Ro-Un-To stood in the field, working hard for even though this was not HER field, hers having been taken from her when her husband died, she knew that if she didn’t work hard, she’d eat scraps again.
Custom dictated that a widow inherit her husband’s fields so she could feed his children, but the fact was that she had no children. After two miscarriages and a single still-birth, she was effectively barren and so useless to the tribe. And with no living father or brothers to protect her, she was at the mercy of the tribe’s chief. A Chief who should be protecting her himself as custom declared that he protect all family less people.
But this one, Yo-Bar, ‘Friend in Battle’, what a misnomer he had taken, desired her. And her constant rebuffs weighed heavily on his ego.
It would have been easier to accept if he found her attractive. And attractive she once was. And she still took pains to groom her black fur to a glossy shine but the lack of decent food was telling on her. No, Yo-Bar wanted her only because she was a female and that one would mount a dead jato if it was female. With no father or brothers or uncles to protect her, he felt that he could take her if he wished. And he wished only because he hadn’t. But even the Gund of the tribe couldn’t rape a woman of the tribe. He needed at least some pretense of submission and so he chose to starve her until she came to him from desperation.
So she slept in the common room, her father’s cave being given to a distant relative when he died and her husband’s cave being given to a new family that had outgrown their old cave. If she worked hard, the owner of this field would be bound to feed her well and she wouldn’t have to beg scraps from others.
She felt his eyes on her. But every unmarried woman in the tribe felt that. And the occasional slave raids upon other tribes and even the Ho-Don always ended up with the best looking females being given to him. He was a stoat in rut. Impossible to fully satisfy and equally unable for him to love any woman enough to be satisfied.
There were other widows here. Many, from the wars between her tribe and the other Waz-Don tribes and the Ho-Don attacks and the loss hunters suffered by Ja, Jato and Gryf. There were always more women than men and a widow could easily remarry, though it meant being a Second or Third Wife with less status than when she was first married. But other widows had brothers and uncles and fathers to protect them. Other widows had children to make them valuable. She had no one.
“Ro-Un-To!” snapped Bal-Bu-Ja. “Be careful! You almost damaged that corn-stalk!”
“I’m sorry, Bal-Bu-Ja,” she called back, “I’ll be careful.” ‘Stupid bitch-cat’ thought Ro-Un-To. Bal-Bu-Ja was younger than was she but because she was still First Wife and had two sons, she believed that her shit was worthy of worship. If she didn’t need the meal she had been promised… she’d chop every stalk of grain in this field.
Hours later, as the sun dipped behind the cliffs, they all returned to the cliff-face that was their home, stored the farming tools in a low opening and climbed to their homes. Ro-Un-To returned to the Common room and waited. Eventually, Bal-Bu-Ja would send her the promised meal but more likely, would ‘forget’ forcing Ro-Un-To to climb down to ‘remind’ her. Even then, she’d get only vegetables and if lucky, fruit. Never any meat.
She busied herself washing from one of the streams that flowed through the caves, then cleaning her clothes and making such repairs to her belongings as was required until Bal-Bu-Ja arrived with the promised meal. “I don’t know why I feed you so well! You nearly destroyed my fields and drove my children (she emphasized that word) to starve.”
“I’m sorry, Bal-Bu-Ja. I appreciate your suggestions.” Though saying that made her stomach crawl.
Slamming the bowl down, the bitch-cat snapped, “See that you do better tomorrow.”
Ro-Un-To had to force herself to eat the food, so much did her stomach hurt. But at least she would eat tomorrow. Too many people had heard Bal-Bu-Ja make the offer.
She gathered her belongings, not fearing them being stolen for no one would rob a widow. She simply liked the idea that she owned SOMETHING!
She washed her mouth and combed her fur when Yo-Bar arrived. He was reeking of the beer they made which gave him the courage to approach her. Normally he cornered her when alone. But today, in public? That boded ill.
His breath reeked of beer as he demanded, barely able to stand. “Ro!” Only close friends or family were allowed to use a one-word name. “Come to my cave with me!” Another insult. He should at least given her the chance to pretend to others that she was still a good woman. She saw him weave and considered. If he was drunk enough, he wouldn’t be able to perform. But if she went, even if nothing happened, her reputation would be ruined and every desperate boy or unmarried male would toss roots at her feet expecting her to lie for them.
Ro-Un-To tried to resist, but then he grabbed her and forced his lips to hers.
Gagging, she kneed him then as he grunted and loosened his grip, she picked up a rock and struck.
Yo-Bar went down and she could see some of the others secretly smile for no one but a bully likes another bully. But her time was done. Without family to protect her, she had no choice but to leave and leave fast before he picked himself up. Briefly she considered hitting him again into unconsciousness but if she did, that would make her a criminal. No, better she run while he was groggy but conscious so when he chased her, she would be seen as the victim.
So she gathered what little she had and ran, the others standing aside. She climbed the pegs that fronted the cave cliff, then dropping her belongings, sought the loose ones which she grasped in hands, feet and tail, then climbed to the forest floor and ran into the darkness.
Ja or Jato or Gryf or even slavers from the Ho-Don city or hunters from the other Waz-Don might find her but even that was better than what remained in her own caves.
As-tan sat in the tree, enjoying the smells. Yes, he could have arrived closer to his home, right on the cliff in fact, but he wanted time to remember his country. Despite all the places he had seen in the last fifteen or twenty years (he lost track sometimes), there was no place as beautiful as Pal-ul-Don, the Land-of-Man. Land of God would be a better name. There, in the distance, was A-Lur, capital of the Ho-Don, her whiteness gleaming in the early morning light. Enemies to his own people and to all Waz-Don, they ruled because they were united under one king while each Waz-Don tribe fought with every other Waz-Don and even Ho-Don. Still, sitting on The Great Lake, it was beautiful.
Behind him was the mountain range ruled by Paster-ul-Ved, the volcanic father of Mountains. Within that range lay the cliffs of his own tribe, and the tribes of his enemies. Strange, how after all these years of travel, he still defined himself by his tribe.
But for now, he ate deer, the first deer he had eaten since he left all those years ago. It didn’t taste as good as he remembered. Also it was a lot harder to catch than he remembered. As-Tan supposed that he was simply out of practice. Eating mostly farmed food wasn’t conducive to being a good hunter. Not when your prey was in a pen awaiting slaughter. Still, if the Waz-Don would build fences and raise deer and antelope and other livestock, they would be free from the eternal hunt and be able to grow in numbers and power. Why not? They had given up gathering for farmed plots; why not give up hunting for husbandry? It was just such thoughts that made him leave the Caves and Pal-ul-Don in the first place. He thought too much and was always too sickly a child to be a good warrior. He was still smaller and weaker than any Waz-Don but now he had learned a few tricks of battle that no Waz-Don or Ho-Don could imagine. There was a lot more to the world than Pal-ul-Don. So he smelled the forest, tasted honest meat and admired the view.
Then he heard the screams.
Turning in the tree, easy to do when your feet are second hands and you have a prehensile tail, he faced the sounds and saw a number of Ho-Don chasing a lone Waz-Don female. Instantly he dropped to the ground and approached, swinging his sword into ready position. Had you asked him why he was willing to risk his life for an unknown she, he might have said, “She was the first woman of my race I’ve seen in more than a decade” or he might have said, “Her loincloth and harness shows her to be of my tribe.” Or he might have said, “My teacher, Thorpe, taught me the sanctity of life.” But the truth is that he was on the ground and running before any of these thoughts passed through his mind.
The three groups met almost at the same time. The Ho-Don, hairless and white but otherwise similar in anatomy to the hairy black Waz-Don, were ten in number and had caught the she, three holding her down while two more bound her hands, feet and tail. The remaining laughing as they looked on. Slavers probably. If they were planning rape, they wouldn’t be tying her like that. As-Tan had nothing against slavery. His tribe enslaved other Waz-Don tribes when they could. And some of the best wives could be slaves captured from another tribe. He simply didn’t like the idea of someone enslaving his own countryman. He did, after all, have four sisters.
Approaching, he called out, “Excuse me! But would you please release the she?” As-Tan had learned to be polite over his time away.
Everyone, Ho-Don and Waz-Don stared at him. What kind of fool approaches the enemy when outnumbered ten to one? And what kind of fool ASKS? He should have run for help or used his club to kill one ho-Don then ran to lead the others away while the she escaped. He did neither. And his club remained hanging from its thong, untouched.
The five unoccupied approached him, laughing, “Surrender and we won’t hurt you,” they called.
“I apologize in advance but if you do not release her and leave, it is I who will hurt you. So please, allow us to avoid violence.”
He was now surrounded and as the one behind swung his club to render As-Tan senseless, he drew the sheath of his knife and drove it into the belly of the Ho-Don behind. “Please, let us discuss this in peace,” he called to the rest.
“Get him!” the four remaining did just that… or tried.
As-Tan ducked, slammed his sheath into the belly of #2, avoided a swung club and struck #3 with the sheath, stepped in to kick #4 in his manhood and then blocking the club of #5, punched him in the throat. Five down in as many heartbeats.
As-Tan again asked for the woman to be released and this time the remaining five stood, the woman finally bound, and drew club and fighting knife. This time, they were no longer interested in a slave but in revenge and would kill him.
As-Tan pulled the blade that had been made for him by Thorpe, his teacher and the second reason he left Pal-ul-Don, crossed blade and sheathe and waited. The blade was some two feet long and slightly curved, the handle was made for two handed use and wrapped with thin strips of leather in a cross-work pattern. It had no guard to speak of, just a small round hub that was barely larger than the handle and served only to delineate the handle from the sheath when drawn and so afforded no protection at all.
Ro-Un-To and the Ho-Don stared for a moment then laughed. Not even the Ho-Don could forge a knife that long. The best forges in Pal-ul-Don could make a blade two feet long, but it was impossible to temper it properly and they always broke in battle. So if the Ho-Don couldn’t make a decent long-knife, how could a barbaric Was-Don with a smaller forge?
The first Ho-Don threw his club and As-Tan simply turned a bit and allowed the heavy weapon to pass him by. Then the others struck.
The club, according to his Waz-Don teacher, was the ultimate weapon of defense and offence. BUT, it took a large man with great strength to use the weapon, and As-Tan had neither. Hew as smaller than the average Don and years away from Pal-ul-Don and her constant forcing of her people into the best possible shape had weakened him. So rather than rely on strength, he used speed and agility, knowing how the club was used but they having no idea of the properties of his blade.
He deflected the first club and snapped out with the blade, neatly cutting the Ho-Don’s neck to the spine. As the man fell, gushing blood, he turned, rolled and cut as he stood, first against the belly of the second, cutting through leather belts, skin, muscle and entrails, then standing and turning as did the third, As-Tan managed to cut against the man’s side, opening him to his spine. Then he stood, ready for the remaining two.
They stared. Knowing that they were as children against this Waz-Don with the strange habits and stranger weapon, the last two made a decision. Their King must know about this.
Cooperation and submission to authority was what made the Ho-Don supreme in Pal-ul-Don and they decided that petty revenge, assuming that they could defeat this man, must wait. If the Waz-Don could forge such weapons, the balance of power in Pal-ul-Don would shift and it was more important that this information be passed on than they try to kill one lone Waz-Don. “Take the she,” the senior Ho-Don said. “And go!”
As-Tan cleaned and sheathed his blade, then drew his shorter knife to cut the bindings of the girl, his eyes never leaving the two Ho-Don who kept their eyes on him as they roused their fallen, but living, comrades. Then As-Tan placed his sheathe against the woman’s belly and gently pushed her back as he backed away. A thrown club was a very dangerous weapon and these men could down a deer at a hundred paces easily. The two blacks carefully walked backwards until they were lost in the foliage, then As-Tan sheathed his weapon, slung it from his back and the two turned and ran in another direction until they could enter the trees.
As-Tan carefully returned to the scene of the killings, the woman afraid of his actions but more afraid to make noise by arguing. And then, high in the trees, for the Don were almost as at home in the upper terrace as they were on the ground, As-Tan watched the group cut stretchers for their dead and carry them back towards A-Lur.
Satisfied that they posed no more danger, he turned to the she and introduced himself, “I am As-Tan of the Kor-ul-Lul. I see that you are also of my Gorge. Perhaps you know of my parents, Jad-Ho-To and Adad-Don?”
“You are little As-Tan? We thought you were dead some fifteen years ago!” then her belly growled. “Feed me and I will tell you what I know.”
“I have the remains of a deer in a tree over there.” He saw her drool at that word and noticed how thin she was so led her on to his cache.
As she ate, it seemed that she was starving, he looked her over. Older than he perhaps or maybe it was just that her hardships made her look old. Waz-Don rarely lived past forty and their women rarely past thirty so she could be in her late twenties. But the people with whom he had lived since leaving often lived three to four times as long as any Waz-Don could, so he no longer feared the ravages of age and could appreciate the mature beauty of a woman past twenty.
“Where have you been?” she asked as she ate, staring at the blade over his shoulder.
“I left the Kor seeking a ja or jato to hunt for my desired, Sad-ul-To. She said that if I brought her such a hide, she would consider allowing me to court her. Along the way I met a stranger from outside Pal-ul-Don and my thirst for answers to my questions made me follow him. When he left Pal-ul-Don, I followed, asked him to be my teacher and have spent the last dozen or more years .. paddling a very large canoe to places you could not dream of.” The problem with the Don language is that it was very simple and when you needed a new word, you simply combined existing words into one that would fit your needs. But ‘big-canoe’ or ‘big-bird-like-canoe’ wouldn’t describe in the least the Amber Hope. Besides, he had to be careful, for if his people learned too much about the outside world, they may seek to cross the morass that protected the Land-of-Man and the tailless people outside. And both hairless blacks and hairless whites would decimate his birth land if they learned how much gold was here. Gold that both Ho-Don and Waz-Don saw as just pretty metal.
Grunting, she managed to say, “I remember Sad-ul-To. She married, had five children and is now a widow, like me, but living with her oldest son. She is still very pretty so I suppose that you still have a chance with her.”
Really? Still or rather, now free. He had returned to the Kor-ul-Lul seeking memories and his family, perhaps he could marry too? The women he had seen over the years were attractive in their own way but… well nothing was more attractive than a well-brushed pelt on an beautiful tailed-woman. Those he met outside saw him as an animal or a freak or, occasionally, as something exotic. None saw him as a partner or potential husband. And though here, thirty-five was seen as too old to bear children, outside, such women were still fertile and could easily and safely birth a few more babies.
“My parents?” he asked.
“Your mother still lives. Your father killed in a Ho-Don raid that took one of your sisters as slave or sacrifice to A-Lur. The other three remain married though your youngest is such a… “ As-Tan understood. Even he disliked his youngest sister whose tongue was as sharp as a knife. “Two of your brothers died in wars with the Kor-ul-Ja, the remaining lives and is married with children.”
As-Tan cried inside. Death was as much a part of Waz-Don life as was life. And few were the families that remained together and alive throughout old age. War, slave raids and hunting took their toll. Plus there was always the possibility of a Gryf or tor-o-don entering the Gorge and no one could really stop either of those menaces. So like all Waz-Don, he cried inside but remained stoic outside.
“So, will you marry Sad-ul-To? Or find someone younger?”
“I hadn’t really thought that far. I just wanted to see my family again and was nearby. I don’t think I will remain long for my Gund and my canoe await me.”
“Strange as you were before, your years away have made you even stranger. You talked to the Ho-Don, offered them life instead of running for help or attacking and being killed. But you were always a strange boy. Always asking questions. At least you learned to fight.”
“I don’t remember you at all,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m not surprised, you noticed no one but Sad-ul-To. But I remember you well. I lived four levels up and was a few years older than you and already married.” That explained it for a Waz-Don male never noticed a married female, lest he incur the wrath of her husband. Fathers and brothers could be appeased with gifts, but a husband would kill for what he thought was someone chasing his wife.
“Then why are you here? No she leaves the gorge.”
Lowering her head, but still eating, she explained. “My husband died, I have no living children or family so… Gund Yo-Bar wanted me. Not because he desired me, but because he wanted any female he could take by coercion or force. He tried to force me so I struck him with a rock and ran away. I decided that death beneath the claws of Gryf or Ja or Jato would be better than what he would do to me.”
“I remember Yo-Bar,” As-Tan said. “He was always a bully. If he didn’t have those followers behind him, he wouldn’t have lived to adulthood. He used to beat me up often.” As-Tan never questioned how such a man could become Chief. He had seen worse people rise to greater power by bribery, threat or simple assassination in the outer world. “Perhaps I should talk to him about this.”
“Gund-Bar?” she laughed. “Even if you won, no one would accept you as Chief. You are almost a stranger to us, you have no history of hunting or fighting or winning battles to support your fitness to the position. All that would happen is that he would kill you or if you killed him, you’d be driven out by the tribe and Yo-Bar’s cronys would tear the Kor apart fighting for that place as Chief.”
Politics are the same no matter where you go, he thought. But said, “When you are finished, we can go home and be there before dark easily.” Then he added, “I’ll talk to my mother about allowing you to stay with her.”
Ro-Un-To smiled at him then packed the rest of the deer away. Asking for a place to sleep would be easier if she brought dinner.
The journey back was pleasant and took longer than expected. Part of it was because As-Tan wanted to visit and see everything that he had missed. Partly because he found talking to Ro-Un-To to be very pleasant. Waz-Don married young girls with wide hips who could give them sons. Being both older, that lust was missing and they could relax and talk to each other and As-Tan found that Ro-Un-To was actually intelligent and personable.
Ro-Un-To found this short person with the strange ways to also be intelligent. All her husband really wanted from her was sex and dinner. He sought companionship among his male friends and it was nice to be able to talk to a male without worrying about rape or an angry father or brother fearing their daughter’s being molested. Once they stopped by the stream that came from their Kor and As-Tan picked some flowers and gave them to her for no reason at all. He explained that it was an outer-world custom to give flowers to a nice woman. She didn’t really understand until he mentioned, “You make them beautiful,” then he turned away in embarrassment. Ro-Un-To simply smiled and smelled the flowers and carried them close to her breast.
When they came to the edge of the gorge, they were challenged by the sentry, a man As-Tan remembered from many beatings before. “Who are you and what do you in the Kor-ul-Lul!” he demanded.
“I am As-Tan, son of Adad-Don and Jad-Ho-To, come home to visit my family.”
The man came forward with his friend and laughed. “As-Tan? You are as small and weak as you were when we drove you out. And this, the whore Ro-Un-To who attacked our Gund, Yo-Bar.”
“A lie! He sought to attack me, I just defended myself!” she snapped.
The guard sought to push As-Tan aside and slap down Ro-Un-To only to find himself on the ground somehow. “Don’t touch either of us and let us pass.” He said quietly.
“Oh, the whelp wants another beating!” the bully laughed and stood. He then struck at As-Tan, a blow that would easily render him unconscious had it connected. But somehow, As-Tan brushed it aside with ease. The bully growled and charged him only to find himself on the ground, gasping for breath as his companion drew his club and screamed, “Now you die!”
He swung only to find that instead of backing away like any sensible person, As-Tan stepped forward inside the weapon’s arc and after kneeing his opponent in the family jewels, he then lifted him off the ground by stepping under his shoulder then standing and turning. Then there were two on the ground and As-Tan and Ro-Un-To on their feet. “Let us pass or I may injure you.” As-Tan said with a smile.
The first bully pulled his knife and club and circled, “This time for real.”
As-Tan drew his long-knife and waited. He had waited a dozen and more years for this and found that all his repressed anger was rising.
The fight didn’t last long and As-Tan stood over the body of his childhood enemy shaking with the battle as the other stood watching in disbelief. “Are you next?” As-Tan asked.
Considering the possibilities, the other said, “Well, I never liked Ad-Ut very much and it was a fair fight. Go on and send men to recover the body. I will tell them that he attacked you.”
Nodding in thanks, the duo entered their home, both fearing a club or knife in the back. But soon enough, when their fears went unanswered, they saw the cliffs from which the tribe had carved their caves. To As-Tan it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen. The cliff was mostly white limestone with hundreds of caves carved from the face. Each cave had a veranda of a size that related to the wealth of the owner. And from each cave ran a stream of water that not only cleaned each cave but gave drinking water (How did we ever survive kidney stones?) and sanitation and watered the fields below.
As they entered, past the fields, everyone stopped to stare. Most had forgotten As-Tan so to them he was a stranger and in Pal-ul-Don, a stranger meant enemy. The rest knew of the fight between Ro-Un-To and Yo-Bar and knew of her flight. This was gossip indeed.
“Where is my mother’s field?” he asked his companion who pointed and led him to one closer to the cliff. The best fields were close to the cliff where they were protected and well watered while the poorer ones farther out were often eaten by wandering deer and antelope and other beasts. But a few good snares would ensure that the poorer fields had more meat as the snares protected the fields. It was a trade-off.
As-Tan stared at the woman who had lay her spear-how aside and stared back in curiosity. “I’ve come home mother,” he said quietly.
The light of recognition lit the woman’s eyes and she dropped her tool and cried, “As-Tan, my baby has come home!” and the two flew into each other’s arms.
Neither could tell how long they held each other but both knew it was too short. “Come, you are naught but skin and bones. This way and we’ll get something decent into your belly.”
“Mother, this is Ro-Un-To and she needs a safe place to stay.”
Looking at her son and the widow (who offered the deer carcass), Jad-Ho-To, named after her eye color, shrugged and led them both on. Well, he could do worse, his mother thought.
They took pegs from the storage notch and climbed to his old cave where they sat on the veranda and talked about old times while his sister-in-law cooked the deer. “Well, after leaving to hunt a ja or jato for Sad-ul-To, I met someone. A Stranger who defeated a number of Kor-ul-Ja so easily I was curious. He led me to a large canoe where tailless giants exited and took him from me, giving me a gift, then leaving. I couldn’t stand to have my questions unanswered so I jumped aboard and .. well I never left. We left Pal-ul-Don and since then I have traveled everywhere. You cannot imagine how big it is past the morass. It’s dangerous, they eat each other out there and war… well war kills entire cities and everyone in them, babies too. But despite the bad, there is good and I’ve realized that I can be friends with people who are not of my Kor. Here, mother, I’ve brought you a present.” It was a chain of gold, finer than anyone could dream and hanging was a single diamond, but cut to reflect the light. The Waz-Don knew that if you tossed diamonds into a bucket of find sand, and let it roll for a year in the stream, the diamonds would polish, but cutting them was impossible and undreamed of. “I also brought back father’s club but…” he didn’t finish.
“You are a good boy,” his mother offered. “So, will you marry and settle down now that all this questioning foolishness is done?”
“We’ll talk later about this mother. Now I see that we have visitors.” For a number of Waz-Don were climbing to their cave, Waz-Don that As-Tan recognized as more of Yo-Bar’s allies. Leaning to Ro-Un-To, he asked, “How many do I need to deal with?”
“Now? Four plus Yo-Bar. Be careful. He,” she pointed to the lead man, “is the worst of the lot. Many a maid has suffered underneath him.”
Entering and standing, no mean feat in the narrow veranda a hundred feet above, the mentioned bully, Ab-Gryf, so named for his cowlicks that looked like horns and his size, demanded, “Boy! Yo-Bar has ordered us to drag you before him to answer for the murder of Ad-Ut! But he didn’t say in what condition.” And the bully laughed.
“Murder!” Ro Un-To screamed. Ad-Ut attacked As-Tan and was killed in a fair fight.”
“Silence, you ungrateful slut! Yo-Bar would have honored you but you…” he grabbed the woman harshly which was a mistake for As-Tan struck and the snapping of the bully’s elbow made everyone cringe.
With a scream, Ab-Gryf pulled his knife with his free hand and swung, only to have his wrist grasped and then As-Tan turned and … Ab-Gryf screamed all the way to the forest floor below.
“Let no one cause violence in the cave of my mother!” he warned. One more leapt to the floor with ready club, only to fall to the ground trailing entrails as As-Tan pulled his long blade faster than could be seen. Of to the side, Ro counted “two left”.
The rest hesitated. Then one called, “May I enter?”
“Mother?” As-Tan asked.
“You may, so long as it is in peace.”
The man nodded and climbed up, keeping his hands well away from his weapons. “Yo-Bar commands your presence. But I think that he can wait until you are ready to visit.” It was clear that he disliked his chief but was afraid to say so.
“Then tell Yo-Bar that I will visit the common cave AFTER my dinner and AFTER I
have said my hello’s to my family.”
Nodding, the Waz-Don left, followed by the rest save one who entered and stood facing the smaller man.
“So, my baby brother has grown some balls after all!” and the two hugged.
They sat on the veranda, their legs over the sides and talked. They talked about their past, what he had missed and what he had done. Finally as it grew dark, his mother said, “I have a bed ready for Ro-Un-To and for you. You can sleep with the children, She in my room.”
“Thank you mother, though I really should get ready to see Yo-Bar.”
His brother added, “You always were too stupid to avoid trouble.” Then Ro-Un-To laughed. “You only saw this one fight. Let me tell you about how he killed Ad-Ut and defeated, alone, ten Ho-Don!” She had spoken this very loud and As-Tan could see many ears listening. “Come, I will speak in the common cave!” then whispering to As-Tan, “You may just make Gund after all.”
Whispering back, “I don’t want it. But after I defeat Yo-Bar, who can I appoint that the Tribe would accept?”
She stared at him again. Who wouldn’t want to be Gund? Women would want him, he would have the best food and largest cave. And this boy was refusing it? If she didn’t like him so much, she’d consider pushing him over the edge as a lunatic.
Everyone was there. The cave wasn’t large enough to hold the entire tribe but they tried with those next to the windows describing events to those outside on the pegs. And as they entered, As-Tan saw a woman, older than he remembered, approach. “As-Tan, I remember you. You promised me the skin of a ja or jato then vanished. I thought you were dead or I’d have waited for you.”
Suddenly nervous, he stammered, “I got diverted and it took some time to get back. Perhaps we could …” he lost his courage just then.
“I can cook you a meal if you would like,” Sad-ul-To stared at Ro-Un-To as a rival, then moved to his side but not touching him. If he lost, then all his allies would suffer. As-Tan didn’t notice that Ro had moved closer to him in support, but his mother did.
As-Tan worked his way through the crowd, greeting those he remembered, all much older (has it been that long?), some greeting back, others afraid that any friendliness would be seen as support. As-Tan didn’t begrudge them this. Yo-Bar was a bully back then and was still a bully. He just had a dozen years to consolidate his ability to hurt people. Then he faced the Gund who sat on his throne.
“So, the whelp has retuned to murder good loyal warriors who remained to protect the Tribe while YOU (he stabbed his fingers at As-Tan) ran away to leave your family defenseless!”
Looking around, As-Tan shrugged, “My brother did a better job protecting my family than I ever could.” People laughed at this wit. Ro smiled too as did his mother while his brother swelled with pride at the compliment.
“You admit that you are a coward and a murderer! Do you remember what we do to cowards and murderers?”
“Stake them at the edge of the kor for the ja and jato to eat. Unless I misremember. Personally, I would like to see those cats again. The Lions beyond the morass are such weaklings compared to ours.”
“Blasphemy!” Yo-Bar cried. “Take him!” and four approached. The first two died under that terrible blade of his then he faced the rest and said, “This is not your fight.” They nodded and backed away, As-Tan hearing Ro whisper, “Now he is alone and the people are for you!”
As-Tan walked around, dripping blood from his blade as she spoke, “True, I have been away. I have seen many things and there is one universal fact I have seen. A Bully is still a Bully, no matter what title he gives himself. And sometimes people become accustomed to hardship. A man becomes deaf to the sharp demands of his wife.” He smiled at his brother-in-law, well-known to have married a harpy. All looked and laughed. “We all become inured to the mosquitoes that harass us in the rainy season. We learn to ignore and sleep through the roaring of the ja and jato. AND,” he turned to Yo-Bar, “We also learn to pretend that a bully is a chief and to ignore his cruelties. We turn aside from the crimes he commits,” he approached and raised his hand to Ro-Un-To.
“And so, with his pack of jackals gone, I challenge Yo-Bar to combat!” His long knife pointed directly to the nose of that tyrant who smiled, then stood.
“You speak so easily when you carry that terrible long knife that deals death so easily. Are you as brave when you face a man, a Warrior, unarmed and naked?” Yo-Bar removed his weapons and lay them on the throne, then his belts, standing in only his loincloth made from the fur of the dozen jato’s he had killed.
Sighing, As-Tan sheathed his blade and handed it to his brother along with his father’s club, his knife and his belts, to face his Gund, naked in only his loincloth of deer-hide. Ro ran to him, “please back down. He’s twice your size. Please, you an leave, alive and .. I will go with you.”
As-tan pushed her away gently, never taking his eyes from Yo-Bar, readying his destiny. Well, he did get tired of listening to the war stories of his canoe-Gund and the cargo-master. It would be nice to have some of his own to tell. Assuming he lived.
The two made a sight. Yo-Bar was a tested warrior who had killed dozens and dozens of Waz-Don and Ho-Don. His loincloth was made from the pelts of many a jato that he had slain. And he was huge!
As-Tan had fought, but never to the death save upon returning to Pal-ul-Don. He barely came to he shoulders of Yo-Bar and was considered to be small and puny. Also he wore a loincloth of deerhide that his mother had given him from a hunt by his older brother. Had there been a gamesman present, and there were, the odds were heavily in favor of the Chief.
Yo-Bar wasn’t the largest man in Kor-ul-Lul but he was the meanest. And nearly the biggest. As-Tan knew that if they connected, Yo-Bar would snap his back like a twig. So the fight was composed mostly of Yo-Bar trying to close and As-Tan avoiding that terrifying grasp, while kicking, punching and tossing the larger man with every trick he had learned aboard the Amber Hope. But the tricks Thorpe had taught him were for meditation. It was the others that showed him how they could be used in combat and now he had to use them all.
Back and forth the two ranged, sometimes falling over people, sometimes in the open space. Then the tide turned. Exhausted, As-Tan managed to get the larger man into a wrist-lock and while forcing himself out, the chief’s shoulder popped. Yo-Bar screamed in pain, the first cry of the fight and then slowed. Then As-Tan fell to the ground and kicked at the knee of Yo-Bar. Struck from the side, the knee-cap popped free and another cry was forced from the man’s throat. Unfortunately, Yo-Bar’s tail managed to grasp As-Tan’s ankle before he could recover and no matter how he kicked and clutched, that snake-like appendage drew the smaller man to his doom.
Then his blade fell to within his reach. He risked a glance to see his mother holding his empty sheath as she cried, “I cannot loose you again!”
Both froze, Yo-Bar knowing that when As-Tan reached for that terrible long knife, he would die. As-Tan afraid, but not for the first time in his life. Then he acted. Seeing the opening he struck for Yo-Bar’s throat, but not with the untouched blade, with his free foot. There was a crunch as the chief’s windpipe crushed and now it was a matter of who would die first. Yo-Bar from lack of oxygen or As-Tan from being pulled within the reach of Yo-Bar’s remaining hand. Then Yo-Bar made that one fatal mistake. Falling under his damaged knee, he clutched the blade of As-Tan and raised it overhead. As-Tan kicked again at the face of his enemy, crushing the nose and causing the man to drop the blade. Then Yo-Bar fell, unconscious and within minutes was dead.
Now the cries came forward that Yo-Bar had cheated by taking a weapon during a Gund-Bar. Others insisted that this was no chief—fight but a simple feud so As-Tan had no rights. As-Tan tried to stand but the battering he had suffered made that difficult, though he forced himself to his feet.
“Be it Gund-Bar or not, the Kor-ul-Lul has no chief. I am untested so … I would call for As-Dan to be Gund!” Ro had told him that As-Dan was popular and wise and kind as well as a proven warrior.
Later, sitting in his mother’s veranda, Ro-Un-To rubbing the bruises in his body, Sad-ul-To arrived, “May I visit?” she called then climbed in. “You could have been Gund! Why give it up?”
“I am happy paddling my great-canoe. I never planned to remain, but to leave eventually. As-Dan will be a good Chief. What of you?”
Looking at Ro-Un-To, she said, “Your mother has already chosen a bride for you. I am done bearing children and so you won’t miss having sons. Besides, As-Dan may be young but he likes me. Perhaps a second wife to a chief won’t be so bad. Good journey, As-Tan the tiny jato. I almost wish that you had brought me that pelt.”
“Strange,” he said as she left. “I thought it would hurt having her reject me again but …”
“Perhaps,’ Ro said as she hugged him and then massaged another aching muscle, “you never really wanted her, just the idea of her.”
“Perhaps. I wonder what my mother plans for me. Perhaps I should leave sooner than expected.”
“Perhaps, but I think that you will be happy with her choice of a wife for you. Someone with no family and who won’t mind leaving the Kor-ul-Lul.”
ENDp.s. Thanks to Ross Spiller for the Pal-ul-Don name Generator @ http://geocities.com/RikJohnson_ERB/NameGen.html from which I took the names in this story.
|ERBzine 1645: Johnson:
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ERBzine 1522: Sociology of the Wieroo
ERBzine 1527: Maltheusian Decimation in Pal-Ul-Don
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ERBzine 1965: Rescue In Pellucidar
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|ERBzine 1578: Barsoom
ERBzine 1370: Mapping Barsoom I: Can It Be Done?
ERBzine 1562: Mapping Barsoom II: Compromises
ERBzine 1565: Mapping Barsoom III: The Past
ERBzine 1633: Valley Dor
ERBzine 1634: Swords On Mars
ERBzine 1711: A Panthan of Mars
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ERBzine 2165: Battle at U-Gor
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ERBzine 2167: Meeting of the Panthans: Pt. I
ERBzine 2168: Meeting of the Panthans: Pt. II
ERBzine 2169: North to Barsoom
ERBzine 2196: Jahar
ERBzine 2303: Return to Barsoom I: Letters
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