PART X: Chapters 37-40
HAPPINESS THAT COULD NOT LAST
THIRTY-SEVEN -- SHARP FINGERS
“Soon enough,” I told the great bird, “you’ll wish that I had
put a bullet through your brain.”
“We’ll see,” replied the great creature. “If this is it,
so be it. I’m no longer a man, but I have it in me to die like
I nodded. They were on the second floor now.
I glanced at Azara.
“You have a chance,” I told her. “You hardly have a scent.
You’ve told me they have no taste for your flesh. Hide yourself.”
“And leave you to your fate?”
“If they catch you with the blood rage upon them, they’ll tear
you to pieces. Not even your inhuman flesh will sustain you.
Hide,” I said, “hide and you might live.”
Close the circle, I thought, remembering another girl a lifetime
“No,” she said. “I won’t leave you.”
I felt a pang. I was not afraid to die, I realized.
I’d never been afraid to die. But suddenly, I feared so much
the thought of losing her.
“Too late,” I said, “they’re here.”
A head appeared at the base of the ramp. I aimed and
fired, but it was gone. I heard the sound of scraping on rocks
and knew they were climbing the walls outside the building.
“They’ll come in through the windows,” I told her.
But I was wrong, with blinding swiftness, one of them tumbled down from
the upstairs ramp. Again, I loosed a shot, but it dodged behind
a pillar. No more wasted shots, I told myself.
Another slipped in through the window, shuffling boldly to distract
me. I didn’t need to look to know another was breaching the
window behind us.
“To me, Azara,” I whispered. “To my back.”
Two more came up from the lower ramp. Another clambered
through a window. They walked stiffly in challenge, rapping
great stone clubs against the floor. A couple glanced at the
wounded Malagawr, but paid him no attention.
“Talk to them,” Azara whispered to me. “Make animal noises.”
“That won’t work,” I said, “we’re strangers to them. Noises
will not deter a hungry Banth, nor speech dissuage a green man’s wrath.
But then I had no time for speech, as a bull rushed me with a
mighty roar. I answered his roar with a challenge bellow of my own
and sprang at him. I stepped back, ducking the swing of his
club and then rushed in. Surprising me, the creature danced
away from my blade, and instead cuffed me a glancing blow with its fist.
I stumbled but had my sword up and swinging, warding the others away.
One of the bulls stared hard at my face, his features writ clear
with astonishment. He lowered his club and cocked his head
to the side.
“Sharp fingers?” he asked.
Amazed, I froze.
“Who calls me by Sharp Fingers,” I rasped gutterally.
“It is Throws Stones,” it said. “Bent Toe is here
Abruptly, I roared and threw myself at the creature, leaping hard
upon it. It seized me from the air and swung me around, barking
furiously. Its great fanged jaws gaped before me, and I bared
my teeth as I dove for its neck.
The apes backed away, and Azara stared in astonishment as I grappled
with and writhed in the grip of a monster three times my size, a torrent
of inhuman barks, yelps and growls tearing their way out of my throat.
I caught a glimpse of her from the corner of my eye and turned to her.
“Azara!” I bellowed, “its all right.”
Seeing her expression, I remembered to switch to human language.
“It’s all right,” I told her. “It’s a miracle.
These are my brothers!”
Then I threw my head back and bellowed.
“I am Sharp Fingers!” I roared. “Daughter of
Moon’s Shadow, Sister to Bent Toe and Throws Stones. I am Sharp
Fingers, and I claim right of clan and kin!”
The other apes grunted in confusion. I found myself
restraining the urge to burst into insane laughter.
“Mine!” I said, pointing at Azara. An afterthought
took me. “Mine!” I said pointing to the Malagawr, who stared
at the proceedings with bright eyes and panting amazement.
“Well, I can see where this is going,” an ape behind me said to
his companion, “we’re obviously not going to be eating anyone tonight.”
The spell of the hunting fever broke, and many of the White Apes
wandered away, leaving only my two brothers and a few curious watchers.
Azara retreated back to crouch near the Malagawr.
“How is mother?” Bent Toe asked, “it has been a long time since
we have had news.”
“Dead,” I said sadly, “years ago.”
“That is a shame,” Throws Rocks said, “she was a good mother.”
“She lives on in you,” Bent Toe told me, “you are the image of
“Except for being tiny and not having enough arms, and imitating
the false creatures,” Throws Rocks snickered.
I growled and snapped at him, climbing up his knees to whap him
with my fists. He chuckled and rolled. For a moment,
it was like the old days, the old times, and I remembered being happy.
“Just the same,” Bent Toe said, “why are you imitating the false
creatures? Why are you here? What are these strange things
that you keep with you?”
“It is a long story,” I said.
“Tora,” Azara called.
“It’s all right Azara,” I replied not taking my eyes away from
my brothers, “give me a few moments.”
“That sounded almost like you were talking to her,” Throws Rocks
“I was,” I said, “the false creatures have their own speech.”
They scoffed at this, of course.
“They scream, at any rate,” Throws Rocks said, “Next
you’ll claim that they’re capable of intelligence.”
I shrugged happily. Bent Toe laughed with good humour.
“She smells strange,” Throws Rocks said, sniffing in Azara’s direction.
“They both do. I think they are of a sort with the creatures of inedible
flesh we have heard of. They cannot be eaten, their flesh refuses
to digest. You can only tear them to pieces and let the pieces quiver
in the sun until they begin to rot.”
“She is like those creatures,” I told them. “But different.
She is from the same source, but she is mine.”
My brothers exchanged knowing glances.
“There are more and more of those creatures,” Bent Toe said judiciously,
avoiding the topic of me and Azara. “We hear of them again and again,
they are spreading. And among them are strange beings who look
like True People, but they have no speech and their smell and movement
is wrong. The Matriarchs are becoming very concerned.”
I nodded gravely.
“The Matriarchs are wise to be concerned,” I said, “I have encountered
these beings myself.”
“That must be a story,” Bent Toe said.
“Enough about me,” I said. “It has been years since I have
seen you. How is it that you come here?”
And of course, because males love to brag and boast, that was
all they needed. Soon I was rocking on my haunches as they
told me of their many adventures since leaving our mother.
Battles against Banths, careful ambushes of Green Men and Thoats, empty
cities they had passed through, careful travels between cities under the
cover of night, all the time growing into bullhood, becoming such fine
strapping specimens that we had barely recognized each other.
At length, we grew tired, and they invited me back to their nest,
to rest and renew myself.
I turned then, remembering Azara, slipping back into my human
self and froze as I saw her face.
“It is not animal noises,” she whispered. “You talk to them.
And they talk to you.”
I knew I had some explaining to do.
THIRTY EIGHT -- TORA’S MOTHER
“You lied to me.”
“Yes,” I replied. My heart was pounding softly.
“No. I mean, no, I did not lie to you. I only spoke a
part of the truth. And yes, I speak to them.”
“I have never heard of any Red Man speaking to them. I have
never heard that they could speak at all. They are just animals
who kill all they see. But they do not attack you,” she said.
“Us,” I corrected, “they do not attack us.”
“You,” she repeated. “They don’t attack you.
They talk to you, and you talk to them. Tell me why?”
I sat silent, thinking over different lies. Finally,
I decided to tell the truth.
“I am one of them,” I said. “My mother was a Great White
Azara’s eyes widened.
“You are as human as I!” She announced. “I do not
“I was born in a Jeddak’s harem,” I began, “I suppose I was born
human, and in the normal way, hatched from an egg.”
“So you are a Princess?” she asked. “Tul Axtar’s spawn?”
“No,” I said, “my father was no Prince, no Jed, no Jeddak, he
was a wanderer, a swordsman and a killer. He had no noble name
in his own land.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Some of the Panthans talked about you,” she explained.
“They said you were half Thern, which explained your light skin and odd
“My father came out of the Valley Dor,” I said carefully.
“But I never met him. I can say little about him. Little good
at any rate. He was gone, and I was born into the Jeddak’s
harem, a child without history or pedigree, little more than a slave or
“I spent my early years there,” I continued. “I was a precocious
child, and pretty. This was perhaps, not a good thing.
It was not wise to be a pretty child in the harem of this Jeddak, for in
time, I came to his notice. And that was not a good thing either.”
Azara shuddered. “I heard stories of the lusts of
Tul Axtar,” she volunteered.
“A nurse took pity upon me, and chose to flee with me. I
supposed that she hoped to reach some safe city beyond the Jeddak’s reach.
But her stolen flyer was not well charged. As she flew out over the
desert, she lost power and speed. As night fell, she chose to seek
shelter in a dead city in the empty lands.”
“It was not a wise choice. The dead city was not wholly
dead, but rather, it was infested with great white apes. They
found her and tore her to pieces before my eyes. She had hidden
me as they broke in, but still, I saw what they did to her.
I gasped, and this sound alerted them to my presence. Quickly they
tore me from my hiding place.”
“How did you survive?” she gasped.
“I would have suffered my nurse’s fate. Even as the beasts
pulled my from shelter, others were devouring the body of my nurse, tearing
out ragged chunks of flesh and gulping it down. I screamed, the most
terrified cry of my young life. But before the apes who had me could
act, a great female, larger than all the others seized me from them.
She roared, frightening them away from us, and clasped me to her breast.
Holding me tightly, she rushed off into the night, leaving them to bicker
over the remains of my benefactor. She looked down at me and cooed
gently, and pressed my face to her nipple.”
“Among the White apes, each tribe is ruled by a dominant female.
The ruling female of this tribe, my tribe, had lost her baby.
Her grief made her mad, she refused to give up the dead body, carrying
it wherever she went, as if love alone could drive death away.
Only duty, the need to lead her tribe, had kept her going. But when
she saw me, I was much lighter then, a white skinned child, the same size
as her baby, screaming in terror, some alchemy took place in her heart.
She abandoned the dead infant and took me for her own.”
“All this I came to understand later, of course. My
brothers told me parts of it, and the rest I figured out. I
was terrified in those first days, living in a constant state of fear.
But I was a child, and fear cannot endure forever. I slept and woke,
the ape cared for me and nursed me. The other apes might yet
have killed me, but she kept them away. She became my mother.”
“The Great Apes are unlike the Green Men,” I told her, “in that
they love their children.
Each egg is treasured, the mother attentive upon their hatching, the
infant grows under the care and love of their tribe. Slowly,
the other apes of the tribe came to accept me, as I came to accept them.
They taught me their ways, and day by day, my humanity slipped away and
I became on of them.”
“But this cannot be,” she protested. “They are huge
monsters, surely they could not mistake you for one of them.”
“They took me for one of their children. I grew up
among them, even as my brothers and sisters grew. But Great
White Apes reckon time differently, and they did not mark that I did not
grow apace with my siblings. I remained small, and so I remained
a child among them, a precocious child, but a child to be protected and
never harmed. Time gave them acceptance.”
“I found a knife, and used it as my weapon. For this, they
gave me a name, Sharp Fingers. Though my body was childlike to them,
yet they learned to respect my strength and quickness with the knife, and
the cleverness of my wits. They were my people, and I was happy.”
“They are intelligent creatures?” she said.
“Intelligence of a sort,” I said, “their thinking is different
from Red Men. Their lives are fierce and ruled by instinct.
But intelligent yes.”
“And they have their own language?” she asked. “Who
could have imagined! Say something in their language.”
I smiled then as I made her a very indecent proposition in barks
“What happened then?” she asked. “Surely you must have come
to civilization by some means. Whatever you are, you are not a White
“Aye,” I said. “After a long time, after years had
passed, Tul Axtar, heard rumours of a white girl living among the great
apes as one of them. He sent his soldiers out to take her.”
“They invaded the city and killed every ape they could find.
They used trained Calots to hunt us down. My mother died defending
me, and I was torn screaming from her body. I tore the throat
out of the man who had killed her, and howled as they bound and gagged
me. This was my first taste of civilization.”
“I was a prize for the Jeddak now, no longer a fetching girl child,
but a savage creature with the looks of a woman and the heart of a beast.
But much as he may have wanted me, I was far too savage to be returned
to his harem. Instead, I was given to Panthan’s and Animal Trainers
I smiled wryly at the memory.
“I did not lie to you Azara,” I told her. “I was raised
by Animal Trainers. I was the animal they trained.”
She gasped and put her hand on my arm in sudden sympathy.
“Oh Tora,” she whispered.
“The trained me not to bite. They trained me to cringe
and kneel, to sit up and roll over,” I laughed. “They taught
me to beg, and after I was tamed, they taught me speech and manners.
There were cruel ones, and I killed them when I could. There were
some who were not cruel and I learned to like them, or at least, not to
hate them so fiercely.”
“Returned to the harem, I found the delights of slave girls, but
not the disposition to be one myself. Ungovernable, I was given
to soldiers and trained as one of them. I became a killer for
my Jeddak, as loyal as a Calot, as fierce as a Banth.”
“And how did you become a Panthan?” she asked.
“My Jeddak, my city, were destroyed by the butcher of Helium.
A lesser tyrant was destroyed by a greater tyrant, as is the way of Red
Men,” I shrugged.
“John Carter is no tyrant,” she protested. I laughed
a little at that. His web of illusion had caught her up too.
“It is all tyranny, with only the faces changing, but always there
is a throne to sit upon the backs of all. John Carter
is no better than any of the others, he is merely worse because he is so
much greater. There is no goodness in greatness, Azara, merely
different degrees of monstrousness. Trust me, I should know.”
“There were good people in Jahar,” I told her. “Innocent
people. John Carter’s fleet killed them as easily as the bad.
There were innocent slaves in the Valley Dor, and good people in Okar.
He raped an entire nation, handing a city to the Green Men in the sack
of Zodanga, he killed a faith, and dragged hiding nations from their refuge.”
“But those are the fortunes of war,” she protested, “any war has
“And how does that make any war a moral thing?” I asked,
“Or any warrior a moral creature? We are all monsters in this
enterprise, and the only thing that distinguishes the innocent and the
guilty spitted on our swords is chance. ”
I saw her mouth the word Thern, but she thought better of it,
and swallowed it unvoiced.
“Tul Axtar,” I said, “had me swear an oath to destroy John Carter.
So I suppose his war continues beyond his death. Let us forget
the Butcher of Helium, I have no wish to speak of that, I would forget
Helium entirely, if I could.”
I paused, collecting my thoughts.
“Having no master, and no skill but killing, what else was there
for me. I had no wish to serve this new tyrant, who had destroyed
all that had been left to me. I could not return to the Great Apes,
for I was no longer one of them. I had become what they called a
‘false creature’ and the family that would have seen to my true soul as
one of them were scattered or dead. Freedom had been thrust
upon me, unwanted, and I wandered this world, with nothing but my sword
and my arm to wield it.”
Her eyes were brimming with compassion as she gazed upon me.
I looked away.
“That is such a tragic story,” she whispered, “you poor creature,
it explains so much. Your unnatural senses, your remarkable strength....”
“My senses are not unnatural,” I said, “nor my strength, they
are the same as any other human, except that most people do not exercise
their talents and so are blind.”
“Your strange manner, your surly disposition and ferocious nature,”
“I am not surly!” I said. “I am not surly at
all. Sometimes I am impatient with those who are foolish. But
I’m not surly.”
“I have never found you surly towards me,” she said diplomatically
after a careful pause.
“Well, exactly,” I said.
“What a strange life you have lead, Tora,” she whispered.
“What a strange and terrible life you have endured. My poor,
poor, darling Tora.”
“Better than I have suffered worse,” I said, “I have no cause
to complain. My mother was a Great White Ape, and she was a
good mother. I love her still.”
THIRTY-NINE -- A HAPPINESS THAT COULD NOT LAST
The Matriarch of this tribe was named Reflections in a Shallow
Pool. She was young as Matriarchs are counted.
As Bent Toe and Throws Stones stood grinning behind me, she looked Azara
and I over.
“They both look like false creatures to me,” she said, “I don’t
know why we aren’t eating them. Which of you is Sharp Fingers?”
“I am, noble mother,” I replied in the language of the great apes.
She grunted thoughtfully.
“I’m not your mother,” she said, “though I’ve heard other mothers
in their late ages have produced stunted offspring. Bent
Toe tells me that despite your deformities, you are strong and clever and
“I have high regard for my brothers,” I said.
“As do we all,” she replied. “Strong and clever and
fierce? Everyone has one of these qualities at least, and many
have two. But to possess all three is rare.”
“What’s happening,” Azara whispered.
“It is a good sign,” I whispered in the red man language, “she’s
talking to me, which means she’s decided not to kill us immediately.”
Reflections followed my quick exchange with Azara.
“What about that creature,” she asked. “Can she speak, or
is she truly a false creature. Can we eat her?”
“She is mine,” I said firmly in the ape speech.
“Are you going to eat her?” Reflections asked.
“Every chance I get,” I replied with a straight face.
That confused her.
“She is one of those inedible creatures,” Bent Toe added quickly.
“Whose flesh cannot be digested.”
Reflections leaned forward and sniffed Azara deeply.
Her nostrils twitched.
“I see,” she said. “I do not approve of pets.
If you join our tribe, you’ll have to look after it yourself, or get rid
She glanced towards Bent Toe.
“There was a third? Some sort of flying thing?”
“Also of inedible flesh,” Bent Toe replied. “It was wounded.”
“Does it live?”
“If we can’t eat it, what good is it? Why hasn’t someone
twisted its head off?”
“It is a great curiousity,” Bent Toe said. “We’ve
never seen a flying thing so large, nor so close. The creatures
who resemble true people ride them in the sky.”
“Indeed?” Her tone conveyed utter indifference.
“And it belongs to Sharp Fingers,” he said quickly.
“Another pet?” she glanced at me. “I thought you were
fierce. Perhaps your brothers were mistaken. It
is lucky for you that I am soft hearted myself.”
I made a mental note that the instant the Malagor found itself
capable of even partial flight, it should get out of here.
We’d have to watch over it carefully until then. I hoped that the
creature healed as quickly as Azara seemed to. Azara I reckoned
to be safe enough, so long as she was with me every moment.
“You are welcome to join our tribe,” Reflections said, making
her decision. “But you are forbidden to take a mate until the
seasons change. Stay out of trouble, do not provoke fights
and do your share. If someone mistakes you for a false creature
and eats you, its nothing to me.”
Bent Toe clapped me on the back.
“What did we tell you?” He said. “Isn’t she special?
Just like mother.”
“We’re in,” I whispered to Azara in the red man language.
“Terrific,” she whispered back in a flat tone which suggested
that she didn’t really mean it.
And thus we joined the tribe of Reflections in a Shallow Pool,
for a series of precarious days. Slipping back into the persona
and nature of a White Ape came easily I found. It was as if I never
left. I quickly adopted the shambling gait and human sounds
dropped from my throat to be replaced with gutteral barks and grunts.
As my ape nature asserted itself, the other members of the tribe
found it increasingly easy to accept me. My childlike
size worked in my favour once again, and so I was mostly excluded from
the challenges and competition, in favour of a kind of instinctive protectiveness.
Even Reflections warmed to me.
“Why are you called Sharp Fingers?” she asked once.
I showed her my sword. She grunted. A
day or two, she found an old battered Green Man’s shortsword, covered with
rust, nicked and dented with hardly an edge.
“I have sharp fingers now too,” she told me. To her
great pleasure, I cleaned and polished it for her, hammered out the worst
of the nicks, and showed her how to sharpen it and maintain an edge.
Soon, lead by my brothers, half the white apes of the tribe were dragging
around old green man and red man hardware.
I even tried to showed them some rudiments of fencing. I
discovered that their arm strength and motion was not well suited for fencing.
Instead, we experimented with free swinging club and sword combinations.
Acceptance brought curiousity. I told them about the
ways of red men and green men, discoursing about tools and weapons.
We talked about the people who had made this place we lived in, and how
the world had changed. This tribe was different than my old
one, they were more curious, more open to ideas.
“It’s why we decided to settle here,” my brother Bent Toe told
me once, while we were out digging a hive of moss insects to eat.
The days settled into an easy routine of hunting and gathering during the
days, and chatting and storytelling in our great communal nests at night.
The bird recovered quickly, but one day, before I judged it fully
healed, it vanished. I could not believe it had been able to fly
away. But no one in the tribe would confess to killing it, so I never
learned what happened to it. We’d lost our route of escape.
Somehow though, I found it hard to care overmuch. Civilization
drifted away for me, becoming an illusory thing, only vaguely remembered.
Were it not for Azara, I might have happily vanished into my ape
nature and remained with my new tribe. But she reeked of humanity,
in her look and movements and posture. I had to constantly
watch and ward away my fellow apes from her. More than that,
being near her constantly pulled me back to humanity. Every
touch of her, every word she spoke, and every time I spoke to her dragged
me back to human thought.
If I was happy here, Azara was not. She learned comfort
with my brothers, but the other apes frightened her. She could
not learn our skills, and shrank from foods we found delicious.
Slowly, her isolation became misery. And her misery seeped
into my heart.
“You are not happy,” Throws Rocks said to me one night, as we
cuddled in the communal nest.
“Your heart is torn,” he said, “you cannot fully belong to the
He glanced down at Azara, cuddled sleeping in his arms, “I would
kill this one for you, and release you from the conflict that divides you.
But you would not forgive me, I know, and your grief would divide you even
Azara turned in his arms, as if she were aware he was speaking
of her. She mumbled a short sentence in the language of the
White Apes. The line I’d spoken to her that time she’d asked me to
say something in the ape language. The murmur of conversations
around us ceased. Bent Toe looked over, mouth gaping. Throws
Stones was dumbfounded.
“I don’t even have one of those,” he said finally.
He looked over at me.
“You must go soon,” he said. “It was good to have
you back with us. But you belong with her, and she does not belong
“It is awful out there,” I whispered in the ape tongue, “there
is confusion everywhere, my enemies haunt me and I am divided every which
way. I know no peace.”
He nodded wisely.
“But it is where you must be. Kill and eat your enemies,
and your confusion will resolve itself. She will lead you to
I hugged my brother then, giving myself to arms which could tear
the limbs from a Thoat, nuzzling his heavy jaw and jutting brow.
I felt a vast sadness, he was right, I would have to return to the world
FORTY - - MOVING ON
Reflections accepted my decision to leave the tribe with good
“Well, I’ve gotten used to you,” she told me, “but to tell you
the truth, your pet has been creeping us all out. She smells
“She hardly has an odor,” I said.
“Your nose is half blind,” she humphed, “she smells of the new
creatures. Your ‘hormads’ are becoming more and more common.
Before you came, we only occasionally saw a flying thing, now we see them
in the sky frequently. We think they are searching for something.
You, perhaps? Or your pet?
“This may be so,” I replied.
“But even without you, we were seeing them more. They
appear in more and more places, and in greater numbers.
The Matriarchs of all the tribes grow increasingly concerned. The tribe
of Ripples in the Sand destroyed a band of them just the other day.”
That was odd. I thought hard in terms of what I’d
learned of the locations of tribes. My life among the red men
had left me with a better command of geography than most of my people.
If Ripples in the Sand’s tribe was where I thought it was, it should be
far distant from any operations of Pew Mogel. Was this
a new scheme? Was he expanding? Was his influence spreading?
I felt a tension in the muscles of my belly as I felt the world dragging
But what could I do about Pew Mogel, I wondered.
I was just one sword. This was a problem that called for the
great powers, even Helium. I rubbed my forehead. Were I still
leading the black guard of Jahar, I could have swept the deserts clean.
What could I do?
“What’s wrong?” Reflections asked.
Perhaps we should just run off together somewhere.
Find a city to hide in. Let Helium handle it. And just
hope that they’d get around to him before he hunted me and Azara down?
I hardly liked that thought.
But no, they’d failed to deal with Pew Mogel properly once before,
and I had little confidence that they’d get him this time, if they could
even convince themselves that he was still around. Razing cities
was what they did, this required something more.
I was going to have to do this myself. How do you
kill an unkillable madman surrounded by secret armies of flesh shaped monsters?
“I think I must do something about the new creatures,” I said,
“I must stop their leader, before he causes trouble.”
“That’s very sensible,” she said, “and I approve.”
“I don’t know how I shall achieve that.”
“You are clever and strong and fierce,” she said, “that’s a rare
combination. I’m sure you’ll be up to it. Maybe your
pet can help?”
Yes, I thought, a Princess of Aztor might help indeed.
In the best of cases, perhaps she could take the throne and we could raise
armies together. Or failing that, she’d be far better at making
our case to noble houses.
Come to that, I’d served in armies and fleets and commanded troops
half the world over. Between us, I was sure that Azara and I could
raise up armies somehow. I would postpone my lifelong war with Helium.
I felt an irrational bouyancy somehow, a confidence that the fates would
be with us. About damned time, come to think of it, they’d
had the sport of me my whole life. I figured that they owed me.
If nothing else, I supposed they might enjoy the change of pace.
The problem, of course, was that having decided to leave, I had
no idea how to get out of here. Our Malagor was either dead
or long gone, and it was a long way on foot to the nearest city of red
Later that evening, I discussed the problem with my brothers and
with Azara. It was a slow conversation, as I had to translate each
of their words for the other. Both seemed vastly intrigued
by the notion that they were conversing through me. I suppose neither
my brothers nor Azara believed deep down that the other was truly intelligent,
but the very thought that they might be fascinated them.
“We could come with you,” Bent Toe said, “it would help in negotiating
your passage with the other tribes. It’s been too long since
we travelled. My feet ache to see the world.”
“Why don’t you just ride,” Throws Stones suggested.
“Excellent suggestion,” I said sarcastically in two languages.
“Do any of you have a Thoat tucked away.”
It was a bit of a joke, because while Thoats were tolerant of
Red and Green Men, they had never abided the presence of White Apes, or
vice versa. Perhaps the inability of my people to tame Thoats had
resulted in their being left behind by the other races. I voiced
this thought to Bent Toe, who was the more philosophical of my brothers.
“On the other hand,” he said, “the artificial creatures that mimic
true people seem to have no difficulty riding those great flying things.
Isn’t that odd.”
“Artificial creatures both,” Throwing Stones pointed out.
“But do they ever ride Thoats, these beings?”
“Not that I know of,” I said.
Bent Toe leaned back and rubbed his chin, as he always did when
“None of this gets us any further,” I said, “because we have no
flying creatures, and we have no Thoats.”
“There is a camp of false creatures and their Thoats not too far
away,” Bent Toe said, “in the territory of the tribe of Wind Makes a Lonely
I hadn’t heard this before. Carefully, I interrogated my
brothers about this. But the more I learned, the less sense it made.
There was a large camp of red men, hundreds of men by the sound of it,
and exercising remarkable discipline. They had Thoats, but
neither flyers nor malagors. They seemed in contact with other
bands of men, for while their numbers remained constant, there were riders
coming and going constantly. They seemed, despite their numbers,
at pains to conceal themselves.
I could make neither heads nor tails of it. A group
that size suggested some sort of enterprise, yet I could find no sign of
industry in my brothers descriptions. There were far too many
to be bandits, and there seemed no purpose to justify a military presence.
Who were these Red Men then? And what were they doing?
Was this some further scheme of Pew Mogel? I could not tell.
I resolved to investigate this matter.
“Thanks for discussing it with us,” Throws Stones said.
“She was always bossy like this when we were young,” Bent Toe
confided to Azara, though of course, they could not understand each other.
Azara nodded and replied, “nothing ever changes.”
What? Furrowing my brow, I asked, “can you understand
“No,” she replied smartly, “I don’t need to. His tone
of voice tells me all I need to know.”
And then they grinned at each other.
Family, I thought disgustedly.
There was nothing more to discuss and little to carry, thus no
preparations to hold us. We filled our bellies with delicious
grubs, which for some peculiar reason, Azara declined, and then headed
across the scrub desert, traveling between ruins and rocks until we made
it to Wind Makes a Sad Sound’s territories.
Wind was a fairly conservative matriarch, who imposed little discipline
upon her people. After being convinced that neither Azara nor I were
fit to eat, and neither Bent Toe or Throws Rocks intended to stay too long,
she consented to let us wander her territory without joining her tribe.
She was generous in this, as the continuing presence of the red men, and
the inability of her tribe to hunt them effectively had put her in a sour
While my brothers flirted with the shes of Wind’s tribe, I decided
to scout these strange red men, taking Azara with me.
“Your brothers seem popular,” Azara noted.
“They were always handsome devils,” I replied distractedly, examining
the ground. There were Thoat tracks here. “The
true people used to say that Mother divided her attributes equally among
us. Bent Toes received her looks, Throws Stones received her wit...”
“I got the stubbornness. That was why I refused to grow
“I like that,” she said.
“Hmm?” I had a rough idea from Wind as to their perimeter,
but I would need to scout it more carefully. Was it an organized
camp, with mess, stables, latrine and kit? Or was it merely a cluster?
I couldn’t tell from a simple Thoat trail, and it would tell me a great
deal about who they were and what they might be up to.
But the fates had one last joke to play upon us. For
as I was examining the direction of the tracks and planning my approach,
a dozen Thoats with riders turned a corner and appeared in front of us,
not two dozen yards distance.
For a second, we stared at each other, frozen with shock.
Then the lead rider pointed at us.
“Kill them!” he said, and they all broke into a gallop.
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