Now it was more than just a hunt. It was knife against the throat, kill or be killed. Now there was no stopping, when before there might have been. It was no longer sport and there was no mercy.
"And that's the way I like it," Duncan told himself.
He rubbed his hand along the rifle barrel and saw the metallic glints shine in the noonday sun. One more shot, he prayed. Just give me one more shot at it.
This time there will be no slip-up. This time there will be more than three sodden hunks of flesh and fur lying in the grass to mock me.
He squinted his eyes against the heat shimmer rising from the river, watching Sipar hunkered beside the water's edge.
The native rose to its feet and trotted back to him.
"It crossed," said Sipar. "It walked out as far as it could go and it must have swum."
"Are you sure? It might have waded out to make us think it crossed, then doubled back again."
He stared at the purple-green of the trees across the river. Inside that forest, it would be hellish going.
"We can look," said Sipar.
"Good. You go downstream. I'll go up."
An hour later, they were back. They had found no tracks. There seemed little doubt the Cytha had really crossed the river.
They stood side by side, looking at the forest.
"Mister, we have come far. You are brave to hunt the Cytha. You have no fear of death."
"The fear of death," Duncan said, "is entirely infantile. And it's beside the point as well. I do not intend to die."
They waded out into the stream. The bottom shelved gradually and they had to swim no more than a hundred yards or so.
They reached the forest bank and threw themselves flat to rest.
Duncan looked back the way that they had come. To the east, the escarpment was a dark-blue smudge against the pale-blue burnished sky. And two days back of that lay the farm and the _vua_ field, but they seemed much farther off than that. They were lost in time and distance; they belonged to another existence and another world.
All his life, it seemed to him, had faded and become inconsequential and forgotten, as if this moment in his life were the only one that counted; as if all the minutes and the hours, all the breaths and heartbeats, wake and sleep, had pointed toward this certain hour upon this certain stream, with the rifle molded to his hand and the cool, calculated bloodlust of a killer riding in his brain.
Sipar finally got up and began to range along the stream. Duncan sat up and watched.
Scared to death, he thought, and yet it stayed with me. At the campfire that first night, it had said it would stick to the death and apparently it had meant exactly what it said. It's hard, he thought, to figure out these jokers, hard to know what kind of mental operation, what seethings of emotion, what brand of ethics and what variety of belief and faith go to make them and their way of life.
It would have been so easy for Sipar to have missed the trail and swear it could not find it. Even from the start, it could have refused to go. Yet, fearing, it had gone. Reluctant, it had trailed. Without any need for faithfulness and loyalty, it had been loyal and faithful. But loyal to what, Duncan wondered, to him, the outlander and intruder? Loyal to itself? Or perhaps, although that seemed impossible, faithful to the Cytha?
What does Sipar think of me, he asked himself, and maybe more to the point, what do I think of Sipar? Is there a common meeting ground? Or are we, despite our humanoid forms, condemned forever to be alien and apart?
He held the rifle across his knees and stroked it, polishing it, petting it, making it even more closely a part of him, an instrument of his deadliness, an expression of his determination to track and kill the Cytha.
Just another chance, he begged. Just one second, or even less, to draw a steady bead. That is all I want, all I need, all I'll ask.
Then he could go back across the days that he had left behind him, back to the farm and field, back into that misty other life from which he had been so mysteriously divorced, but which in time undoubtedly would become real and meaningful again.
Sipar came back. "I found the trail."
Duncan heaved himself to his feet. "Good."
They left the river and plunged into the forest and there the heat closed in more mercilessly than ever—humid, stifling heat that felt like a soggy blanket wrapped tightly round the body.
The trail lay plain and clear. The Cytha now, it seemed, was intent upon piling up a lead without recourse to evasive tactics. Perhaps it had reasoned that its pursuers would lose some time at the river and it may have been trying to stretch out that margin even further. Perhaps it needed that extra time, he speculated, to set up the necessary machinery for another dirty trick.
Sipar stopped and waited for Duncan to catch up. "Your knife, mister?"
Duncan hesitated. "What for?"
"I have a thorn in my foot," the native said. "I have to get it out."
Duncan pulled the knife from his belt and tossed it. Sipar caught it deftly.
Looking straight at Duncan, with the flicker of a smile upon its lips, the native cut its throat.