vessel, I was knocked overboard.
I sank under water, and then rose again to catch my breath. Surfacing, I saw a canoe bearing down upon me, caught in the grasp of the squall. I lurched away desperately, but not quickly enough. Something smashed against my head, rendering me half-senseless.
I had a confused impression of other canoes plunging ahead around me, some spinning madly in the violence of the tempest. I tried to grasp one – failed. And then the canoes were gone, I was alone in the water, coughing and sputtering, and the storm abated as abruptly as it had begun. The sky lightened, and once again the burning sun of Pellucidar shone down on a peaceful, empty sea.
No – not entirely empty. In the distance, the retreating line of the squall remained visible, dwindling by the moment. I thought I could see tiny dots that represented the war canoes of my people, helplessly borne away by the storm. They grew fainter and more distant as I watched, until they and the tempest were out of sight.
I considered my situation. It hardly seemed possible that I could swim quickly enough to regain the Mezop flotilla. My only hope lay in the chance that my father would return for me, once the canoes were free from the storm. I tried not to think of grimmer eventualities – that Father might also have been lost in the storm. Or that my strength might fail and I might sink into the blue depths, exhausted, before help could arrive.
A short distance away, a daunting sight met my eyes. The sleek, slate-gray back of some mighty behemoth rose for a moment above the water, and then descended again. That might also be my fate, I thought bleakly – to be consumed by one of the watery predators that lurked in the depths of the Az before I saw my companions again.
With that cheery meditation, I began to swim. As long as hope of rescue remained, there seemed to be no good purpose in simply treading water. I might as well follow in the direction of the flotilla, at least closing some of the distance that separated us.
I swam, driving all thought from my mind but for a relentless concentration on the physical exertion of stroke, paddle, and kick. I swam and swam, and as I became fatigued, I paused briefly to recover some of my energy. And then I began to swim again.
The sea stretched away on all sides. Having no landmark by which to gauge distance, it seemed that I had hardly moved a bit, for all that my cramping muscles declared otherwise. Once, a shadow flitted across the sea as a winged form glided overhead, a great soaring thipdar. I expect it to swoop down, drawn by the unexpected lure of a human meal, but luck was with me. Either the monster had already eaten, or somehow its keen eyesight had failed to detect me. At any rate, it passed onward with a great flap of its leathery wings, paying no attention to me.
At length, my arms became heavier and heavier, the act of breathing more and more painful as my lungs labored to draw enough oxygen to fuel my exertions. Despair began to creep up on me. I began to wonder how much longer I could stave off utter weariness, when I realized with a start that the seascape had changed. Land had come into view, some distance to my right.
I turned in that direction. On land, I could rest and find food; nuts and berries if nothing else. I ran the risk of encountering hostile men or savage animals, but it seemed a lesser risk than drowning or being eaten by a sea monster.
It was a good-sized island with a white beach of fine, powdery sand that led up to clumps of sedge, red cedar, finger grass, and primrose. Beyond rose stands of pine and oak, which overshadowed thickets of laurel, sweet bay, and briar. I entered the forest on a narrow game trail and sprawled beneath the shade of a wind-twisted oak. I took stock quickly. I wore a G-string of tanned codon hide, and naught else but a belt that held a sheathed knife.
Being tied down in its sheath, the knife had remained in place throughout all the rough jostling that I had received in the storm. It was made of good steel from one of the Emperor David’s foundries in Sari. Its heft was comforting as I studied the dark recesses of the forest and wondered who or what I might find there.
At length, rested, I stood up and followed the trail further into the forest. Coming presently to a place where the trail forked, I decided idly to follow the right-hand fork. For a while the trail climbed, eventually emerging from the trees onto a grassy clearing, and then it dipped again into a marshy area of tall cattails and bamboo. Here it followed a twisting spine of somewhat higher ground. I stepped cautiously, taking pains not to stray off the path into the quagmires of oozy mud that lay to my left, and the dark, evil-smelling water on my right.
Once, I thought I saw the waters stir and something rise above the surface for a moment, but when I turned for a closer look, there was nothing to see but a spreading series of ripples such as a small fish might make in jumping out of the water.
I walked on, hearing distant birdcalls and the drowsy hum of insects, and nothing else – until suddenly a great, ungainly body crashed through a stand of bamboo to my left, and a nightmarish head emerged from the tall growth. It was a sithic, one of the most fearsome predators of Pellucidar. It stared around with glassy, hungry eyes. From its great, grinning jaws, the carcass of a raccoon or opossum dangled. But only for a moment. As the monster saw me and sensed an opportunity for a larger meal, it swallowed the smaller mammal with one quick gulp and lunged forward on short, powerful legs.
Instinctively, I lurched backward, my foot slipping on the greasy mud of the trail. At the same moment, with a loud splash, another behemoth emerged from the scum-covered water on my right. It was a gigantic crocodile, more lithe than the gross sithic but equally powerful.
From one side the sithic advanced toward me with jaws a-gape, while from the other, the comparably hideous crocodile approached!
Apparently, the crocodile had been following my movements along the path. I thought of what I had glimpsed before from the corner of my vision. It must have been the monster’s eyes, rising just above the surface of the bay or stream to mark its prey.
As my foot slipped in the mud, I sprawled backward. The fall saved my life. Lunging at me simultaneously from left and right, the two monsters crashed together. The crocodile’s jagged teeth sank into the sithic’s shoulder. At the same time, the other carnivore’s talons raked at the croc’s eyes. The bellowing screech of the sithic mingled with the throaty grunt of the crocodile.
I scrabbled away, my heart pounding as I barely evaded a lashing blow of the croc’s armored tail. I scrambled to my feet and broke into a run, back in the direction from which I had come, hearing behind me the angry screams of the gigantic predators, the loud impact of their taloned blows against each other’s scaly hides.
Reaching the meadow again, I spared a quick glance behind me. The crocodile was on my heels, red maw gaping. It proceeded in great, erratic strides, weaving from one side to the other, tossing its long head in fury and pain. Its eyes had been gouged out, blood streaming down from the ravaged sockets.
From the tangle of reeds and cattails behind the croc, the sithic emerged in pursuit, its long tongue lolling from its jaws. Its shoulder was torn and bloody, a white flash of bone showing where the croc’s teeth had sunk into its scaly hide and ripped. With a powerful spring it closed the distance and leaped onto the crocodile’s spiny back. The creatures engaged again in titanic combat that shook the ground.
I sprinted across the meadow, not daring to look over my shoulder again lest I see that one of the saurians had emerged from the struggle and resumed the chase. As the meadow ended and I entered the forest again, I heard the croaking grunt of the crocodile close behind, the reverberating thump-thump-thump-thump as its clawed feet struck the earth in great strides. Those strides were closing the distance between us quickly.
In its blind ferocity, the monster crashed through the underbrush, uprooted saplings, and bounced off larger trees that were too big and too deeply rooted to budge. Still it hurtled onward. Being sightless, how was it able to follow me so persistently? I don’t know – perhaps through its senses of smell or hearing.
There was no further sign of the sithic. Either the giant crocodile had finished it off, or it had gone in search of easier prey.
The trees slowed the croc to some extent, but even so, it seemed sure to catch up with me. It showed no indication of losing energy, while I was getting winded.
A particularly tall and massive oak came into view ahead of me, and without breaking stride, I seized a thick vine that hung down alongside the trunk, and swiftly hauled myself up to the lowest limb that looked capable of bearing my weight.
From there I climbed higher. The croc didn’t seem to be built for scaling trees, no matter how keen its appetite. Once I thought I had reached a safe elevation, I looked down. The croc had run on past the tree, but now it returned, grunting, and walked around and around the oak. As I had hoped, he seemed to have lost my spoor. I desired most earnestly that he lose interest or forget about me altogether, and go away. I didn’t wish to remain trapped indefinitely.
Whether the monster would have gone away of its own accord eventually, I would never know. New prey happened on the scene.
I saw movement in the underbrush, and then a man emerged, moving quickly but carefully. He was fair of hair and complexion, like the people of Sari. His gaze was fixed over his shoulder, as if watching for pursuit. I could guess that I would have looked much the same to an observer a few heartbeats before, fleeing from the croc.
So intent was the runner on looking behind that he didn’t see the croc until too late. When he did, he tried to break to the left, toward a dense stand of man-high ferns, but the croc was faster. The creature lunged forward and caught the man with a darting snap of its fangs. The croc dragged the corpse away, out of my sight, but I could hear the dreadful munching of the great jaws.
The grisly sound went on for some time until, presently, the croc reappeared. As if orienting itself by smell or sound, it started back the way it had come. Something dangled from the corner of its mouth, but I was too far away to see clearly what it was.
That was just as well.
As soon as I thought it was safe, I climbed down from the tree. I found the spot where the croc had dragged its victim. Blood and body fragments were scattered all around, and in the midst of the carnage, a glint from something bright sparkled on the ground. I picked it up. It was a metal chain and amulet, such as the foundries of Sari manufacture. There was a symbol on the amulet: a tribal insignia, I guessed.
The ornament must have fallen off the runner when he was torn asunder by the croc. I picked it up idly and hung it from my knife belt. Who had the stranger been? Had he been a native of this island? Did others dwell in the forest?
I loosened my knife in its sheath. In the old days, a stranger anywhere in Pellucidar was an enemy to be distrusted and attacked. I had no reason to expect that those old ways had changed on this isle so far from my home.
By now I had reached the place where the path from the beach had forked. This time I followed the other fork, going deeper into the woods. Here, I might at least find some berries and nuts to assuage my growing hunger. Once I had found food, I would return to the beach and hope that my companions would come back to look for me. Nearby, a blue jay scolded. Leaves rustled as a squirrel darted up a tree.
I was too careless. As I passed beneath an oak, something heavy suddenly dropped down on my head and shoulders, clinging. I was enmeshed in a net woven from thick fibrous ropes. The net was weighted with stone discs tied to the bottom strands.
As I struggled to unsheathe my knife, a band of five men rushed out of hiding and surrounded me with flint spears. They appeared to be Mezops of a sort, so wiry in build as to look almost malnourished. They were entirely naked; their only adornment was a small bone that each man wore through his bottom lip.
Three of the men lifted the net off me with practiced ease, while another seized my knife, sheath, and belt, leaving me weaponless. “Come with us,” one ordered, gesturing on down the trail with his flint-bladed spear.
I did as he commanded. As we walked, the man continued conversationally, “It is fortunate that you encountered us Ghasts rather than meeting up with our enemies, the Ravvs.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The Ravvs are cannibals of the most loathsome sort, as is well known.”
“And you aren’t?”
“Certainly not!” my captor said indignantly.
I suppose I should have been reassured, but the man’s statement was more puzzling than comforting, for I had realized the nature of the bones that he and his companions wore through their bottom lips.
They were human finger bones.
THREE: The Village of Vultures
“Here we are,” my captor said presently, as we emerged into a clearing where a village stood.
It was not a village such as my people build. Ours are clusters of huts set sturdily in the forks of trees. The structures of this village were built on the ground, inside a rude circular palisade. They were crude, boxy things, constructed of wooden frames on which mats of interwoven grass or reeds were hung to form the walls. A sickening stench of rotting meat hung over the place.
I noticed that vultures perched on the surrounding trees and occasionally hopped down to walk among the huts, searching for bits of offal on the ground. They were undisturbed by the bony women and children of the tribe who moved around on various errands. The women and children were quite as naked as the men. They hardly glanced at us as we passed. All of the men and women seemed to be young adults or people in the prime of life. There were no elderly or infirm, as far as I could determine.
The spearmen herded me into a particularly mean hut with his spear. “Inside with you,” said the one who had spoken with me earlier. And then to two of his companions: “Wen, Birg, you will remain here to guard our valued guest.”
As I entered the hut and my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized that I was not alone. A woman sat against the fall wall in a disconsolate posture. When she saw me, she sprang to her feet. “Jho?” she asked.
“No.” I noticed that she had fair hair and skin. She was tall, graceful, and very pretty. “My name is Rama.”
“Oh!” She examined me closely in the dim light. “I thought …” Whatever she had thought, she kept it to herself and instead asked, “Where did you come from?”
“I was part of a fleet that set forth from the Mezop isles in pursuit of the Su-lu pirates …” I quickly told her how I had been washed overboard in the storm, how I had swum to the island, and how I had escaped the giant crocodile only to be captured by the strange men with bones in their lower lips.
“And you?” I asked.
“I am Sirpa, from Sari.”
“I thought you must be from Sari or Amoz,” I said. “You’re even farther from home than I. How did you wind up here?”
“A warrior from a neighboring tribe, Jho, forced his attentions upon me, although I made it clear that I wasn’t interested, and his advances toward me naturally infuriated Grom the Mighty. But Jho was undeterred, and he had friends in our village who wished misfortune on Grom. They helped Jho to overcome, bind, and kidnap me. Jho anticipated that the land path to his village would be guarded, so he planned to make the trip back by way of the sea in a canoe, along the coast.
“But the alarm had been quickly raised, and Grom was able to place warriors on the water as well. Jho turned in the opposite direction and fled. I think he wished to get far enough away as to assure himself that he had eluded Grom for good, and then turn around. Eventually, we landed on this island. Jho was tired of the meager fare in our larder and wanted fresh food. He brought me up on the beach, trussed up, while he hid the canoe in the underbrush and went to forage.
“I haven’t seen him since. I worked my way out of the thongs that bound my wrists, but before I could get back to the canoe, the Ghasts seized me and brought me here.”
“What do they intend to do with us?”
“You don’t know?”
I shook my head. “They said I was lucky that they and not the Ravvs had caught me, since the Ravvs are cannibals.”
Sirpa laughed sardonically. “So are the Ghasts, when you come down to it, although they seem to draw some distinction between their practices and the Ravvs’. They haven’t told me so directly, but I’ve overheard remarks by people passing by outside. They have a great Feast in which they sacrifice their captives, open the skulls, and scoop out the brains, which they then divide among themselves. The chief, Uum, and his councilors keep the tops of the skulls, which they fashion into pendants, and the warriors take the finger bones to make the decorations you’ve seen. The bodies are dumped outside the village afterward. The Ghasts seem to find this to be a respectable, refined custom, quite different from the Ravvs’ practice of devouring the entire person.”
“The dumping of remains,” I said, remembering my entrance into the village – “I suppose that accounts for the vultures, and the stench in the air.”
The two guards, Wen and Birg, entered the hut and told us to come with them. Two more spearmen joined us outside. As we proceeded through the village, I again remarked the absence of elderly and infirm, and made a comment to Sirpa.
She shuddered. “When a Ghast becomes old or incapacitated, he or she becomes part of the Feast.” I grimaced, guessing what part they became.
Our way led to a large hut, inside which, among various other furnishings, a large wicker chair sat on a low dais. A man occupied the chair, surrounded by other men who sat cross-legged on the dais. I surmised that this was Uum, the chief to whom Sirpa had referred.
He was close to my height but wirier, with glittery black eyes and a slack mouth. In addition to a bone through his lip, he wore a necklace of human skullcaps, which clattered together when he moved. The councilors wore similar pendants, although Uum had the most. The chief also had my knife-belt, looped over his head and shoulder.
The pervasive stench of death filled the hut, as well as an added odor of unwashed flesh. Apparently, the Ghast aristocracy was less than fastidious about bathing.
The chief beckoned us over to the dais. “Honored guests,” he said, “I welcome you to the hospitality of Ghast. I hope your accommodations are most comfortable.”
One of the councilors stepped down from the dais with a string of knotted rawhide, which he fitted first around my head just above my brow, and then around Sirpa’s. Each time, he marked the spot where the two ends came together. He and the others nodded in satisfaction.
“Most shapely and capacious craniums,” one declared. “Their brains will be of excellent quality.”
“Yes, without doubt,” Uum agreed. He dismissed the councilors, and once they had left, he smiled slackly at Sirpa. “You don’t look quite like any of my wives or any of our other women, but you are very attractive, nonetheless. You and the man will be fed presently. I have to attend to a matter of defense right now; a party of Ravvs was seen near the village, and I want to make sure those brutes aren’t up to something sneaky. Later, my girl, perhaps you and I will have a further chance to talk.”
He made a gesture of dismissal, and the spearmen escorted Sirpa and me back to our hut.
“Uum seems quite taken with you,” I said in a low voice. “Perhaps he’ll find a kinder fate for you than the Feast.”
“Kinder? That snake?” she said in disgust. “I’d rather die.”
Once we were back inside the hut, alone, I said in a low voice, “Do you think the Ghasts have found your canoe yet?”
“I don’t think so. After they captured me, they went to find Jho. One of them had seen Jho and me arrive, and went off to summon the others. Jho had already wandered off into the forest when the whole band came back. I don’t believe they thought to look for the canoe.”
“Then there’s a chance we can get off the island, if we can get to the beach, eluding the Ghasts and the Ravvs in the process.”
“We will have better odds of escaping, perhaps, if Jho is captured and brought here too. Of course, if Jho eludes the Ghasts and returns to the beach, he is likely to take the canoe and save his own skin. I wouldn’t put it past him, no matter how badly he wanted me.”
I thought of the amulet that the dead man had worn, and showed it to Sirpa. “Do you recognize this?”
She looked at the insignia and nodded. “It’s Jho’s. How …?”
“I found a dead man on the trail, a man with fair skin such as yours,” I said. “He was killed in a fight with an animal. He was wearing this ornament.”
“I wish I could say that I feel sorry for him, but I can’t,” Sirpa murmured. “At least we may hope that the canoe is still where he left it.”
FOUR: Escape from the Ghasts
I tried to think of ways in which Sirpa and I could sneak out of the hut and somehow elude the Ghasts long enough to reach the canoe. I was still thinking when three Ghast women brought food and drink for us. There was a big wooden platter containing a sort of mush made from nuts, grain, and berries. Two wooden cups held a sweet-smelling fruit juice of some kind.
After the women left, I could hear the guards conversing outside. A band of warriors had left the village to make sure that no Ravvs were lurking nearby. Uum had gone with them.
“If some of the warriors have left, it may be easier to get out of the village,” I said.
“Now?” Sirpa asked.
“Presently. We need to eat so that we have the strength to run. We should be able to finish before Uum comes back.”
The mush wasn’t bad, once we had picked bits of dirt and grit out of it. The Ghasts were as negligent about cleanliness in food preparation as they were about other aspects of neatness. The juice was sweet but left a slightly bitter aftertaste.
After I had consumed about half the cup, a creeping wave of drowsiness began to overtake me. My hand opened, and the cup fell to the ground. The actions seemed to occur far away, unconnected with any thought on my part. I noticed that Sirpa was nodding sleepily too, not quite unconscious but not quite conscious either.
The two guards, Wen and Birg, came in and helped Sirpa to her feet. She allowed them to take hold of her arms without resisting. In a remote part of my mind, I realized either that the juice we had consumed was naturally narcotic, or that something had been added to it to make it so. Perhaps that explained the aftertaste. It seemed to make little difference to me.
“So Uum has returned, but ordered the others to remain outside the village to look for any Ravv activity?” one guard said. “Why does he wish the woman to be brought to him?”
“Why do you think?” the other leered.
“His wives will not be happy.”
“They won’t know unless someone tells them. No one will see the woman being escorted to the Great Hut. Uum has ordered his wives and everyone else to stay inside their homes until the scouting party returns. He says it is for their protection in case the Ravvs make a surprise attack. Convenient for Uum, huh?”
The guards marched Sirpa out of the hut. Their conversation stayed in my mind. At first, their voices reverberated through my head only as meaningless sounds. Then, gradually, the sounds took form as words, and the words acquired significance. As they did, sensation began to return to my body.
With sensation came anger and the will to act. I got up – in a wobbly way for the first moment, then with increasing steadiness. I looked around for a weapon. I wished I had my knife, but in its absence, anything would have to do. I picked up the empty food platter, tested its weight. It was heavy and solid.
The guards had not yet returned, and as they had indicated, no one was abroad in the village. I made my way quickly to the large hut where we had been presented to Uum before. No one stood sentry outside, and stepping into the hut, I saw that none were posted inside as well. Evidently Uum had dismissed the two guards, wanting privacy and assuming that he would be safe enough for the time being.
He was holding Sirpa’s forearms tightly and shaking her. An evil glower of lust was on his face. Sirpa stood in a drugged stupor, her expression empty, her head bobbing with the violence of Uum’s actions. The chief said something to her in a slobbering tone that I couldn’t hear clearly, and pulled her toward him.
“Jackal!” I snarled, advancing toward him.
He let go of Sirpa with an angry cry and stepped backward, reaching for the hilt of my knife, which still rested in its sheath under his arm. Before he could draw the blade or yell for help, I smashed the edge of the platter into his face, inflicting great damage. Blood and broken teeth spurted. Giving him no opportunity to recover, I struck again and yet again, until he lay bleeding and unconscious at my feet.
I pulled the knife-belt over his shoulder and fastened it quickly around my waist, and then tended to Sirpa. I patted her face gently but firmly several times, until her eyes cleared a little. She said, “Rama … what …”
“We were drugged, but the dose was not large enough to keep us senseless for long,” I said. “Can you walk? Good. We have to get out of here now.”
Together, we left the hut cautiously and looked around. At first, I saw no one, but rounding the structure, I nearly blundered into one of our former guards. The man was coming back in our direction. We were both surprised, but I recovered first. I had kept the heavy platter as an additional weapon to supplement my knife, and now I swung it into his face as I had into Uum’s. He went down under the blow, stunned, and Sirpa swiftly plucked his spear out of his hands.
Proceeding along the empty paths between the huts, we saw the gate of the stockade a short distance ahead of us, guarded by one sentry. I was about to rush toward him when I heard a babble of frightened voices from the other side of the palisade: “Ravvs! The Ravvs are coming!”
The gate burst open and a cluster of Ghasts spilled through the opening, into the village. They were yelling in panic, those in front driven forward by the frantic pushing and shoving of those behind. In their crazed stampede, they knocked the sentry down.
The reason for their consternation soon became apparent as other men piled through the gate on their heels, stabbing with spears and swinging flint-headed axes. They resembled the Ghasts in their wiry stature, but differed from them in that their heads were shaven and their faces painted with red and black stripes.
“Run, run, the Ravvs are attacking!” one of the Ghasts screamed, just before an enemy axe crushed his skull.
More Ravvs crammed through the gateway, pursuing the frightened Ghasts into the pathways between the huts. The odds appeared to be in their favor. As fortune would have it, none of the Ghasts fled in our direction, and no Ravv spared the time to do anything other than to pursue his immediate prey. As one band retreated and the other followed, no one remained between the gate and us, and no one looked back to notice us. Hand in hand, we sprinted for the exit. More luck, we emerged outside unnoticed. The way seemed to be open before us.
We plunged into the forest and started down the trail at a fast clip, energized by fear that we would be retaken by the Ghasts or discovered by the Ravvs. I tossed away the platter and drew my knife. Sirpa retained the spear, handing it dexterously.
Once we had gotten some distance from the village and escaped its pervasive miasma of death, we smelled again the natural fragrances of the forest, the scents of honeysuckle and rhododendron. Wrens chirped peacefully in the trees. We passed a brook that gurgled pleasantly over a bed of stones. I took note of these various sensory impressions, but I had no time to enjoy them. I was too busy listening for pursuit, too preoccupied with searching the underbrush for traps.
Where the path forked, we followed the branch that led back toward the beach. There was no indication of pursuit by either the Ghasts or the Ravvs. We encountered no vicious predators. As the sea came into view ahead, sparkling in the sunlight, Sirpa paused a moment to get her bearings, and then led me to a tangle of laurel and briars, in which Jho’s canoe was hidden.
We dragged it down to the water, Sirpa climbed in, and I cast off and stepped in after her.
I breathed easily at last. As far as I was aware, neither of the cannibal tribes had canoes. At least, none had been visible on the beach. Even if they did, it seemed likely that they would be too occupied for some time to search for any escapees from the Ghast village.
There were paddles in the canoe, along with flasks of water and a small store of hardtack and dried meat. Sirpa and I both paddled to get as far from the island as quickly as possible.
Once it had receded a fair distance behind us, I searched the sea intently. I hoped to see the Mezop canoes, or at least my father’s canoe, but the water stretched away on all sides, empty of life.
FIVE: When the Sea Shook
“And now where do we go?” Sirpa asked.
“As our first order of business, we should get you back to your village, I suppose.”
“Yes,” she said, brushing against me accidentally, and then scooting back. “I suppose so. Grom the Mighty will be worried, and home will be awfully lonely for him without me. But how about your father and your comrades?”
“I’ll rejoin them as soon as I can. They would want me to see you to safety first.”
I thought idly that Sirpa was a very lovely woman. The fleeting contact with her, however unintentional, had been nice. But I had no indication that she wished the relationship between us to be anything other than it was – a friendly partnership between two castaways who found it more advantageous to travel together rather than separately through the perils of Pellucidar.
Also, it seemed that Grom already had dibs. It ran counter to my principles to think of making overtures to someone who, I gathered, was already another’s mate. To some, that may seem to be an old-fashioned attitude, but nevertheless, it was the way I had been brought up.
We paddled onward as Sirpa guided us, following her homing instinct to point the way. Once, a great tandoraz surfaced a short distance from us, its head weaving on the end of its long neck. Its fanged jaws opened and closed. Its beady eyes – each as large as a dinner plate – darted around in search of prey.
Before it could notice us, something else drew its attention, a school of porpoises. They swam on a slanting course several bowshots in distance ahead of the canoe. The monster started after them, splashing away from the course in which we were headed. The sleek porpoises could swim faster than the ungainly tandoraz. They would lead him on an energetic chase. By the time they outdistanced him, as they were bound to do, Sirpa and I would be safely away.
We both became tired as the vigor that has sustained us in the escape from the Ghast village began to seep away. Sirpa curled up to sleep, and I paddled for a time, following the course she had set. When she woke and took the paddle, I napped, grateful for a chance to relax.
I don’t know how long I slept. When I got up, I saw that we were entering a stretch of sea in which more islands were located. One was visible to the left, another to the right, and one further ahead. I chewed on a slice of dried meat and peered closely at the islands. Birds were visible, but no human life. After our recent scrape with death, I thought it was just as well. The passages between the islands were relatively narrow. It would be difficult to evade any boats that might come after us.
We were still among the islands when I noticed a most peculiar thing. Sirpa became aware of it at the same time.
“Everything is still,” she said.
I nodded. The water beneath us was motionless, and no slightest breeze stirred. The skies above the islands were suddenly empty of birds. It was as if nature held her breath under the blazing sun of Pellucidar.
And then I heard it: a low, thrumming vibration of sound, distant but growing nearer, which seemed to shudder through water and air alike. As it drew closer, it increased in intensity, becoming a roar even more daunting than the scream of the hurricane that had marooned me on the island of the Ghasts. With it, approaching from straight ahead of us, came a rushing wall of water that looked to be at least twice our height.
It sometimes happens that the earth becomes displeased and shakes in that anger as an enraged person will. The action is always preceded by a dreadful, unnatural calm. On dry land, the shaking can cause the ground to move. On the ocean, it raises great tidal waves, such as the one that was bearing down on us now.
The wave was some distance away. Because of a trick of perspective, it seemed to be moving slowly, almost lazily. In fact, as I knew, it would be bearing down upon us with the speed and force of a charging mastodon herd.
Instantly, thinking as one, Sirpa and I turned the canoe toward the nearest island. Our desperate strokes shortened the distance as quickly as human thews could make possible. We knew nothing about the island. It might harbor enemies like the Ghasts, or even worse than the Ghasts, if that were possible. We had to take that chance. On the open water, the wave would overtake us shortly. It would toss our canoe like a twig and smash it under with awesome fury. It was not likely that Sirpa and I would survive that irresistible, crushing impact.
With the tidal wave surging in behind us, Sirpa and I paddled into the combers that lapped along the nearest stretch of beach. Here, we were close enough to abandon the canoe and half-swim, half-run through the surf to dry land.
Fear gave speed and strength to our straining legs. Every second counted. I no more dared to look behind at the tidal wave that chased us than I had dared to look back at the ravenous croc that had pursued me into the forest of the Ghasts.
SIX: We Are Watched
Although highlands further inland has been visible from the water, the island here rose only slightly from the beach, into a tangle of palm trees, ferns, and laurel. I thought again about the monster that had pursued me on the other island, and the strategy that had saved my life then. I looked for the tallest palm, saw one that appeared to be sufficiently high, a little bit beyond the first line of trees, and pushed Sirpa toward it.
“Climb, climb!” I yelled above the approaching din of the tidal wave.
The palm was bent slightly, and on the trunk, old curling pieces of bark provided handholds and footholds. With additional purchase from vines that hung thickly around, we were able to scramble up quickly. When the wave struck the palm, it did so like the blow from a giant’s hand.
I heard Sirpa cry out, her voice all but lost in the deafening roar as the water smashed into the tree and swept around it in swift torrents. The palm shivered with the impact but held firm. Clasping the trunk tightly, I looked down and saw that the wave had come in at a height just below my feet. The surge had been powerful, but not as powerful as I had feared. Perhaps the wave had lost some momentum in its initial contact with land.
The water continued to flow in as Sirpa and I watched, and then it receded after a while, leaving its wreckage behind in a vast, shallow lake that now covered the ground. Debris was scattered everywhere, and the trail was invisible under the water, which looked to be about ankle deep.
The prospect of wading blindly through the water and debris was not inviting. However, there was an alternative. The trees here grew closely together, and were interlaced with sturdy vines. Passage on foot was not necessary. We could travel above the ground by moving from tree to tree.
“Let’s see if we can find the canoe again,” I suggested.
Sirpa smiled wanly. “What do you think the odds are that we will?”
“It may have been swept up into the forest and deposited somewhere between here and the beach,” I said. I tried to sound hopeful, but I had to be realistic with myself. Just as likely, it had been swept out to sea – and with it, our food, water, and Sirpa’s spear.
We stepped and swung from vine to vine, branch-to-branch, palm trunk to palm trunk, studying the shallow water below for any sign of the canoe. We saw none. Presently, the foliage thinned and we had a clear view out to sea. The water now reached inland to where we perched among the first line of trees. The beach was submerged.
“I don’t see the canoe,” Sirpa said after a bit.
“Neither do I.”
“What do we do now?”
“We may be stuck on this island for some time. We’ll need to find food. We can eat, rest, and look again for the canoe.”
“That’s what I was thinking,” Sirpa agreed, and we returned inland.
As long as the ground below remained under water, we found it preferable to stay with our treetop route. At one place along the way, Sirpa touched my arm and pointed. In a nearby tree, at an elevation a little above ours, a curious being crouched.
He had a lean body covered by coarse reddish hair. The face, which was smooth-skinned, was human-like with a jutting brow, wide nose, and prognathous jaw. He gripped the limb on which he perched with both his hands and his feet. The latter were prehensile.
I called over to him. He responded in alarm, chattering in an agitated way and retreating swiftly. In the next breath he was gone.
“He seemed frightened of us,” Sirpa mused.
“Let’s hope he didn’t run off to find reinforcements,” I said.
At length, the terrain gently rose, and dry, solid land emerged beneath us. I descended, and my fair companion followed. We struck a narrow game trail and followed it on into the forest. As we passed a stand of bamboo, I used my knife to hack off two long shoots. I split and shaved one end of each shoot to form a sharp point. I handed one to Sirpa.
They were the crudest sorts of spears, but they would give us a longer reach than the knife did, and there was one for each of us. Thus armed, we climbed along yet higher ground.
We appeared to be following the base of a mountain, up the slope of which, at intervals, smaller trails branched off. Sirpa and I talked it over and decided to explore the lower area first. If we failed to find food at this level, we would go higher.
We found food sources presently: a papaw bush, a walnut tree, and some wild strawberries, with which we assuaged our immediate hunger. A clear stream flowing down from the mountain offered fresh, cool water. Relaxing, we tossed an uneaten papaw back and forth, and then played a Pellucidarian game in which one player held the fruit and attempted to reach a selected goal before the other could intercept.
I was the one who held the fruit, zigzagging to dodge Sirpa’s attempts to tag me. Laughing, Sirpa finally outmaneuvered me and threw her arms around my waist. Instinctively, I embraced her in return. And then I thought of Grom the Mighty and his empty house. I released Sirpa, and she also disengaged. I wondered if she had thought of Grom too.
Growing tired, we found an oak and climbed up to the sturdiest limb that we could see. “One of us should keep watch while the other sleeps, as we did in the canoe,” I said. “I’ll take first duty.”
Sirpa curled up sleepily in the crook of the limb. “Do you have a mate at home, Rama?” she asked. “Or a girl you like best?”
“Well,” I said, “there are many beautiful girls in my tribe. Someday …” I didn’t get any further. Sirpa’s eyes had closed, and she had fallen asleep.
SEVEN: The Pit of Peril
It was very peaceful in that corner of the island. I heard the distant cooing of doves, and once something passed along the ground nearby; judging from the sound of its passage through the underbrush, I thought it must be a small deer, or a wild piglet.
I didn’t see or hear any further indication of the hairy being or tree man that we had sighted before.
My watch passed uneventfully, and when Sirpa woke, I took her place in the crook of the limb and dozed off.
Dull pangs of hunger woke me after a while, and Sirpa said she felt empty too. Our repast of fruit and nuts had satisfied our acute appetites, but it had left us hoping to find sturdier fare. I thought about the small animal that I had heard. We dropped to the ground with our crude spears and set off to hunt.
Abruptly, Sirpa stopped and put a finger to her lips. We stood motionless. Ahead, where the path wound around a thicket of wild rose, a form showed itself – a young peccary, about the size of a small dog. It caught our scent at the same moment and trotted off down the trail.
We gave chase. The meat of a wild pig, even a young one, is stringy and gamy, but Sirpa and I were hungry. We could not afford to be fastidious. As we pursued, we were vigilant to any sight, sound, or smell of an adult peccary. The grown-up pigs have fearsome tusks and nasty dispositions, especially toward any who would threaten their young.
The trail climbed out of the underbrush, walled by a steep, bare slope immediately to our left. Ahead, it curved to the right, following the shape of the slope, and then it ended a few yards further on, up against a sheer cliff. The ledge of the cliff towered many yards above.
On a narrow shelf at the foot of the cliff, where the path ended, the young peccary stood, as if cornered. Between the peccary and us, to our right, the path ran along a wide depression or pit in the ground. The pit appeared to be filled with a dark, viscous substance. I thought of the tar pits that one sometimes encountered on the Mezop islands and on the mainland, in which unwary animals were occasionally trapped. They would blunder into the pits, sink in the tar, and suffocate, unable to free themselves from the thick, clinging mess.
Looking at this dark pool, I saw that the same thing had happened here. The taloned paw of a lion or tarag stuck up forlornly from the surface, not far from the ledge where the pig stood. Oddly, the flesh on the portion of the forearm that emerged from the tar appeared to be eaten away to the bone, as by a strong acid. This was not a characteristic of the tar pits with which I was familiar.
Idly – because my attention was focused primarily on the swine – I noticed another odd thing. The black, iridescent surface of the pool shimmered and rippled. In itself, this would not normally arouse curiosity, because sometimes tar pits were heated from underneath by steam that escaped from fissures in the earth. The heat could cause the tar to shimmy and bubble.
Were that the case here, I would have expected to feel some heat rising from the pool, as I advanced along the path – but I didn’t.
I should have been careful, but I was thinking of roast pig. I approached the peccary, Sirpa following behind. Pressed between the slope on one side and the black pool on the other, the trail was narrow. We had to step carefully to avoid slipping over into the pit.
Raising my spear, which I would have to thrust rather than throw, because the bamboo was too light for the sharpened tip to pierce the animal’s hide without my weight behind it, I stepped closer to my prey … closer … And then Sirpa cried out behind me.
I wheeled, almost losing my balance. I put my hand on an outcrop of shale on the slope to my left to catch myself. Between our present position and the rear of the trail, an appendage of tarry, almost-solid material from the pool had somehow risen from the pit and oozed up over the narrow passage. More of the material followed, as if the mass of tar were flowing out of the pit of its own volition. It spread out to a width greater than Sirpa and I could jump.
Sentience in Pellucidar takes many forms, but I had never encountered anything like this before. The tarry substance that formed the pool was a living thing with an innate ability to move.
The sticky mess shimmered and rippled as it covered our line of retreat, and then more emerged ahead of us to cover that portion of the path, trapping us between.
The part of the path on which we stood was higher than the portions before and behind us. The mass had not yet begun to ooze out of the pit along this section. I thrust my spear down into the glob, to see if pain would deter it. There seemed to be no reaction. With an effort, I jerked the shaft free from the sucking, clinging mess.
“Look at the spear,” Sirpa said in a shaky voice.
Where it had sunk into the glob, the bamboo point had been eaten away as if by strong acid, and the portion of the shaft immediately above had become discolored and pitted.
“It dissolves organic matter,” I said. “Doubtless that’s its manner of eating. If it catches us …”
I looked out at the paw of the big cat that protruded from the pool. I suspected that little if anything remained of its carcass aside from that single appendage.
The peccary stood still on the far shelf of rock. It evidenced no sign of distress or fear. I wondered if it – and others of its kind – had formed some kind of strange partnership with the flesh-eating glob. The peccary would run from a carnivore and lure it here, where the hunter would become the hunted – trapped and consumed by the living tar.
The glob would allow the pig to go free, so that it could continue to lure bigger animals to the pit.
I looked up the steep slope to our left. I tested the shale. It was brittle and broke easily. I tried to help Sirpa scramble up, but there were no bushes for her to hold on to, and her feet slipped on the fragile rock and loose dirt. With enough time, we might be able to claw and strain our way up, but we did not have the luxury of more time.
The top of the slope, bearded in laurel and dogwood, was too high to reach from where we stood. Unless …
“Sirpa, get on my shoulders, quickly,” I said. “It may be that with the extra height, you can grab the shrubbery on the ledge and haul yourself up.”
“I can’t leave you here,” she panted, stabbing her spear toward an arm of the glob that inched toward us.
“Once you’re up there, you may be able to find the end of a vine – or something – that you can throw down to me. It’s a chance at least,” I insisted. “Our only chance.”
She looked doubtful, but it was clear from her expression, nevertheless, that she realized we had no other choice. She nodded. Swaying close, she kissed me on the lips. I had no time to return the kiss, only to enjoy the momentary sweetness of her lips, before I stooped and helped her to climb up on my shoulders.
I could feel her stretching and straining above me. At the same time, she sought to keep her balance. Her bare feet slipped alarmingly on my sweaty shoulders. I dropped my spear to hold her ankles. I was watching in horrified fascination as the moving ooze crept closer to my feet and legs, more and more of it emerging from the pool as the leading extensions of its mass pushed forward.
I had the stomach-churning notion that it could move faster if it wanted. Instead, at some level of awareness, it seemed to take evil pleasure in sensing my desperation, in savoring my fear as it drew out its advance.
Presently, Sirpa called down to me. I couldn’t make out her words. Neither could I spare the time to look up. “What?” I said.
“The ledge is … too …far … away,” she cried. “I can’t reach it!”
“Keep trying!” I urged.
I could feel her going up on tiptoe to extend her reach as far as possible. And then something happened that sent a surge of fear through me. Sirpa cried out in alarm, and her ankles slid out of my fingers before I could tighten my hold.
Suddenly, her weight was no longer on my shoulders.
EIGHT: The Tree People
I was afraid that she had lost her balance. I expected to see her come hurtling down beside me, perhaps hard enough to cause injury – if she didn’t fall into the midst of the flesh-devouring glob instead.
But … no Sirpa. Seemingly, she had disappeared.
Still not daring to take my gaze off the creature, I reached around above my head. I hoped that Sirpa had found a vine or root to grab onto, and that I would touch one of her feet, swinging free. But my searching hands found only empty air.
Something dropped from above, slapping me on the back. I turned to see what it was. I saw a sturdy rope, about as thick as my wrist, woven ingeniously together from creeper vines. The end was looped through a knot to form a noose. The rope twitched, and, understanding, I fitted the noose around my body just under my arms.
The rope tightened, drawing me upward. I let it pull me up. As if sensing my escape, the glob spread out over the path in a black, rippling layer. Had I still been standing there, it would have engulfed my feet and ankles. Instead, I rose just quickly enough to evade it.
At the top of the slope, I grabbed a protruding dogwood root and swung my legs up over the ledge.
I expected to see Sirpa there, holding the other end of the rope. She was present, but it was not she who held the rope. My rescuer was the shaggy tree man whom Sirpa and I had seen on our journey through the treetops from the drowned beach. He seemed hardly winded from the exertion of hauling Sirpa and me from the lower ground. His muscles, although wiry, were as powerful as the steel cables manufactured in the Emperor David’s factories.
He spoke in his chattering language and smiled, showing great splayed teeth, as he drew the noose over my arms and head. Others of his kind stood with Sirpa. There were three of them, an adult female and two youngsters, one male and the other female.
It did not seem that they meant us any harm. Certainly, the male would not have put his family in danger. Not wishing to startle them, I kept my hands away from my knife-hilt. I looked over the ledge and shuddered. The dark ooze now covered nearly the whole length of the path.
I walked over to Sirpa and we stood for several heartbeats, savoring our escape from the pit-monster. “Now that we’re safe,” Sirpa ventured after a while, “I’m feeling hungry again.”
“I am too.” I wondered how we could convey to the tree man that we wished to eat. He simply shook his head as I used the words “food,” “hungry,” and “eat.” He said something in return, and from the repetition of sounds and the cadence of his voice, I knew that he was trying to communicate in his own language. I understood his words as little as he understood mine.
I had an idea and began to pantomime hunger. I rubbed my stomach. I made motions to simulate putting food in my mouth.
The she came over, walking in a peculiarly graceful gait, and chattered to the male. He chattered in reply and, turning to Sirpa and me, gestured for us to follow. He set off down a narrow trail that ran through the underbrush, Sirpa and I falling in behind him, and his mate and children bringing up the rear.
Glancing over at me, Sirpa smiled and stifled a laugh.
“What?” I said.
“Back there, when you were making those gestures like eating. You were so cute.”
I didn’t quite know how to take that, so I decided to say nothing as we continued our odd procession down the trail. After a short distance, the ground dipped, and the trail rejoined the lower path that we had followed in pursuit of the peccary. I thought that our companions were about the happiest beings I had ever seen. Periodically, the mother would pause to show the two children something. They chattered in an animated way.
The male glanced back with an expression of … contentment? Pride? I thought of human families I knew who didn’t seem nearly so loving.
We followed the trail around to the side of the island opposite that on which we had landed in our flight from the tidal wave. Here, massive old redwoods soared far above our heads. We saw the village of the tree people, consisting of bowers located high up in the trees. Rope ladders provided means of ascent and descent along the sheer trunks. More of the tribe came down to see us, old and young alike, joining our hosts.
In the shadow of a redwood ahead of us, a group of males had already been standing. They approached too, and behind them walked a handful of human men! As the humans drew nearer, I uttered a startled exclamation. Pushing Sirpa behind me, I drew my knife.
The foremost human was a Su-lu pirate, of the breed who had kidnapped two of our girls and tried to attack our village. He was short, wiry, with gaudy shirt and pantaloons. A vicious-looking sword was thrust in his belt, and a musket was slung over his shoulder.
I looked around in confusion, wondering if the friendliness of the tree people had been a sham. Had this been a ruse all along to deliver Sirpa and me into the hands of the pirates?
The tree men became agitated as they saw my knife flash. The Su-lu waved to catch my attention and raised empty hands to show that he had not unsheathed any weapon. Amazingly, he spoke to the tree people in their own chattering language, and as he did so, they relaxed again.
“Rama!” someone said, stepping into view quickly from behind the Su-lu. “We’re all friends here, son! Put the knife away.”
“Father?” I said dazedly, for it was he. My father Fen, chief of the tribe of Fen, strode over and hugged me fiercely.
“A fine way to greet friends and kin who have voyaged far over the Lural Az to find you, Rama,” another familiar voice joked. It was my friend Dax, son of Phar. We clasped each other’s forearms in warm greeting.
“How … where …” I stammered.
The tale was soon told. After many amazing adventures in a fabulous city called Nova Roma, Dax had rescued the kidnapped girls of my village, as well as those of the tribe of our distant neighbor, Tir. The mighty Mezop flotilla had arrived too late to play a role in the rebellion that Dax had led against an evil queen, but in time to join in his celebration.
And the Su-lu? It turned out that he was the pirate skipper Usman, our erstwhile enemy, who had gone over to Dax’s side in the revolt. His aid had been instrumental in Dax’s victory.
“But when Father arrived with the other Mezop warriors, he said that you and Fen had been lost in a squall along the way,” Dax recounted. “We set out in Usman’s ship to find you. We found your father – he had been separated from the others and blown off course in the storm, but he was fine. He said, however, that you had been washed overboard, and he was trying to find you. He joined us and we began to comb the islands.”
“Eventually we dropped anchor off this island, after skirting a tidal wave,” Usman said. “I speak the tongue of the hairy people, and they said that a man and a woman, strangers to them, were on the island. Ch-gk-gk here,” he indicated the male who had rescued Sirpa and me, “volunteered to find you and bring you to us.”
“He saved our lives from a gruesome fate,” I said, placing a hand on the male’s hairy shoulder. “Please tell him I will be his indebted friend forever.” Usman translated, and Ch-gk-gk beamed with pleasure.
With Usman and my Mezop friends were four other men, strangers to me, with the look and accoutrements of tribesmen from Sari or Amoz. Seeing the question in my face, Father said, “In our voyage, we encountered these fellows who had set off on the Lural Az on a quest of their own from the mainland. They are fine lads. They were in search of a missing girl, although not one who had been taken by the Su-lu like ours …”
“Grom!” Sirpa called out from behind me, in an ecstasy of joy. “Oh Rama, it is Grom, of whom I spoke to you.”
She raced past me. One of the Sarians, a young but doughty-looking warrior, stepped up and caught her in a whirling embrace. “Sirpa,” he murmured, brushing her forehead with a kiss.
By that time, my Mezop friends had crowded around me, eager to hear about all that had happened since our separation. I glanced over and saw that the Sarians, likewise, had congregated around Sirpa and Grom. I was happy that Sirpa had been reunited with her loved one, but I felt a pang of sadness too. I realized that I had come to care for her a great deal.
The tree people, who were closer than not to humans in their taste in food, had started a barbeque of venison. The smell from the stone-lined barbeque pit was delicious. As we all ate together, I learned more about Dax’s adventure. His voice was tender when he spoke about the captive girl he had succored from the dungeons of Nova Roma, the governor of the lost colony, no less, who had been imprisoned by the usurper Messalina. Her name was Britannia.
“It seems we Mezops have the rare fortune of finding beautiful women in our wanderings,” he said with a faint smile, noting the way in which I glanced occasionally in Sirpa’s direction.
“Sirpa is beautiful, but as you see, she is someone else’s sweetheart.” My voice was huskier than I meant it to be. Dax was about to say something to me, but I welcomed a sudden interruption by Usman, who said that Ch-gk-gk wished me to join his family and him for a bit. I told Dax quickly, “See you later,” and went off to accept the invitation.
Later, after we all had eaten and slept, I joined my friends in loading provisions onto a skiff. The skiff plied back and forth between the beach and the Su-lu ship, ferrying our supplies. A couple of times, Dax and I saw each other across the way, but we were too busy with work to resume our conversation.
As I dropped off one pack and went to fetch another, Grom the Mighty walked up to me.
“Sirpa was asking about you,” he said. I tried to tell if any jealousy lurked in his words, but he sounded friendly enough. “I wanted to thank you sooner for helping her, but other things kept intervening. You and she had quite an escape from the ooze-creature that she described.”
“And from the cannibal Ghasts before that,” I said. “But as much as I helped her, she helped me in equal measure. She’s a fine girl, and very brave. You’re lucky to have her.”
“Lucky to…?” Grom sounded puzzled. Then it seemed that he realized something that I had not yet grasped. He smiled broadly. “Why don’t you go and tell her what you told me? I think she’d be interested in hearing it.”
Sirpa was playing with Ch-gk-gk’s two children as I walked over to her. She appeared pleased to see me. “I thought you were trying to avoid me,” she said half-teasingly.
I shrugged. “I didn’t want to intrude on your reunion with Grom. You and he had a lot to catch up on. It was obvious that you care for each other a lot.”
“Sisters and brothers usually do,” Sirpa said, “but Grom and I have been even closer than most siblings, because we’re the only family that we have left. When our parents died, it was not possible for me to live in our old house any more. Grom had already moved out and started his own bachelor home, and so I moved in to keep house for him, until he finds a …”
“Grom’s your brother?” I broke in.
“Of course. What else would he be? I told you that, didn’t I – Oh! No, I didn’t, did I? I never thought to.” She saw the expression on my face. She guessed what I had been thinking, just as Grom had.
“You mentioned your affection for Grom more than once,” I said haltingly. “But you never … And I assumed …”
She laughed, laying her hand gently on my wrist, and the laugh caused the two children to squeal in delight, even though it was not likely that they knew why she laughed. I should have been embarrassed, but I was too happy to be nonplussed.
The two children squealed even more rapturously the next instant, as Sirpa leaned over to me, I drew her close, and we kissed.
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