Urb, the Neanderthal, was beginning to tire. He and his five hairy companion_ad been on the march since Dyta had risen, and even now the sun was hunting _ew lair for the night. From the frequency with which those behind him wer_tumbling, he judged they, too, were tiring.
But the mountains were close, now. He and his men were almost certain to reac_hem before darkness came. There they might find caves near grasslands rich i_ame. Urb's mouth watered and he was aware of being very hungry.
A faint breeze, blowing lightly against their backs, changed its cours_uddenly and came whipping in from the west. As it flicked across their face_he six Hairy Ones came to an abrupt halt, standing stiffly as though turne_o stone.
Urb sniffed in short rapid inhalations, his unkempt visage twisted in _erocious scowl.
"Men!" he grunted. "The hairless ones! It has been long since we have foun_uch. Hide!"
With a degree of soundlessness surprising in such clumsy bodies, the si_eanderthals faded into the mazes of undergrowth at either side of the path.
Hardly were they hidden, when Alurna and her five companions came into sight.
They were moving slowly, the girl limping slightly from a bruised heel, he_andals scuffed and dusty.
The girl stopped and turned to the others. "Is it much farther, Adbor? I don'_hink I can take another step."
"Courage, my princess," smiled Adbor, a tall, slender man with a great shoc_f blond hair. "A short distance more and we shall be there."
Alurna sank down on a fallen log, removed her sandal and rubbed the bruise_eel.
"I'm afraid you'll have to carry me from here on," she sighed. "My feet ach_erribly."
Silently the foliage parted an arm's length from the girl's half-bent figure, and in the gap were framed the brutal faces of Urb and Mog, the sullen. Ur_ave the female only a passing glance; his attention was riveted on the fiv_nsuspecting men. The woman was not armed—the men were; and it was the male_ho must die before they could bring their weapons into use.
Meanwhile, the stunted mind of Mog, the sullen, was laboriously following a_ltogether different trend of thought from that of his leader. His unblinkin_ig-like eyes were intent on the sweetly curved back directly in front of him, and he was increasingly aware of what an altogether desirable bit o_emininity this hairless she actually was. His tongue moistened suddenly dr_ips and he shifted his weight uneasily from one foot to the other.
Urb waited no longer. Slowly he brought up his left hand, caught a smal_ranch between his fingers, then suddenly clenched his fist.
The wood snapped with a sharp clear sound, freezing the five Sepharian guard_nto instant immobility.
But not for long.
As the sound of breaking wood rose on the still air, six grotesque figure_ose in a rough semi-circle about the group in the trail, and simultaneousl_ive mighty stone-incrusted bludgeons were hurled with unbelievable force an_ccuracy.
The startled Sepharians never succeeded in bringing their own weapons int_lay. Before they could fully comprehend their danger all five were stretche_n the jungle path. Three were dead as they fell, heads crushed like brittl_wigs; another died almost as quickly, his back snapped as a dry branch i_napped beneath the broad feet of Pandor, the elephant.
Only one still lived, a club having dealt him a glancing blow aside the head, laying his flesh open in a great gash and rendering him senseless. Gorb wa_ore adept at making clubs than he was in their use… .
Five clubs were thrown; there should have been six. Only Mog, the sullen, retained his hold on his murderous weapon. As his fellows loosed thei_udgels, Mog sprang forward, caught the paralyzed girl about the waist wit_ne immense hairy arm, and before the others could fathom his intentions, ha_urned and fled back along the pathway as quickly as his short bowed leg_ould carry him.
The remaining five watched Mog's hurried flight until he had passed fro_ight. His purpose in stealing the she was clear; their surprise came onl_rom his way of taking her—and the fact that seldom did a Hairy Man mate wit_ member of another race. But then Mog was a surly brute, unable to find amon_is own people a mate willing to endure his temper and moods.
The Neanderthal men gathered about the bodies of the five guards. Gorb, tru_o character, took up several of the scattered weapons and examined the_losely, noting with envy that they had been fashioned with far greater skil_han he possessed. He puzzled long over the bows and arrows, but his limite_ntelligence could make nothing of them and he finally cast them aside.
At last the five took up their march toward the distant mountains. They move_ore cautiously now than before, realizing they might meet more of th_airless men.
Urb, still in the lead, noticed, a while later, that the forest was beginnin_o thin out. Soon he caught a glimpse of a plain marking the edge of th_oods. He paused, nose searching the humid breeze.
They edged forward at a brief guttural command from their leader, until the_ame to open ground.
Before them, beyond level grassland, rose the gray stone walls of Sephar, looming huge and impressive in the light of early evening. White tunice_arriors lolled before broad gates leading to many stone buildings beyond.
Urb shook his head regretfully. "We must look elsewhere for caves," he said.
"To make our homes near here would mean much fighting with the hairless ones.
It is better to go where we may live in peace. Come."
With bowed shoulders and awkward shuffling gait the five frightful men turne_ack for the long journey to the distant caves of their people.
Soon they were filing silently past the five motionless bodies in the cente_f the trail. And through narrowed, blood-filled eyes, through a red film o_ate and pain, Adbor, Sepharian warrior, watched them go, and planned _anguinary revenge as payment for the death of his four friends and the thef_f the princess Alurna, daughter of his king.
Two hours later, just as the night's first shadows fell across the path, _earching party found his unconscious body face down in the rotting vegetatio_f the trail. Tenderly they lifted him up, cradling the blond, blood-soake_hatch in their arms, and bore him back to the city. There, men trained an_chooled in the treatment of wounds, did all they could to revive the numbe_rain of a courageous warrior.
They were only partially successful. With closed eyes Adbor gasped out, in _ew broken sentences, his story of death and abduction. Something of hi_ormer strength seemed to come back to him as he spoke. Raising on one elbow, his eyes now wide and staring beyond those about him, he cried out, shrill an_oud:
"Give me my spear—my bow! I will follow them! I will—"
His voice broke and he fell back limply. Adbor was dead.
Above that still form men looked at one another in silence and in horror. Th_airy men! Creatures so seldom seen as to be almost mythical, but whose savag_nd brutal natures were known from horror tales told at many a dinner tabl_nd about many a camp fire.
Vulcar was the first to speak. "I must take word to Urim. For the last tw_ours he has been storming about the palace demanding he be told where Alurn_s. Now, I don't know what he will say—or do… ."
He shrugged. "Make preparations to send out a searching party the first thin_n the morning. I will lead it."
Slowly the hawk-faced warrior set out for the palace with the message tha_ust wither the stalwart heart of him for whom Vulcar cared above all others.
Alurna had been conscious of a bobbing, rocking sensation for some time befor_he opened her eyes to the world about her. For a moment she watched th_rocession of thick greenery at right angles to the direction in which sh_eemed to be moving; then sudden recollection flooded her mind and she awok_o the horror of her position.
It was then that she became aware of the hairy back beneath her and a grea_alloused hand clamped about her wrists.
Instinctively she attempted to struggle free; but the nightmarish brute onl_ightened his grip and without pausing in his loping gait turned a snarling, bestial countenance toward her. At the sight, Alurna felt her senses reel an_he closed her eyes with a shudder of loathing.
Mog, satisfied his captive would remain passive, transferred his attention t_he path underfoot. The hairy one was beginning to regret the decision tha_ad cost him the companionship of his fellows. To cross, safely, the miles o_ungle and forest between his present position and the caves of his tribe, would require all his strength and cunning.
Alone, armed only with club and spear, he could prove fairly easy prey to an_ne of many enemies. Jalok, the panther, agile and fearless and wantonl_ruel; Conta, the cave bear, who fought on his hind legs; Tarlok, the leopard, beneath whose spotted hide lay such strength that by comparison Mog's stalwar_hews were as nothing. And then there was Sleeza, the giant snake, whose slim_oils held the strength of ten Mogs.
Most fearsome of all, however, was Sadu, the lion, tawny of coat and shaggy o_ane, whose absolute fearlessness, speed of attack and irascible temper, backed by steel sinews and mighty fangs, caused the balance of jungle folk t_ive him a wide berth.
Above and about the lumbering monstrosity and its still, white burden, scampered, flew, slunk and crawled the superabundant life of this green world, their voices and movements adding to the vast ocean of sound rising an_alling about the ill-assorted pair.
While far behind them came Urb and the others; but the distance between wa_rowing rapidly greater so swiftly was Mog covering the ground.
And then, with almost frightening suddenness, Dyta, the sun, disappeared fro_he heavens and darkness fell upon the jungle. The Neanderthal mouthed a fe_isapproving grunts, peered about nervously, then swung sharply to his lef_nd forced his way through foliage to the base of a great tree.
Alurna clung fearfully to the shaggy neck as the great brute pulled himsel_nto the lower branches. With the coming of night her fear was intensified _housandfold; but even more than she feared Mog was her dread of the broodin_ungle and its savage inhabitants. She reproached herself silently fo_enturing from the security of Sephar's walls. Woman-like, she blamed Jota_or everything—had he not fallen in love with the cave-girl nothing like thi_ould have happened.
Mog paused upon a broad bough well above the ground. Placing Alurna in _itting position here, her back against the tree's bole, he tore free a lengt_f stout vine and bound her wrists securely behind her back.
Satisfied his prize would be helpless to escape, Mog let himself down on _ranch directly under her and sought a comfortable position in which to slee_ut the night.
Alurna, hemmed in by a wall of blackness which her untrained eyes were unabl_o penetrate, could hear the Hairy One as he settled himself. She knew ther_ould be no sleep for her this night; she was far too frightened to think o_losing her eyes for an instant.
Seconds later she was sound asleep; and though the balance of the night wa_ade hideous with the savage voices of jungle denizens, the exhausted princes_id not stir.
A rough hand shook her awake. She shrank away with a whimper of fear at sigh_f Mog's forbidding face a few inches from her own. The Neanderthal freed he_rists by breaking their bonds with his powerful fingers, then swung her onc_ore to his back and slid to the ground.
Noon found them at the outskirts of the forest. Mog had pushed ahead far mor_uickly than he had thought possible. Alone, without allies, he feared a_ttack at any moment from some forest dweller. There would be no safety fo_im until he was safe in the caves of his tribe.
With the forest behind him, Mog trotted across the narrow ribbon of grasses t_he lip of the almost vertical cliff overlooking the tree-filled valley below.
A portion of the boar killed two days before was cached in one of those trees; once he and his captive were safely down the cliff they could eat withou_asting time in a search for food.
But Mog began to realize it would prove no small matter to transport the gir_own the abrupt incline. Indeed, it would require all his own strength an_imited agility to get himself down without the added burden of a helples_he.
Then came the thought that she might be able to do so without his aid. No_ngently he lowered her to her feet and signed that she should start down.
When Alurna, correctly interpreting his gesture, glanced at the hard earth s_ar below, she gasped aloud and drew back, trembling.
Mog, sullen and short-tempered at best, did not intend wasting time in coaxin_er. Raising a bulky fist, he shook it threateningly under her nose, then onc_ore pointed to the edge of the precipice.
Alurna could not help but feel she preferred death by falling to being maule_y this uncouth beast-man. And so, gritting her teeth and tensing her muscle_o control their trembling, she lowered herself over the brink and began th_ortuous descent.
Those long agonizing moments which followed were to live forever in the memor_f Alurna, princess of Sephar. Slowly, inch by inch, she worked her wa_ownward, feeling in an agony of suspense for footholds where she wa_onfident no such holds existed. At times her entire weight was suspended b_er fingers alone, while both feet searched for some projection to which he_andaled foot would cling. She knew, now, it would have been wise to hav_ossed her sandals down first; her bare feet would have held to the rock wit_ore certainty—but it was too late for that.
Gradually she sank farther and farther from the lip of the escarpment. Sh_ared not glance above or below; her gaze was glued continuously on the uneve_urface over which she was passing. Her fingers were raw and bleeding by thi_ime; but she clenched her lip between white teeth and went on.
At last the strain, both to limbs and to nerves, was nearing the breakin_oint. Alurna knew she could not hold on much longer; if she failed to reac_he valley floor soon, she must fall the balance of the way. Then, as th_esire to loose her grip, whatever the consequences, seemed too overpowerin_o resist, her feet came to rest on level ground.
Tired, high-pitched nerves gave way, and Alurna sank to the ground and burs_nto tears. Had she acted at once, she might have escaped, for Mog was stil_ifty feet above her.
But she was conscious only of relief from the peril just undergone; and Mo_ound her huddled in a pitiful heap at the very spot where her feet had firs_ouched solid earth.
Lifting her easily to his wide back, he took up his club from where he ha_ropped it from above, and moved at a half-trot toward the nearby forest.
While from the depths of a tangled maze of cloaking underbrush, at the ver_oint he was nearing, two baleful yellow eyes were fixed in unblinkin_ttention upon him and the girl he carried!
The morning after Alurna's capture, twenty warriors were assembled in front o_ephar's palace. It was evident they awaited someone, for their eyes turne_ften to the great doors.
And then came Vulcar, arms laden with an assortment of weapons. Rapidly h_anded them out to the twenty until each was fully armed. This done he barke_ut an order and the men formed into ranks, four abreast and five deep.
His hawk-like face set in stern lines, Vulcar faced them. "Warriors o_ephar," he began, "you know what has happened to the daughter of our king.
You know, too, that five of your comrades died trying to save her. Most of yo_new and admired Adbor. I saw Adbor die. He died while calling for hi_eapons, eager to take up the trail of those who had stolen the princess.
"To you goes the honor of avenging your comrades and returning the princess t_er father, alive … or dead."
As the calm voice ceased, a score of right arms shot up and a resounding shou_ose from twenty throats.
"Then come," said Vulcar quietly, and turned to lead the way.
But before the men could move to follow him, a deep voice from the palac_oorway bade them wait.
Clothed in the simple harness of an ordinary warrior, and fully armed, Uri_escended the steps and came up to Vulcar.
"I will go with you," he said simply.
Vulcar had been afraid of this. Urim no longer was a young man; to take hi_long might cost Sephar a ruler, as well as its favorite daughter.
"O Urim," he said, "may I say a few words to you before we go?…
"My king, trust me and these warriors to find Alurna. They are young and full_rained. For hours they can press onward so rapidly that anyone less hardene_ould drop behind within an hour. To slacken their speed for one less traine_ight cost much precious time."
Urim, ready to override any protests, could not help but see the logic of th_ords. For several moments he stood with bowed head while impulse battled wit_ood judgment.
"Take your men and go without me, my friend," he said at last, his voic_nsteady. "I am an old man, and useless. I should only delay you."
He turned and strode back into the palace before the troubled Sepharian coul_rame a reply.
Ten minutes later the twenty and one entered the trail that led past the scen_f Alurna's capture the day before.
Half an hour later another band of men filed through the western gates o_ephar and entered the mouth of the same path. There were eight in the group: Jotan, Javan and Tamar with five of the warriors who had come with them on th_ong journey from Ammad to Sephar. Their destination, now, was the house o_ydob, and with them was a man adept at following a spoor, however faint.
Tarlok, the leopard, crouching among the dense foliage of a thick branch abov_he trail, watched them pass. Soundlessly he bared glistening fangs, and hi_ellow eyes narrowed into twin slits of hate. Tarlok detested these two-legge_reatures; but even greater was his fear of them, for his mate had fallen, _oon ago, beneath the sharp sticks of such man-things.