Authors: Alexander Key
Emmon held up his hands. “You may get killed alone. From my experience with the creature, two are far better than one. L'Mara's a good pilot, and she's quick. Let her help you. But don't either of you forget for a second what that beast can do! Now go!”
Boy Jaim did not bother to give directions to L'Mara, nor did she ask for anyâshe stubbornly persisted in being angry with him for not wanting her along. It went without saying that she knew he'd been thinking of her safety, but this made no difference. She refused even to look at him, and her small mouth remained tight and set. Her hand, though, seemed to be directed by an unfailing instinct, for it sent the sled exactly where he wanted it to go.
They were hardly away from Emmon's hill when it occurred to him to swing near Andru's place on the chance that some of the archers had left before they could be stopped. Instantly, as if his mind had been connected to L'Mara's, the sled changed course. Andru's house was still some distance away when he sighted a group of sleds that had just risen above it and were beginning to race for South Com. In a flash, almost before the thought had formed in his mind, they were speeding to overtake the group.
He recognized two of the sleds immediately. The first belonged to Hiras, of his own archery team. Flying just beyond young Hiras was the leader of the North Com team, a powerfully built man named Bors, ten years his senior.
As they overtook Hiras, Boy Jaim called out that there had been a change of plans, and that the great bear was not to be hunted until he'd had another chance to talk to it. Hurriedly he tried to explain to Hiras the reason for it, but the other refused to listen.
“Whose crazy idea is this?” Hiras cried. “You can't make our team stop now!”
“You've got to! Emmon will explainâ”
“I'm not stopping unless Bors does! Do you want his team to beat us?”
“Don't argue about itâwe're not playing games today!”
They flew on and caught up with Bors. The big man ignored his plea. “Don't tell me what to do,” Bors flung back grimly. “The Council said the bear must die, and I intend to kill it. And a few goats as well. It's time we taught all those fool animals a lesson!”
The remaining sleds belonged to Bor's team, and there was no use wasting time with them. Boy Jaim fought down his sudden fury at Bors and sat in tight-lipped silence while L'Mara slowed and let the others go ahead. The chance to kill seemed to have affected everyone alike. They were beyond all reason.
L'Mara forgot her anger and glanced at him miserably. “You see?” she whispered.
“Yes. Bloodthirsty idiots!”
“Oh, I think they just want to be heroes. By killing something big â¦”
“Maybe. If they don't get killed tryingâbut they probably won't be able to find it.” He peered quickly around, then said, “Get down behind that hill, then turn east and head for the river. Fly low and don't let them see where we're going.”
L'Mara dipped low, skirted the woods fringing East Com, and flew a winding course between the hills until they reached the river. It was the same stream he had crossed yesterday on his return from the Barrens, but here, after circling the upper part of the Five Communities, it became a broad shallow stretch of rapids that curved southward through a field of boulders. The hundreds of clear pools made it a favorite fishing area for bears.
They paused and hovered just under the canopy of a clump of great trees shading the bank. The spot gave them a good view of the river and the ground nearby, yet they were hidden from anyone flying overhead. Usually a dozen or more bears could be seen fishing along this part of the stream. Today there were none. Somewhere an unseen crow cawed derisively. In a land where birds had stopped singing, the sound was almost evil.
L'Mara shivered. She whispered, “Do you think the beast will come this way?”
He nodded. “He's got to eat, hasn't he?”
“I don't know. If he's a mutant, maybe â¦”
“He'd still be a bear, and bears eat fish. This is the best fishing area for miles. But even if he didn't touch fish, he'd have to come near here to drive the goats to either East Com or Central.”
“I thought you told Emmon that the goats wouldn't let themselves be driven any farther tonight.”
He shrugged. “They'll need grass and water, so they'll almost have to come this far before they stop. I'm just guessing. Somehow, though, I keep feeling the Golden One will come through here, goats or no goats. He must be going to try something different â¦”
“What would it be?”
He shrugged again. “I'm trying to figure it out. Just pray one of those archers doesn't sight him first.”
They became silent and for a long while sat listening and watching. Several times Boy Jaim sent his thoughts out, hesitantly searching, careful for fear the bear would sense him first. It would never do to forget the Golden One's intelligence, or the power that could sway all creatures near him.
Over the hills beyond the river the sky was graying and turning ugly with coming rain. Out of the corner of his eye Boy Jaim watched it apprehensively. The shadows around them were deepening. Dark would come quickly when the weather overtook them. The last thing he wanted was to be caught here in the blackness, with wind and rain whipping about them.
His uneasiness grew as the rain came nearer, and the lowering sun crept closer to the ridge on his right. The sun finally touched the ridge. At the same moment he became aware that a shadow had moved on the ground below. A great shadow.
A numbness seized him, and something in his mind seemed to say:
Closer â¦ Come lower, closer
Doubtful's sudden, frantic barking brought him out of his trance. Instantly, before his mind had quite formed the order to move the sled to safety, L'Mara's hand had carried it out. They shot away from the trees and rose well above them.
Below, through a break in the foliage, he saw the monstrous golden shape outlined as if in shimmering fire by the sun's last rays, and he heard L'Mara gasp as she caught her first sight of it.
He clutched the frame of the open cabin, speechless for a moment as he stared at the great flat head with the cold obsidian eyes. Suddenly he blurted, “Weâwe've never done anything to you! So why are you treating us this way? Why are you trying to hurt everyone? Tell meâWhy?”
The great head tilted slightly as the cold eyes studied him. For long seconds it seemed that the beast would disdainfully refuse to answer. It came as a shock when the bear did speak. It was more thought than sound, and in it was a deadliness that struck him with stunning force.
“You are called Boy Jaim?”
“Y-yes. How did you know?”
“I know. I am the last of my kind, and I am burdened with more than I want to know. So little of it is good. You belong to a hateful race, Boy Jaim. That is reason enough for seeing the end of you.”
Shaken, Boy Jaim could only stare down at the creature, his mouth working without sound. The sun was gone now, and the bear was beginning to fade into the shadows. Suddenly he found his voice and begged, “Don't goâplease! IâI've got to talk to you.”
“There's nothing more to say, Boy Jaim.”
“Butâbut there is! IâI've been looking for you. I came in friendshipâ”
“Your friendship means nothing to me.”
“It should. They wanted me to kill youâbut I told them I wouldn't. And I won't. I came here without weapons. But others are hunting you, and if they find you, you'll die.”
“Then why don't you go and leave us alone? You started all this. You turned everything against us, and you even killed goatsâ”
“Your archers are killing goats now, and for far less reason than I.”
“They are, Boy Jaim. Does that explain anything to you?”
“If they're killing goats,” he cried, “it's because you drove them to it! You've upset everything! Your hating us doesn't make senseâyou've got the wrong idea about usâ”
“You have the wrong idea about yourself, Boy Jaim. Are you so stupid that you would expect the serpent's brood to be other than serpents?”
“Huh?” He stared downward. “I don't understand. W-what are you talking about?”
There was no answer. A wind had sprung up, whipping the leaves below him. In the gathering gloom he could no longer make out the creature.
In sudden fear he cried, “Waitâplease! What's going to happen? Tell meâ
What's going to happen?
A cold blast of wind and rain drowned his voice and sent the sled flying over the treetops.
While L'Mara struggled to keep the sled under control, he managed to draw the fabric top over the cabin and make it secure against the rain. Then he sank into his seat, feeling sick and defeated.
Not once had he been able to penetrate the curtain that hid the Golden One's thoughts. All he'd learned was the terrible force behind that curtain.
What was going to happen?
he youngest herder unrolled a cape and drew it around him, for the night had clouded over and he could hear the rush of wind in the distance. His star was no longer visible, but the imagined planet was strong in his mind, and again it filled him with wondering.
He tried to tell himself that vicious creatures had no rights whatever, and that it was man's right to do as he chose about them, just because he was man. After all, wasn't that the way it had always been?
But the idea suddenly troubled him. There was something wrong about it. What if beasts everywhere really did have rights?
And was it possible that man wasn't all that he pictured himself to be?
t was black dark and raining furiously before they had been traveling ten minutes. Boy Jaim had expected an early dark, but nothing as swift and intense as the blackness that suddenly clamped down upon them. He turned on the searchlight for L'Mara, but it was practically useless. They could not see the threshing tree-tops below them nor the steep hills on all sides into which they could easily crash.
L'Mara would never have admitted her fright, and she was too stubborn to ask for help. But it made no differenceâhe was instantly aware of her fear, and of the fact that she was lost. A strong sense of direction told him where they were, but to make doubly sure he jerked back one of the window panels and peered out. Only an occasional vague blur of light could be seen. The blurs, though, were enough to satisfy him. Silently he began directing L'Mara's hand. A half hour later she managed to bring the sled down safely in Andru's courtyard.
For a while afterward L'Mara sat trembling, unable to speak. Boy Jaim put a comforting arm around her, saying, “You did all right, little squirrel. I'm glad I wasn't alone, or I'd be hung up in a tree somewhere.”
He couldn't see her face in the darkness, but he felt the sudden glow of happiness in her. It was followed by alarm as the rain increased and began beating thunderously about them. He had never heard such rain. Worriedly he searched for a tarpaulin under the seat, found it, and pulled it over them as they got out and ran for the porch.
When he opened the door he could smell the aroma of warm food from the kitchen. Hunger rose in him, sharp and biting, for he had not eaten since morning. In the next instant he forgot his hunger, for the house was full of people. Worried and frightened people.
Beyond the rather grim-looking members of the archery teams who had been caught here by the rain, he glimpsed Andru in the alcove, busy at the radiophone. Bors stood scowling beside him. He was suddenly relieved to see old Emmon huddled in a blanket by the fireplace, where Hiras and another youth were trying to coax fire from a smoldering heap of damp wood. He'd wanted badly to talk to the Elder again, but hadn't counted on finding him here.
With L'Mara and Doubtful trailing him, he started over to report to Emmon, but at that moment Andru glanced up and saw them and leaped to his feet, and Tira rushed into the room and threw her arms around L'Mara. “Thank heaven!” she said fervently. “We've been calling all overâanother sled has been lost, and no one knowsâ”
“We were not lost,” L'Mara hastened to say. “Boy Jaim knew his way through the dark.”
Andru, hastening to them, said sternly, “Young man, it's one thing to risk your own life, but you've no business risking L'Mara's. Why didn't you start back sooner?”
“It couldn't be helped, sir.” He tried to explain to his uncle that the dark was unnatural and had come too early, but Andru refused to listen.
“I've had enough of your stupidity and rebelliousness,” Andru snapped. “You ran off after the Council met, and you refusedâ”
“Hold it, Andru,” old Emmon interrupted, his voice thin and scratchy with strain. “Everybody's had it today, and we're all on edge. But right now it's of vital importance to find out about the bear. Did you see the beast again, Boy Jaim?”
The room was suddenly quiet, and now the thundering hammer of the rain outside seemed doubly loud. It was a frightening sound. Boy Jaim winced at the beat of it, and nodded. “We saw him, sir.”
him?” Emmon squeaked, hurrying up to him and clutching his arm. “You. really saw himâand you managed to speak to him?”
“Well, what did he say? Out with it!” The Elder shook him, almost in a frenzy. “What did the devilish creature have to say?”
Boy Jaim wet his lips. “Heâhe said we belong to a hateful race, and that was reason enough for seeing the end of us.”
“What else? Speak up, boy!”
Boy Jaim hesitated. “Erâwhat is a serpent, sir? Is it an extinct creature, or is it just a word we use when we don't like someone?”