I saw her struggling with her bonds, as I struggled with mine; but in the clumsily wound coils of the tough lianas we were helpless. Little flames below her feet were licking the larger faggots. Duare had managed to wriggle toward the head of the grille, so that the flames were not as yet directly beneath her, and she was still struggling with her bonds.
I had been paying little attention to the nobargans, but suddenly I realized that they had ceased their crude dancing and singing. Glancing toward them, I saw that they were standing looking off into the forest, the torches dangling in their hands, nor had they as yet lighted the faggots beneath me. Now I took note again of the thunderous roars of the beasts; they sounded very close. I saw dim figures slinking amidst the shadows of the trees and blazing eyes gleaming in the half light.
Presently a huge beast slunk out of the forest into the clearing, and I recognized it. I saw the stiff hair, like bristles. It was standing erect along the shoulders, neck, and spine. I saw the white, longitudinal stripes marking the reddish coat, and the bluish belly and the great, snalring jaws. The creature was a tharban.
The nobargans were also watching it. Presently they commenced to cry out against it and cast rocks at it from their slings in an obvious effort to frighten it away; but it did not retreat. Instead it came closer slowly, roaring horribly; and behind it came others—two, three, a dozen, two score—slinking from the concealing shadows of the forest. All were roaring, and the hideous volume of those mighty voices shook the ground.
And now the nobargans fell back. The great beasts invading the village increased their speed, and suddenly the hairy savages turned and fled. After them, roaring and growling, sprang the tharbans.
The speed of the clumsy appearing nobargans was a revelation to me, and as they disappeared into the dark mazes of the forest it was not apparent that the tharbans were gaining on them, though as the latter raced past me they seemed to be moving as swiftly as a charging lion.
The beasts paid no attention to Duare or me. I doubt that they even saw us, their whole attention being fixed upon the fleeing savages.
Now I turned again toward Duare, just in time to see her roll herself from the grille to the ground as the licking flames were about to reach her feet. For the moment she was safe, and I breathed a little prayer of thanksgiving. But what of the future? Must we lie here until inevitably the nobargans returned?
Duare looked up at me. She was struggling steadily with her bonds. “I believe that I can free myself,” she said. “I am not bound so tightly as you. If only I can do it before they return!”
I watched her in silence. After what seemed an eternity, she got one arm free. After that the rest was comparatively easy, and when she was free she quickly released me.
Like two phantoms in the eerie light of the Amtorian night we faded into the shadows of the mysterious forest; and you may rest assured that we took a direction opposite to that in which the lions and the cannibals had disappeared.
The momentary elation that escape from the clutches of the nobargans had given me passed quickly as I considered our situation. We two were alone, unarmed, and lost in a strange country that brief experience had already demonstrated to be filled with dangers and that imagination peopled with a hundred menances even more frightful than those we had encountered.
Raised in the carefully guarded seclusion of the house of a jong, Duare was quite as ignorant of the flora, the fauna, and the conditions exisiting in the land of Noobol as was I, an inhabitant of a far distant planet; and notwithstanding our culture, our natural intelligence, and my considerable physical strength we were still little better than babes in the woods.
We had been walking in slience, listening and looking for some new menance to our recently won respite from death, when Duare spoke in low tones, as one might who is addressing a question to himself.
“And should I ever return to the house of my father, the jong, who will believe the story that I shall tell? Who will believe that I, Duare, the daughter of the jong, passed through such incredible dangers alive?” She turned and looked up into my face. “Do you believe, Carson Napier, that I ever shall return to Vepaja?”
“I do not know, Duare,” I replied honestly. “To be perfectly frank, it seems rather hopeless inasmuch as neither of us knows where we are or where Vepaja is, or what further dangers may confront us in this land.
“And what if we never find Vepaja, Duare? What if you and I go on for many years together? Must it always be as strangers, as enemies? Is there no hope for me, Duare? No hope to win your love?”
“Have I not told you that you must not speak to me of love? It is wicked for a girl under twenty to speak or ever think of love; and for me, the daughter of a jong, it is even worse. If you persist, I will not talk to you at all.”
After this we walked on in silence for a long time. We were both very tired and hungry and thirsty, but for the time we subordinated all other desires to that of escaping the clutches of the nobargans; but at last I realized that Duare had about reached the limit of her endurance and I called a halt.
Selecting a tree, and lower branches of which were within easy reach, we climbed upward until I chanced upon a rude nest-like platform that might have been built by some arboreal creature or formed by debris falling from above during a storm. It lay upon two almost horizontal branches that extended from the bole of the tree in about the same plane, and was amply large enough to accommodate both of us.
As we stretched our tired bodies upon this mean yet none the less welcome couch, the growl of some great beast arose from the ground beneath to assure us that we had found sanctuary none too soon. What other dangers menaced us from arboreal creatures I did not know, but any thought of keeping wakeful vigil was dissipated by the utter exhaustion of both my mind and my body. I doubt that I could have kept awake much longer even in the act of walking.
As I was dozing off, I heard Duare’s voice. It sounded sleepy and far away. “Tell me, Carson Napier,” she said, “what is this thing called love?”
When I awoke, another day had come. I looked up at the mass of foliage lying motionless in the air above me, and for a moment I had difficulty in recalling my surroundings and the events that had led me to this place. I turned my head and saw Duare lying beside me, and then it all came back to me. I smiled a little as I recalled that last, sleepy question she had asked me—a question that I realized now I had not answered. I must have fallen asleep as it was propounded.
For two days we moved steadily in what we thought was the direction of the ocean. We subsisted on eggs and fruit, which we found in abundance. There was a great deal of life in the forest—strange birds such as no earthly eye had ever gazed upon before, monkey-like creatures that raced, chattering, through the trees, reptiles, herbivorous and carnivorous animals. Many of the latter were large and predacious. The worst of these that we encountered were the tharbans; but their habit of senseless roaring and growling preserved us from them by warning us of their proximity.
Another creature that caused us some bad moments was the basto. I had met this animal once before, that time that Kamlot and I had gone out upon our disastrous tarel gathering excurison; and so I was prepared to take to the trees with Duare the instant that we sighted one of these beasts.
Above the eyes, the head of a basto resembles the American bison, having the same short powerful horns and the thick hair upon its poll and forehead. Its eyes are small and red rimmed. The hide is blue and about the same texture as that of an elephant, with sparsely growing hairs except upon the head and tip of the tail, where the hair is thicker and longer. The beast stands very high at the shoulders but slopes downward rapidly to the rump. It has a tremendous depth of shoulder and exceedingly short, stocky fore legs, which are supplied with three toed feet. The fore legs carry fully three-quarters of the beast’s weight. The muzzle is similar to that of a boar, except that it is broader, with heavy, curved tusks.
The basto is an ill tempered, omnivorous brute, always looking for trouble. Between him and the tharban, Duare and I became most proficient tree climbers during the first few days that we wandered through the forest.
My two greatest handicaps in this encounter with the primitive were lack of weapons and my inability to make fire. The latter was probably the worse, since, without a knife, fire was indispensable to the fashioning of weapons.
At every rest I experimented. Duare became inoculated with the virus of the quest, and fire became our sole aim. We talked about little else and were forever experimenting with different combinations of wood and with bits of rock that we picked up along the way.
All my life I had read of primitive men making fire in various ways, and I tried them all. I blistered my hands twirling firesticks. I knocked bits of lesh off my fingers striking pieces of stone together. At last I was on the point of giving up in disgust.
“I don’t believe any one ever made fire,” I grumbled.
“You saw the nobargan make it,” Duare reminded me.
“There’s a catch in it somewhere,” I insisted.
“Are you going to give up?” she asked.
“Of course not. It’s like golf. Most people never learn to play it, but very few give up trying. I shall probably continue my search for fire until death overtakes me or Prometheus descends to Venus as he did to Earth.”
“What is golf and who is Prometheus? demanded Duare.
“Golf is a mental disorder and Prometheus a fable.”
“I don’t see how they can help you.”
I was squatting over a little pile of tinder laboriously knocking together various bits of rock that we had collected during the day.
“Neither do I,” I replied, viciously striking two new specimens together. A string of sparks shot from the two rocks and ignited the tinder! “I apologize to Prometheus,” I cried; “he is no fable.”
With the aid of this fire I was able to fashion a bow and to make and sharpen a spear and arrows. I strung the bow with a fiber from a tough liana, and I feathered my arrows gayly with the plumage of birds.
Duare was much interested in this work. She gathered feathers, split them, and bound them to the arrows with the long blades of a very tough grass that grew in profusion throughout the forest. Our work was facilitated by the use of bits of stone we had found so shaped that they made excellent scrapers.
I cannot express the change that came over me with the possession of weapons. I had come to feel like a hunted beast whose only defense is flight, and that is a most unhappy situation for the man who wished to impress the object of his love with his heroic qualities.
I really cannot say that I had any such intention in my mind at any time, yet with the growing realization of my futility I really did come to wish that I might cut a better figure before Duare.
Now I stepped out with a new stride. I was the hunter rather than the hunted. My pitiful, inadequate little weapons swept all doubts from my mind. I was now equal to any emergency.
“Duare,” I exclaimed, “I am going to find Vepaja; I am going to take you home!”
She looked at me questioningly. “The last time we spoke of that,” she reminded me, “you said that you hadn’t the remotest idea where Vepaja was and that if you had, you couldn’t hope to get there.”
“That,” I said, “was several days ago. Things are different now. Now, Duare, we are going hunting; we are going to have meat for dinner. You walk behind me so as not to frighten the game.”
I moved forward with my old assurance and, perhaps, a little incautiously. Duare followed a few paces in the rear. There was considerable undergrowth in this portion of the forest, more than I had encountered before, and I could not see very far in any direction. We were following what appeared to be a game trail, along which I advanced boldly but silently.
Presently I saw a movement in the foliage ahead and then what appeared to be the outlines of some large animal. Almost instantly the silence of the forest was broken by the thunderous bellow of a basto, and there was a great crashing in the undergrowth.
“Take to the trees, Duare!” I cried, and at the same time I turned and ran back to assist her in climbing out of danger; and then Duare stumbled and fell.
Again the basto bellowed, and a quick backward glance revealed the mighty creature in the trail only a few paces in my rear. He was not charging, but he was advancing, and I could see that he would be upon us before we could possibly climb to safety, because of the slight delay occasioned by Duare’s fall.
There appeared to be but one course of action open to me—I must delay the beast until Duare had gained a place of safety. I recalled how Kamlot had slain one of the creatures by distracting its attention from himself to a leafy branch held in his left hand and then plunged his keen sword behind the shoulder down into the heart. But I had no leafy branch and only a crude wooden spear.
He was almost upon me, his red rimmed eyes blazing, his white tusks gleaming. He loomed as large as an elephant to my excited imagination. He put his head down, another thunderous roar rumbled from his cavernous chest, and then he charged.
As the basto bore down upon me my only thought was to divert his attention from Duare until she should be safely out of his reach. It all happened so quickly that I imagine I had no time to think of my own almost certain fate.
The brute was so close to me when he started his charge that he attained no great speed. He came straight toward me with head lowered, and so mighty and awe inspiring was he that I did not even consider attempting to stop him with my puny weapons.
Instead, all my thoughts centered upon one objective—to save myself from being impaled upon those horns.
I grasped them, one with each hand, as the basto struck me, and, thanks to my unusual strength, I succeeded in breaking the force of the impact as well as diverting the horns from my vitals.
The instant that he felt my weight the brute ripped upward with his head in an effort to gore and toss me, and in the latter he succeeded beyond anything that I might have expected and, I imagine, beyond what he intended.
With almost the force of an explosion I was hurtled upward to crash through the foliage and the branches of the tree above, dropping my weapons as I went. Fortunately my head came in contact with no large limb, and so I retained consciousness through it all. I also retained my presence of mind and, clutching frantically, I succeeded in grasping a branch across which my body had fallen. From there I dragged myself to the safety of a larger limb.
My first thought was of Duare. Was she safe? Had she been able to climb out of danger before the basto disposed of me and was upon her, or had he reached and gored her?
My fears were almost immediately allayed by the sound of her voice. “Oh, Carson, Carson! Are you hurt?” she cried. The anguish of her tones was ample reward for any hurts I might have sustained.
“I think not,” I replied; “just shaken up a bit. Are you all right? Where are you?”
“Here, in the next tree. Oh, I thought he had killed you!”
I was testing out my joints and feeling of myself for possible injuries; but I discovered nothing more serious than bruises, and scratches, and of these I had plenty.
As I was examining myself, Duare made her way along interlocking branches and presently she was at my side. “You’re bleeding,” she exclaimed. “You are hurt.”
“These are nothing but scratches,” I assured her; “only my pride is hurt.”
“You have nothing to be ashamed of; you should be very proud of what you did. I saw. I glanced behind me as I got to my feet, and I saw you standing right in the path of that terrible beast so that it would not reach me.”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “I was too terrified to run—just paralyzed by fears.”
She smiled and shook her head. “I know better than that; I know you too well.”
“Any risk would be worth taking if it won your approval.”
She was silent for a moment, looking down at the basto. The brute was pawing the ground and bellowing. Occasionally it would pause and look up at us.
“We could get away from it by going through the trees,” suggested Duare. “They grow very close together here.”
“And abandon my new weapons?” I demanded.
“He’ll probably go away in a few minutes, as soon as he realizes we are not coming down.”
But he didn’t go away in a few minutes. He bellowed and pawed and gored the ground for half an hour, and then he lay down beneath the tree.
“That fellow’s an optimist,” I remarked. “He thinks that if he waits long enough we’ll probably come down of our own volition.”
Duare laughed. “Maybe he thinks we’ll die of old age and fall down.”
“That’s a joke on him; he doesn’t know that we have been inoculated with the serum of longevity.”
“In the meantime, the joke is on us; and I am getting hungry.”
“Look, Duare!” I whispered, as I caught sight of something dimly visible through the tangled undergrowth beyond the basto.
“What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know, but it’s something large.”
“It is creeping silently through the brush, Carson. Do you suppose it is something that has caught our scent, some other terrible beast of prey?”
“Well we are up a tree, I reassured her.
“Yes, and many of these creatures climb trees. I wish you had your weapons.”
“If that basto would look the other way for a minute, I’d go down and get them.”
“No, you mustn’t do that—one or the other of them would get you.”
“Here it comes now, Duare! Look!”
“It’s a tharban,” she whispered.