For several moons now, Urb, the Neanderthal, and his tribe had found i_ncreasingly difficult to locate game in the neighborhood of the family caves.
The reason could be any one of several: a nearby water-hole dried up until th_ainy season came again; a family of lions holed up close by; an absence o_dequate pasturage.
Urb sat crouched near the foot of a lofty escarpment that contained the triba_aves. His deep-sunk button eyes, beneath beetling brows, indifferentl_atched the young ones of the tribe playing about the clearing between jungl_nd cliff. Below a flattened, shapeless wedge of nose, his thick pendulou_ips worked in and out in worried and laborious thought. As leader of hi_ribe, Urb was concerned about the lack of game.
It had been comparatively cool here in the shadows of the scarp during most o_he morning; but with noon growing near, the sun's direct rays began t_enetrate the thick growth of black coarse hair with which Urb's gross bod_as almost entirely covered.
And so he rose at last and, like the great bull ape he so closely resembled, clambered awkwardly but quickly to one of the caves.
Just inside the entrance he squatted his two hundred and fifty pounds on _oulder and fell to watching Gorb, his eldest son, put final touches to _lint spear head. After heating the bit of rock in a small fire for severa_inutes, Gorb would withdraw it, hastily touch a spot near the edge with _rop of water which caused a tiny bit of the flint to scale away, then repea_he entire process. It was a long and tedious task; but Gorb had that untirin_atience given to those for whom time has no meaning. Eventually, hi_erseverance would reward him with a fine weapon.
Urb was secretly proud of his son. Even as a boy, Gorb had shown no interes_n hunting or in war. Beneath his sharply receding forehead was the brain an_oul of a true artist—a soul that found its expression by the creation o_mplements of the chase and of battle. No other member of Urb's tribe coul_ven approach the artistry Gorb put into his work; no other could fashion _pear so true in balance; none could produce a flint knife so keen-edged an_ell-formed.
The half-finished spear head reminded Urb of his own immediate problem.
"Gorb," he said, "only two kills have our men made in the past five suns, although all have gone forth each day to hunt. It is not because Narjok o_ana or Muta run away before we can kill them. We cannot find them at all; only twice in those five suns have we come upon the spoor of any one of them."
Gorb paused at his work and drew a hairy forearm across his sweaty face. "Las_ight," he said, "long after Dyta had found his lair, I heard Sadu roaring an_rowling among the trees. It was the noise of a hungry Sadu; he, too, wa_ngry because there is no meat."
Urb grunted. Since the day before, he had been turning an idea over in hi_low-moving mind, and now he sought to put it into words.
"Tomorrow," he said, "when Dyta first awakens, some of us will look for cave_ar from here. I will go; Boz and Kor and Tolb and you, Gorb, will go with me.
There are many hills; there will be many caves in them, and much meat i_rasslands nearby. When we find a good place we will come back for the other_f our tribe."
"Good!" approved Gorb, turning back to his labors. "It has been many sun_ince I have eaten all the meat I can hold. I will go with you, Urb."
Early the next morning a little band of Neanderthal men descended th_scarpment and set out toward the rising sun. They were six; besides thos_amed by Urb, Mog, the sullen, had been taken. All were armed with huge flint- studded hardwood clubs, so heavy that only an arm of great strength migh_ield one; rude knives of flint and short-shafted spears completed thei_rmament.
They moved along with the curious shuffling gait peculiar to their kind alone.
Their passage seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of terror and dread, strikin_umb the countless denizens of the teeming jungle. Urb was in the lead, hi_mall black eyes darting about for the first sign of danger, ears and nos_lert lest Sadu or Jalok or Tarlok find him and his fellows unprepared. But i_ny of the more formidable beasts were near, they remained concealed. Onl_andor, the elephant, neglected to give the Hairy Men a wide berth whe_everal were together—Pandor, who feared no creature that walked or flew o_riggled.
The shaggy-coated males moved steadily ahead, their objective a group of lo_ountains far to the east, the upper portions of which were clearl_iscernible on the few occasions the band crossed a clearing of an_onsequence.
At noon they halted on the reed-covered banks of a shallow river; and whil_rb and Tolb hunted game, the others rested beneath the broad boughs of _ungle patriarch.
Soon the two hunters returned, bearing between them the still warm carcass o_uta, the wild boar. Each of the six hacked off a juicy portion and devoure_t raw, blood matting the hair of face and chest.
After drinking at the river's brink, the brute-men stretched out beneath th_rees, covered their faces with huge fronds of a palm tree and slept unti_id-afternoon. Urb roused them, then, and once more the savage band took u_heir march.
Darkness was near when the six passed through a fringe of jungle and paused a_he foot of a lofty cliff. Urb, deciding too little daylight remained for the_o attempt scaling the vertical slope, ordered the Neanderthals back into th_orest.
Here they supped on flesh of the boar killed earlier in the day, then sough_ouches among the tree branches. During daylight it was all very well to slee_n comfort on the jungle floor; but during the night it was safer aloft. Th_reat cats usually laid up during the day, digesting the previous night'_ill; but once Uda, the moon, made an appearance, the forest abounded wit_ungry carnivora.
With the first rays of the morning sun the six men began the perilous climb.
Slow-moving and awkward, they made hard going of the ascent, but thei_remendous strength aided them where lesser muscles would have faile_ltogether, and finally the crest was reached.
Here they stood at the edge of a great tableland, clothed with primeval fores_rom which, in the distance, loomed four low mountain peaks. Game seeme_lentiful; as they watched, a herd of antelope grazing to their left caugh_heir scent and bounded away across a narrow ribbon of grassland which la_etween the forest and the plateau's edge. A band of monkeys chattered an_colded at them from the safety of middle terraces, while a cloud of raucous- voiced birds rose with a whirring beat of wings and flew deeper inland.
Not far to their right was the entrance to a narrow deep-worn game trai_eading into tangled mazes of brush, creeper, vine and trees. It was towar_his trail that Urb turned his footsteps, motioning for his companions t_ollow.
"Here is food enough," he exulted. "If we can find caves in those hills, w_ill go back to fetch the rest of our people."
In silence the six frightful, man-like creatures faded into the black shadow_f the overhanging forest, their goal the towering heights at the far end o_his plateau.
And directly between them and their objective lay Sephar, mysterious city o_n unknown race.
Dylara lay face down on a broad branch, her head pillowed on a heap of moss, biting her lips to keep back tears of bitter anguish. The swollen ankl_hrobbed steadily, its pain almost unbearable.
And she had been so close to freedom! From her place high in the tree sh_ould see the stone walls of Rydob's dwelling, evil and grim in the sun.
Behind those walls lay the dead body of Meltor, slain by his own knife.
She felt no regret for having killed him. It had been his life—or hers. Whe_e had lunged across the table in an attempt to stab her, she, acting b_nstinct rather than thought, had thrust her weight against the table. Meltor, off balance, went over backwards, his head striking hard against the floor.
Before he could regain his wits Dylara had torn the knife from his hand. H_ried out once in mortal fear as the blade swung high, flung up a futile han_o ward off the blow, and died as polished flint pierced his heart.
No—she felt no regret for having killed him. What she did regret was the ma_mpulse that had sent her running blindly into the open air. So anxious ha_he been to flee that horrible place that she had no eyes for what lay in he_ath. As a result, one heel had trod full on the whitened skull of Rydob th_ermit. Dylara's ankle had twisted beneath her, pitching her headlong into _angle of vines at the base of the steps.
She was up at once; but the injured ankle buckled under her weight and she ha_allen again, crying out in agony.
For a little while she had remained there, stroking the injured member, already swollen and turning blue. Finally she got to her hands and knees and, with many pauses, crawled toward the trees ringing the clearing.
How she managed to clamber into the branches of one giant tree and work he_ay a full fifty feet above the ground, Dylara was never to know. So awful wa_he pain that her mind seemed numbed; only an unflagging determination drov_er on. She stopped at last, on a thick bough and lay there, completel_xhausted.
It was comparatively cool there in the shelter of the foliage. Soft jungl_reezes stirred the branch gently and she was soon asleep. A bird twittere_nd cooed close by, and the wind blew lightly across the troubled face, smoothing its tired lines… .
And as the weary, pain-wracked girl lay sleeping, four heavily armed me_tepped into the clearing and moved stealthily toward the house of Rydob. The_ntered; and after a few minutes, reappeared at the doorway, to be joined b_hree other warriors who had come up to the building from the rear.
"It seems hardly possible," Jotan was saying, "for a mere girl to kill a grow_arrior. For all we know, another man may have slain Meltor and made off wit_ylara."
"It's my guess," said Tamar, "that the girl caught Meltor off guard and stuc_ knife in him. She's not like the women we know, Jotan. Hers has been a wild, primitive life, filled with danger. Because of it, she would be far mor_esourceful than Sepharian women have need of being. Taking a life probabl_eans nothing to her.
"No," he concluded, "I've an idea she's well on her way back to her caves b_ow."
Javan, impatiently listening to the conversation, touched Jotan's ar_ervously.
"There is no point in staying here," he complained. "It will be dark soon, an_he jungle is no place to be after sundown."
Jotan smiled wanly and clapped him on the shoulder. "Of course. I have n_ight to expose you and Tamar to danger on my account.
"We will return to Sephar now. But tomorrow I shall return here with a warrio_ho is versed in tracking. With his help I should be able to learn what ha_appened to Dylara."
"We will go with you," Tamar said quietly. And Javan nodded agreement.
The seven entered the game trail and started back toward distant Sephar. Jota_ed the way, his wide shoulders drooping disconsolately. It was clear the los_f the lovely cave-girl had hurt him deeply.
The return journey was about half completed when Jotan stopped suddenly an_aised a cautioning hand.
"Listen!" he exclaimed softly.
The seven cocked their ears alertly.
Faintly, mingled with the everyday noises of the jungle, came sounds o_urmuring voices and the tramp of feet from around a bend in the trail ahead.
"Probably warriors from Sephar, hunting game," Tamar said. "Let's join them; they may have news for us."
Jotan frowned. "Hunters don't go blundering about so carelessly," he reminded.
"Hide in the undergrowth until we can make sure."
A moment later, six human figures appeared in the path. Five were fighting-me_f Sephar—all well armed. The sixth was a girl in a close-fitting tunic tha_mphasized the lithe softly-curved body it covered. Her face was set i_etermined lines as she moved on, looking neither to the right nor the left.
Tamar, lying next to Jotan behind a screen of vines, nudged his friend.
"Alurna!" he breathed. "What can she be doing here?"
"Looks as though Fordak was telling the truth," Jotan whispered. "She _is_ixed up in this. He must have got free and gone to her with the story.
"Well, let her go to Rydob's house. She'll find little there to please her!"
As soon as the princess and her escorts were out of sight, Jotan called hi_en from their hiding places and they took up their interrupted progres_oward Sephar.