24. THE AUROCHS
AS NU LED Gron through the dark night amidst the blackness of the tropical forest that clothed the gentle ascent leading inland from the beach he grinned at the thought of Tur's discomfiture, as well as the candor of his rescuer.
But now Nu was the protector. He might have left the woman to shift for herself. She had made it quite plain that she had no love for him as plain as words could convey the idea: "I hate you, but not quite so much as I hate Tur." But the idea of deserting Gron never occurred to him. She was a woman. She had saved Nu's life. Her motive was of negligible import.
In the darkness Nu found a large tree. He entered the lower branches to reconnoiter. There were no dangerous foes lurking there, so he reached down and assisted Gron to his side. There they must make the best of it until daylight returned-it would never do to roam through the woods unarmed at night longer than was absolutely necessary.
Nu was accustomed to sleeping in trees. His people often did so when on the march, or when the quarry of the chase led them overfar from their caves by day, necessitating the spending of the night abroad; but Gron was not so familiar with life arboreal. She clung, fearful, to the bole of the tree in a position that precluded sleep.
Nu showed her how to compose herself upon a limb with her back to the tree stem, but even then she was afraid of falling should she chance to doze. At last Nu placed an arm about her to support her, and thus she slept, her head pillowed upon the shoulder of her enemy.
The sun was high when the sleepers awoke. Gron was the first to open her eyes. For a moment she was bewildered by the strangeness of her surroundings. Where was she? Upon what was her head pillowed? She raised her eyes. They fell upon the sun-tanned, regular features of the god-like Nu. Slowly recollection forced its way through the misty pall of somnolence. She felt the arm of the man about her, still firmly flexed in protective support.
This was her enemy the enemy of her people. She looked at Nu through new eyes. It was as though the awakening day had brought an awakening of her soul. The man was undeniably beautiful of a masculine beauty that was all strength. Gron closed her eyes again dreamily and let her head sink closer to the strong, brown shoulder. But presently came entire wakefulness, and with it a full return of actively functioning recollection. She saw the pitiful bundle lying among the fox and otter skins upon the floor of the distant shelter.
With a sudden intaking of her breath that was almost a scream, Gron sat erect. The movement awakened Nu. He opened his eyes, looked at the woman, and removing his arm from about her stood upright upon the tree branch.
"First we must seek food and weapons," he said, "and then return to the land that holds my country. Come."
His quick eyes had scanned the ground below. There were no beasts of prey in sight. Nu lowered the woman to the base of the tree, leaping lightly to her side. Fruits, growing in plenitude, assuaged the keenest pangs of hunger. This accomplished, Nu led the way inland toward higher ground where he might find growing the harder wood necessary for a spear shaft. A fire-hardened point was the best that he might hope for temporarily unless chance should direct him upon a fragment of leek-green nephrite, or a piece of flint.
Onward and upward toiled the searchers, but though they scaled the low and rugged mountains that paralleled the coast they came upon neither the straight hard wood that Nu sought, nor any sign of the prized minerals from which he might fashion a spear head, an ax, or a knife.
Down the further slopes of the mountains they made their way, glimpsing at times through the break of a gorge a forest in a valley far below. Toward this Nu bent his steps. There might grow the wood he sought. At last they reached the last steep declivity, a sheer drop of two hundred feet to the leveler slopes whereon the forest grew almost to the base of the cliff.
For a moment the two stood gazing out over the unfamiliar scene a rather open woodland that seemed to fringe the shoulder of a plateau, dropping from sight a mile or so beyond them into an invisible valley above which hung a soft, warm haze. Far beyond all this, dimly rose the outlines of far-off mountains, their serrated crests seemingly floating upon the haze that obscured their bases.
"Let us descend," said Nu, and started to lower his legs over the edge of the precipice.
Gron drew back with a little exclamation of terror.
"You will fall!" she cried. "Let us search out an easier way."
Nu looked up and laughed.
"What could be easier than this?" he asked.
Gron peered over the edge. She saw the face of a rocky wall, broken here and there by protruding boulders, and again by narrow ledges where a harder stratum had better withstood the ravages of the elements. In occasional spots where lodgment had been afforded lay accumulations of loose rock, ready to trip the unwary foot, and below all a tumbled mass of jagged pieces waiting to receive the bruised and mangled body of whomever might be so foolhardy as to choose this way to the forest. Nu saw that Gron was but little reassured by her inspection.
"Come!" he said. "There is no danger with me."
Gron looked at him, conscious of an admiration for his courage and prowess an admiration for an enemy that she would rather not have felt. Yet she did feel the truth of his words: "There is no danger with me." She sat down upon the edge of the cliff, letting her legs dangle over the abyss. Nu reached up and grasped her arm, drawing her down to his side. How he clung there she could not guess, but somehow, as he supported her in the descent, he found handholds and stepping stones that made the path seem a miracle of ease. Long before they reached the bottom Gron ceased to be afraid and even found herself discovering ledges and outcroppings that made the journey easier for them both. And when they stood safely amid the clutter of debris at the base she threw a glance of ill concealed admiration upon her enemy. Mentally she compared him with Tur and Scarb and the other males of the Boat Builders, nor would the comparison have swelled the manly chests of the latter could they have had knowledge of it.
"Those who follow us will stop here," she said, "nor do I see any break in the cliff as far as my eye can travel," and she looked to right and left along the rocky escarpment.
"I had forgotten that we might be followed," said Nu; "but when we have found wherewith to fashion a spear and an ax, let them come Nu, the son of Nu, will welcome them."
From the base of the cliff they crossed the rubble and stepped out into the grassy clearing that reached to the forest's edge. They had crossed but half way to the wood when they heard the crashing of great bodies ahead of them, and as they paused the head of a bull aurochs appeared among the trees before them. Another and another came into sight, and as the animals saw the couple they halted, the bulls bellowing, the cows peering wide eyed across the shaggy backs of their lords.
Here was meat and only the knife of the woman to bring it down. Nu reached for Gron's weapon.
"Go back to the cliff," he said, "lest they charge. I will bring down a young she."
Gron was about to turn back as Nu had bid her, and the man was on the point of circling toward the right when there appeared on either side of the aurochs several men. They were clothed in the skins of the species they accompanied, and were armed with spears and axes. At sight of Nu and Gron they raised a great shout and dashed forward toward the two. Nu, unarmed, perceived the futility of accepting battle. Instead he grasped Gron's hand and with her fled back toward the cliffs. Close upon their heels came the herders, shouting savage cries of carnage and victory. They had their quarry cornered. The cliff would stop them, and then, with their backs against the wall, the man would be quickly killed and the woman captured.
But these were not cliff dwellers they knew nothing of the agility of Nu. Otherwise they would not have slowed up, as they did, nor spread out to right and left for the purpose of preventing a flank escape by the fugitives. Across the rubble ran Nu and Gron, and at the foot of the cliff where they should have stopped, according to the reasoning of the herders, they did not even hesitate. Straight up the sheer wall sprang Nu, dragging the woman after him. Now the aurochs herders raised a mighty shout of anger and dismay. Who had ever seen such a thing! It was impossible, and yet there before their very eyes they beheld a man, encumbered by a woman, scaling the unscalable heights.
With renewed speed the herders dashed straight toward the foot of the cliff, but Nu and Gron were beyond the reach of their hands before ever they arrived. Turning for an instant, Nu saw they were not yet out of reach of the weapons. He reached down with his right hand and picked up a loose bit of rock, hurling it toward the nearest spear-man. The missile struck its target full upon the forehead, crumpling him to an inert mass.
Then Nu scrambled upward again, and before the herders could recover from their surprise he had dragged Gron out of range of the spears. Squatting upon a narrow ledge, the woman at his side, Nu hurled insulting epithets at their pursuers. These he punctuated with well-timed and equally well-aimed rocks, until the yelling herders were glad to retreat to a safer distance.
The enemy did not even venture the attempt to follow the fugitives. It was evident that they were no better climbers than Gron. Nu held them in supreme contempt. Had he but a good ax he would descend and annihilate the whole crew!
Gron, sitting close beside Nu, was filled with wonder and something more than wonder that this enemy should have risked so much to save her, for at the bottom of the cliff Nu had evidently forgotten for the instant that the woman was not of his own breed, able to climb equally as well as he, and had ascended a short distance before he had discovered that Gron was scrambling futilely for a foothold at the bottom. Then, in the face of the advancing foemen, he had descended to her side, risking capture and death in the act, and had hoisted her to a point of safety far up the cliff face. Tur would never have done so much.
The woman, stealing stealthy glances at the profile of the young giant beside her, felt her sentiments undergoing a strange metamorphosis. Nu was no longer her enemy. He protected her, and now she looked to him for protection with greater assurance of receiving it than ever she had looked to Tur for the same thing. She knew that Nu would forage for her upon him she depended for food as well as protection. She had never looked for more from her mate. Her mate! She stole another half shy glance at Nu. Ah, what a mate he would have been! And why not? They were alone in the world, separated from their people, doubtless forever. Gron suddenly realized that she hoped that it was forever. She wondered what was passing in Nu's mind.
Apparently the man was wholly occupied with the joys of insulting the threatening savages beneath him; but yet his thoughts were busy with plans for escape. And why? Solely because he yearned for his own land and his father's people? Far from it. Nu might have been happy upon this island forever had there been another there in place of Gron. He thought of Nat-ul no other woman occupied his mind, and his plans for escape were solely a means for returning to the mainland and again taking up his search for the daughter of Tha.
For an hour the herders remained in the clearing near the foot of the cliff, then, evidently tiring of the fruitless sport, they collected their scattered herd and disappeared in the wood toward the direction from which they had come. A half hour later Nu ventured down. He had discovered a cave in the face of the cliff and there he left Gron, telling her that he would fetch food to her, since in case of pursuit he could escape more easily alone than when burdened with her.
After a short absence he returned with both food and drink, the latter carried in the bladder that always hung from his gee-string. He had seen nothing of the herders and naught of the hard wood or the materials for spear and ax heads that he had desired.
"There is an easier way, however," he confided to the woman, as they squatted at the mouth of the cave and ate. "The drivers of aurochs bore spears and axes and knives. It will be easier to follow them and take theirs than to make weapons of my own. Stay here, Gron, in safety, and Nu will follow the strangers, returning shortly with weapons and the flesh of the fattest of the she aurochs. Then we will return to the coast, fearless of enemies, find the boat and go back to Nu's country. There you will be well received, for Nu, my father, is chief, and when he learns that you have saved my life he will treat you well."
So Nu dropped quickly down to the foot of the cliff, crossed the clearing, and a moment later disappeared from the eyes of Gron into the shadows of the wood.
For a while he could make neither head nor tail to the tangled spoor of the herd, but at last he found the point where the herders evidently had collected their charges and driven them in a more or less compact formation toward the opposite side of the forest. Nu went warily, keeping every sense alert against surprise by savage beast or man. Every living thing that he might encounter could be nothing other than an enemy. He stopped often, listening and sniffing the air. Twice he was compelled to take to the trees upon the approach of wandering beasts of prey; but when they had passed on Nu descended and resumed his trailing.
The trampled path of the herd led to the further edge of the forest, and there Nu saw unfolded below him as beautiful a scene as had ever broken upon his vision. The western sun hung low over a broad valley that stretched below him, for the wood ended upon the brow of a gentle slope that dropped downward to a blue lake sparkling in the midst of green meadows a couple of miles away.
Upon the surface of the lake, apparently floating, were a score or more strange structures. That they were man-built Nu was certain, though he never had seen nor dreamed of their like. To himself he thought of them as "caves," just as he had mentally described the shelters of the Boat Builders, for to Nu any human habitation was a "cave," and that they were the dwellings of men he had no doubt since he could see human figures passing back and forth along the narrow causeways that connected the thatched structures with the shore of the lake. Across these long bridges they were driving aurochs, too, evidently to pen them safely for the night against the night prowlers of the forest and the plain.
Until darkness settled Nu watched with unflagging interest the activities of the floating village. Then in the comparative safety of the darkness he crept down close to the water's edge. He took advantage of every tree and bush, of every rock and hollow that intervened between himself and the enemy to shelter and hide his advance. At last he lay concealed in a heavy growth of reeds upon the bank of the lake. By separating them before his eyes he could obtain an excellent view of the village without himself being discovered. The moon had risen, brilliantly flooding the unusual scene. Now Nu saw that the dwellings did not really float upon the surface. He discovered the ends of piles that disappeared beneath the surface of the water. The habitations stood upon these. He saw men and women and little children gathered upon the open platforms that encircled many of the structures, and upon the narrow bridges that spanned the water between the dwellings and the shore. Fires burned before many of the huts, blazing upon little hearths of clay that protected the planking beneath them from combustion. Nu could smell the savory aroma of cooking fish, and his mouth watered as he saw the teeth of the Lake Dwellers close upon juicy aurochs steaks, while others opened shellfish and devoured their contents raw, throwing the shells into the water below them.
But, hungry though he was for meat, the objects of his particular desire were the long spear, the heavy ax and the sharp knife of the hairy giant standing guard upon the nearest causeway. Upon him Nu's eyes rested the oftenest. He saw the villagers, the evening meal consumed and the scraps tossed into the water beneath their dwellings, engaged in noisy gossip about their fires. Children romped and tumbled perilously close to the edges of the platforms. Youths and maidens strolled to the darker corners of the village, and leaning over the low rails above the water conversed in whispers. Loud voiced warriors recounted for the thousandth time the details of past valorous deeds. The younger mothers, in little circles, gossiped with much nodding of heads, the while they suckled their babes. The old women, toothless and white-haired, but still erect and agile in token of the rigid primitive laws which governed the survival of the fit alone, busied themselves with the care of the older children and various phases of the simple household economy which devolved upon them.
The evening drew on into darkness. The children had been posted off to their skin covered, grass pallets. For another half hour the elders remained about the fires, then, by twos and threes, they also sought the interiors of the huts, and sleep. Quiet settled upon the village, and still Nu, hidden in the reeds beside the lake, watched the nearest guardsman. Now and then the fellow would leave his post to replenish a watch fire that blazed close to the shore end of his causeway. Past this no ordinary beast of prey would dare venture, nor could any do so without detection, for its light illumined brightly the end of the narrow bridge.
Nu found himself wondering how he was to reach the sentry unseen. To rush past the watch fire would have been madness, for the guard then would have ample time to raise an alarm that would call forth the entire population of the village before ever Nu could reach the fellow's side.
There was the water, of course, but even there there was an excellent chance of detection, since upon the mirrorlike surface of the moonlit lake the swimmer would be all too apparent from the village. A shadow fell directly along the side of the causeway. Could he reach that he might make his way to a point near the sentry and then clamber to close quarters before the man realized that a foe was upon him. However, the chance was slight at best, and so Nu waited hoping for some fortuitous circumstance to offer him a happier solution of his problem.
As a matter of fact he rather shrank from the unknown dangers of the strange waters in which might lurk countless creatures of destruction; but there was that brewing close at hand that was to force a decision quickly upon the troglodyte, leaving but an immediate choice between two horns of a dilemma, one carrying a known death and the other a precarious problematical fate.
It was Nu's quick ears that first detected the stealthy movement in the reeds behind him, down wind, where his scent must have been carrying tidings of his presence to whatever roamed abroad in that locality. Now the passing of a great beast of prey upon its way through the grasses or the jungle is almost noiseless, and more so are his stealthy footfalls when he stalks his quarry. You or I could not detect them with our dull ears amid the myriad sounds of a primeval night the coughing and the moaning of the great cats punctuated by deafening roars, the lowing and bellowing and grunting of the herds the shrill scream of pain and terror as a hunter lands upon the neck or rump of his prey the hum of insects the hissing of reptiles the rustling and soughing of the night wind among the grasses and the trees. But Nu's ears were not as ours. Not only had he been aware of the passing and repassing of great beasts through the reeds behind him, but, so quick his perceptive faculties, he immediately caught the change from mere careless passage to that of stealthy stalking on the part of the creature in his rear. The beast had caught his scent and now, cautiously, he was moving straight toward the watcher upon the shore.
Nu did not need the evidence of his eyes to picture the great pads carefully raised and cautiously placed so that not a bent grass might give out its faint alarm, the lowered and flattened head, the forward tilted ears, the gentle undulations of the swaying tail, lashing a little at the tufted tip. He saw it all, realizing too all that it meant to him. There was no escape to right or left, and before him lay the waters of the unknown lake. He was all unarmed, and the mighty cat was now almost within its leap.
Nu looked toward the sentry. The fellow had just returned from replenishing his watch fire. He stood leaning over the railing gazing into the water. What was that? Nu's eyes strained through the darkness toward the platform where the warrior stood. Just behind him was another figure. Ah! the figure of a woman. Stealthily, with many a backward glance, she approached the sentinel. There was a low word. The man turned, and at sight of the figure so close beside him now he opened his arms and crushed the woman to him.
Her face was buried on his shoulder, his head turned from Nu and doubtless his eyes hidden in the red-brown hair that fell, unconfined, almost to the woman's waist.
And then the great carnivore at Nu's back sprang.
AT THE INSTANT that the beast leaped for him Nu dove forward into the lake. The water was shallow, not over two or three feet deep, but the cave man hugged the bottom, worming his way to the left toward the shadows of the causeway. He knew that the cat would not follow him into the lake his greatest danger now lay in the unknown denizens of the water. But, though every instant he expected to feel a slimy body or sharp teeth, he met with no attack.
At last, his breath spent, he turned upon his back, floating until his nose and mouth rose above the surface. Filling his lungs with air he sank again and continued his way in the direction of the piling. After what seemed an eternity to him his hand came at last in contact with the rough surface of a pile. Immediately he rose to the surface, and to his delight found that he was beneath the causeway, safe from the eyes of the guardsman and his companion.
Upon the bank behind him he could hear the angry complaining of the baffled cat. He wondered if the noise of his escape had alarmed the sentry to greater watchfulness. For long he listened for some sign from above, and at last he caught the low tones of whispered conversation. Good! they were still at their lovemaking, with never a thought for the dangers lying close at hand.
Nu wished that they would be done. He dared not venture aloft while the woman was there. For an hour he waited waist deep in water, until finally he heard her retreating footsteps above him. He gave her time to regain her dwelling, and then with the agility of a cat he clambered up the slippery pile until his fingers closed upon the edge of the flooring of the causeway. Cautiously he drew himself up so that his eyes topped the upper surface of the platform.
A dozen paces from him was the sentry moving slowly shoreward toward the watchfire. The man's back was toward Nu, and he was already between Nu and the shore. Nothing could have been better.
The cave man crawled quickly to the platform, and with silent feet ran lightly in the wake of the guard. The man was beside the pile of wood with which he kept up the fire and was bending over to gather up an armful when Nu overtook him. With the speed and directness of a killing lion Nu leaped full upon his quarry's back. Both hands sought the man's throat to shut off his cries for help, and the teeth of the attacker buried themselves in the muscles behind the collar bone that he might not easily be shaken from his advantageous hold.
The sentry, taken entirely by surprise by this attack from the rear, struggled to turn upon his foe. He tore at the fingers at his throat that he might release them for the little instant that would be sufficient for him to call for help; but the viselike grip would not loosen. Then the victim groped with his right hand for his knife. Nu had been expecting this, and waiting for it. Instantly his own right hand released its grip upon the other's throat, and lightning-like followed the dagger hand in quest of the coveted blade, so that Nu's fingers closed about those of the sentry the instant that the latter gripped the handle of the knife.
Now the blade flew from its sheath drawn by the power of two hands, and then commenced a test of strength that was to decide the outcome of the battle. The Lake Dweller sought to drive the knife backward into the body of the man upon his back. Nu sought to force the knife hand upward and outward. The blade was turned backward. Nu did not attempt to alter this it was as he would have it. Slowly his mighty muscles prevailed over those of his antagonist, and still his left hand choked off the other's voice. Upward, slowly but surely, Nu carried the knife hand of his foe. Now it is breast high, now to the other's shoulder, and all the time the hairy giant is attempting to drive it back into the body of the cave man.
At the instant that it rose level with the sentry's shoulder Nu pushed the hand gradually toward the left until the blade hovered directly over the heart of its owner. And then, quite suddenly, Nu reversed the direction of his exertions, and like lightning the blade, driven by the combined strength of both men, and guided by Nu, plunged into the heart of the Lake Dweller.
Silently the man crumpled beneath the weight upon him. There was a final struggle, and then he lay still. Nu did not wait longer than to transfer all the coveted weapons from the corpse of his antagonist to his own body, and then, silent and swift as a wraith, he vanished into the darkness toward the forest and the heights above the lake.
Gron, alone in the cave, sat buried in thought. Sometimes she was goaded to despair by recollections of her lost babe, and again she rose to heights of righteous anger at thoughts of the brutality and injustice of Tur. Her fingers twitched to be at the brute's throat. She compared him time and time again with Nu, and at each comparison she realized more and more fully the intensity of her new found passion for the stranger. She loved this alien warrior with a fierceness that almost hurt. She relived again and again the countless little episodes in which he had shown her a kindness and consideration to which she was not accustomed. Among her own people these things would have seemed a sign of weakness upon the part of a man, but Gron knew that no taint of weakness lay behind that noble exterior.
For long into the night she sat straining her eyes and ears through the darkness for the first intimation of his return. At last, when he had not come, she commenced to feel apprehension. He had gone out unarmed through the savage land to wrest weapons from the enemy. Already he might be dead, yet Gron could not believe that aught could overcome that mighty physique.
Toward morning she became hopeless, and crawling within the cave curled up upon the grasses that Nu had gathered for her, and slept. It was several hours after dawn when she was awakened by a sound from without it was the scraping of a spear butt against the rocky face of the cliff, as it trailed along in the wake of a climbing man.
As Gron saw who it was that came she gave a little cry of joy, braving the dangers of the perilous declivity to meet him. Nu looked up with a smile, exhibiting his captured weapons as he came. He noted the changed expression upon the woman's face a smile of welcome that rendered her countenance quite radiant. He had never before taken the time to appraise Gron's personal appearance, and now it was with a sense of surprise that was almost a shock that he realized that the woman was both young and goodlooking. But this surprise was as nothing by comparison with that which followed, for no sooner had Gron reached him than she threw both arms about his neck, and before he realized her intent had dragged his lips to hers.
Nu disengaged himself with a laugh. He did not love Gron his heart was wholly Nat-ul's, and his whole mind now was occupied with plans for returning to his own country where he might continue his search for her who was to have been his mate. Still laughing, and with an arm about Gron to support her up the steep cliff, he turned his steps toward the cave.
"I have brought a little food," he said, "and after I have slept we will return to the sea. On the way I can hunt, for now I have weapons, but in the meantime I must sleep, for I am exhausted. While I sleep you must watch."
But once within the cave Gron, carried away by her new found love, renewed her protestations of affection; but even with her arms about him Nu saw only the lovely vision of another face his Nat-ul. Where was she?
When Nat-ul and Nu, the chief, discovered that the son of Nu no longer was bound to the flame-girt stake in the village of the Boat Builders they turned toward one another in questioning surprise. The man examined the stake more closely.
"It is not burned," he said, "so, therefore, Nu could not have been burned. And here," he pointed at the ground about the stake, "look, here are the cords that bound him."
He picked one of them up, examining it.
"They have been cut! Some one came before us and liberated Nu, the son of Nu."
"Who could it have been, and whither have they gone?" questioned Nat-ul.
Nu shook his head. "I do not know, and now I may not stop to learn, for my warriors are pursuing the strangers and I must be with them," and Nu, the chief, leaped across the dying fires after the yelling spearmen who chased the enemy toward the sea.
But Nat-ul was determined to let nothing stay her search for Nu, the son of Nu. Scarcely had the young man's father left her than she turned back toward the shelters. First she would search the village, and if she did not find him there she would go out into the jungle and along the beach he could not be far. As Nat-ul searched the shelters of the Boat Builders, a figure hid beneath a pile of aurochs skins in one of them, stirred, uncovered an ear, and listened. The sounds of conflict had retreated, the village seemed deserted. An arm threw aside the coverings and a man sprang quickly to his feet. It was Tur. Hard pressed by the savage spear-men of the caves and surrounded, the man had crawled within a hut and hidden himself beneath the skins.
Now he thought he saw a chance to escape while the enemy were pursuing his people. He approached the entrance to the shelter and peered out. Quickly he drew back he had seen a figure emerging from the next hut. It was a woman, and she was coming toward the shelter in which he had concealed himself. The light of the beast-fires played upon her. Tur drew in his breath in pleased surprise it was the woman he had once captured and who had escaped him.
Nat-ul advanced rapidly to the shelter. She thought them all deserted. As she entered this one she saw the figure of a man dimly visible in the darkness of the interior. She thought it one of the warriors of her own tribe, looting. Oftentimes they could not wait the total destruction of an enemy before searching greedily for booty.
"Who are you?" she asked, and then, not waiting for an answer: "I am searching for Nu, the son of Nu."
Tur saw his opportunity and was quick to grasp it.
"I know where he is," he said. "I am one of Scarb's people, but I will lead you to Nu, the son of Nu, if you will promise that you will protect me from your warriors when we return. My people have fled, and I may never hope to reach them again unless you promise to aid me."
Nat-ul thought this a natural and fair proposition, and was quick to accept it.
"Then come," cried Tur. "There is no time to be lost. The man is hidden in a cove south of here along the shore. He is fast bound and so was left without a guard. If we hurry we may reach him before my people regain him. If we can elude your warriors and the delay that would follow their discovery of me we may yet be in time."
Tur hurried from the shelter followed by Nat-ul. The man was careful to keep his face averted from the girl while they traversed the area lit by the camp and beast-fires, so he forged ahead trusting to her desire to find her man to urge her after him. Nor did he over-estimate the girl's anxiety to find Nu, the son of Nu. Nat-ul followed swiftly upon Tur's heels through the deserted village and across the beach from whence the sounds of conflict rose beside the sea.
Tur kept to the north of the fighters, going to a spot upon the beach where he had left his own boat. He found the craft without difficulty, pushed it into the water, lifted Nat-ul into it, and shoved it through the surf. To Tur the work required but a moment he was as much at home in the boiling surf as upon dry land.
Seated in the stern with Nat-ul facing him in the bow he forced the dug-out beyond the grip of the rollers. Nat-ul took up a second paddle that lay at her feet, plying it awkwardly perhaps, but not without good effect. She could scarce wait until the boat reached the cove, and every effort of her own added so much to the speed of the craft.
Tur kept the boat's head toward the open sea. It was his purpose to turn toward the south after they were well out, and, moving slowly during the night, await the breaking dawn to disclose the whereabouts of his fellows. That they, too, would paddle slowly southward he was sure.
Presently he caught sight of the outline of a boat just ahead. Probably beyond that were others. He had been fortunate to stumble upon the last boat-load of his fleeing tribe. He did not hail them for two reasons. One was that he did not wish the girl to know that he was not bearing her south toward the cove the imaginary location of her man; and the other was due to the danger of attracting the attention of the boats and be carrying the pursuit out upon the sea.
Presently a third possibility kept him quiet the boat ahead might contain warriors of the enemy searching for fugitives. Tur did not know that the tribe of Nu was entirely unfamiliar with navigation that never before had they dreamed of such a thing as a boat.
So Tur followed the boat ahead in silence straight out to sea. To Nat-ul it seemed that the cove must be a long distance away. In the darkness she did not perceive that they were traveling directly away from shore. After a long time she heard the pounding of surf to the left of the boat. She was startled and confused. Traveling south, as she supposed they had been doing, the surf should have been off the right side of the boat.
"Where are we?" she asked. "There is land upon the left, whereas it should be upon the right."
"We must be lost," he said; but Nat-ul knew now that she had been deceived. At the same instant there came over her a sudden sense of familiarity in the voice of her companion. Where had she heard it before? She strove to pierce the darkness that shrouded the features of the man at the opposite end of the boat.
"Who are you?" she asked. "Where are you taking me?"
"You will soon be with your man," replied Tur, but there was an ill-concealed note of gloating that did not escape Nat-ul.
The girl now remained silent. She no longer paddled, but sat listening to the booming of the surf which she realized that they were approaching. What shore was it? Her mind was working rapidly. She was accustomed to depending largely on a well developed instinct for locality and direction upon land, and while it did not aid her much upon the water it at least preserved her from the hopeless bewilderment that besets the average modern when once he loses his bearings, preventing any semblance of rational thought in the establishment of his whereabouts. Nat-ul knew that they had not turned toward the north once after they had left the shore, and so she knew that the mainland could not be upon their left. Therefore the surf upon that hand must be breaking upon the shore of one of the islands that she only too well knew lay off the mainland. Which of the islands they were approaching she could not guess, but any one of them was sufficiently horrible in her estimation.
Nat-ul planned quickly against the emergency which confronted her. She knew, or thought, that the man had brought her here where she would be utterly helpless in his power. Her people could not follow them. There would be none to succor or avenge.
Tur was wielding his paddle rapidly and vigorously now. He shot the boat just ahead of an enormous roller that presently caught and lifted it upon its crest carrying it swiftly up the beach. As the keel touched the sand Tur leaped out and dragged the craft as far up as he could while the wave receded to the ocean.
Nat-ul stepped out upon the beach. In her hand she still held the paddle. Tur came toward her. He was quite close, so close that even in the darkness of the night she saw his features, and recognized them. He reached toward her arm to seize her.
"Come," he said. "Come to your mate."
Like a flash the crude, heavy paddle flew back over Nat-ul's shoulder, cleaving the air downward toward the man's head. Tur, realizing his danger, leaped back, but the point of the blade struck his forehead a glancing blow. The man reeled drunkenly for a second, stumbled forward and fell full upon his face on the wet sand. The instant that the blade touched her tormentor Nat-ul dropped the paddle, dodged past the man, and scurried like a frightened deer toward the black shadows of the jungle above the beach.
The next great roller washed in across the prostrate form of Tur. It rolled him over, and as it raced back toward the sea it dragged him with it; but the water revived him, and he came coughing and struggling to his hands and knees, clinging desperately to life until the waters receded, leaving him in momentary safety. Slowly he staggered to his feet and made his way up the beach beyond the reach of the greedy seas.
His head hurt him terribly. Blood trickled down his cheek and clotted upon his hairy breast. And he was mad with rage and the lust for vengeance. Could he have laid his hands upon Nat-ul then she would have died beneath his choking fingers. But he did not lay hands upon her, for Nat-ul was already safely ensconced in a tree just within the shadows of the jungle. Until daylight she was as safe there from Tur as though a thousand miles separated them. A half hour later Nu and Gron, a mile further inland, were clambering into another tree. Ah, if Nat-ul could but have known it, what doubt, despair and suffering she might have been spared.
Tur ran down the beach in the direction in which he thought that he heard the sound of the fleeing Nat-ul. Yes, there she was! Tur redoubled his speed. His quarry was just beneath a tree at the edge of the jungle. The man leaped forward with an exclamation of savage satisfaction that died upon his lips, frozen by the horrid roar of a lion. Tur turned and fled. The thing he had thought was Nat-ul proved to be a huge cave lion standing over the corpse of its kill. Fortunate for Tur was it that the beast already had its supper before it. It did not pursue the frightened man, and so Tur reached the safety of a nearby tree, where he crouched, shaking and trembling, throughout the balance of the night. Tur was a boat builder and a fisherman he was not of the stock of Nu and Nat-ul the hunters of savage beasts, the precursors of warrior nations yet unborn.
IT WAS LATE in the morning when Nat-ul awoke. She peered through the foliage in every direction but could see no sign of Tur. Cautiously she descended to the ground. Upon the beach, not far separated, she saw two boats. To whom could the other belong? Naturally, to some of the Boat Builders. Then there were other enemies upon the island beside Tur. She looked up and down the beach. There was no sign of man or beast. If she could but reach the boats she could push them both through the surf, and, someway, dragging one, paddle the other away from the island. This would leave no means of pursuit to her enemies. That she could reach the mainland she had not the slightest doubt, so self-reliant had heredity and environment made her.
Again she glanced up and down the beach. Then she raced swiftly toward the nearest boat. She tugged and pushed upon the heavy thing, until at last, after what seemed to her anxious mind many minutes she felt it slipping loose from its moorings of sand. Slowly, inch by inch, she was forcing it toward the point where the rollers would at last reach and float it. She had almost gained success with this first boat when something impelled her to glance up. Instantly her dream of escape faded, for from up the beach she saw Tur running swiftly toward her. Even could she have managed to launch this one boat and enter it, Tur easily could overtake her in the other. The water was his element hers was the land, the caves and the jungles.
Abandoning her efforts with the boat she turned and fled back toward the jungle. A couple of hundred yards behind her raced Tur, but the girl knew that once she reached the tangled vegetation of the forest it would take a better man than Tur to catch her. Straight into the mazes of the wood she plunged, sometimes keeping to the ground and again running through the lower branches of the trees.
All day she fled scarce halting for food or drink, for several times from the elevation of the foot hills and the mountains that she traversed after leaving the jungle she saw the man sticking to her trail. It was dark when she came at last to a precipitous gulf, dropping how far she could not guess. Below and as far as her eyes could reach all was impenetrable darkness. About her, beasts wandered restlessly in search of prey. She caught their scent and heard their dismal moaning, or the thunder of their titanic roaring.
That the cliff upon the verge of which she had halted just in time to avert a plunge into its unknown depths was a high one she was sure from the volume of night noises that came up to her from below, mellowed by distance. What should she do? The summit of the escarpment was nude of trees insofar as she could judge in the darkness, at least she had not recently passed through any sort of forest.
To sleep in the open would be dangerous in the extreme, probably fatal. To risk the descent of an unknown precipice at night might prove equally as calamitous. Nat-ul crouched upon the brink of the abyss at a loss as to her future steps. She was alone, a woman, practically unarmed, in a strange and savage land. Hope that she might ever return to her own people seemed futile. How, indeed, could she accomplish it, followed by enemies and surrounded by unknown dangers.
She was very hungry and thirsty and sleepy. She would have given almost her last chance for succor to have lain down and slept. She would risk it. Drawing her shaggy robe about her, Nat-ul stretched herself upon the hard earth at the top of the precipice. She closed her eyes, and sleep would have instantly claimed her had not a stealthy noise not a dozen yards behind her caused her to come to startled wakefulness. Something was creeping upon her death, in some form, she was positive. Even now she heard the heavy breathing of a large animal, and although the wind was blowing between them she caught the pungent odor of a great cat.
There was but a single alternative to remaining and surrendering herself to the claws and fangs of the carnivore, nor did Nat-ul hesitate in accepting it. With the speed of a swift she lowered herself over the edge of the cliff, her feet dangling in space. Rapidly, and yet without panic, she groped with her feet for a hold upon the rocky surface below her.
There seemed nothing, not the slightest protuberance that would give her a chance to lower herself from the clutches of the beast that she knew must be sneaking cautiously toward her from above. A sudden chill of horror swept over her as she felt hot breath and the drip of saliva upon her hands where they clung to the edge of the cliff above.
A low growl came from above. Evidently the beast was puzzled by the strange position of its quarry, but in another moment it would seize her wrists or, reaching down, bury its talons in her head or back. And just then her fingers slipped from their hold and Nat-ul dropped into the darkness.
That she fell but a couple of feet did not detract an iota from the fright she endured in the instant that her hand hold gave way, but the relief of feeling a narrow ledge beneath her feet quickly overcame her terror. That the beast might follow her she had little fear. There might be a ledge running down to this point, and then again there might not. All she could do was stay where she was and hope for the best, and so she settled herself as securely as she might to await what the immediate future might hold for her. She heard the beast growling angrily as it paced along the brow of the cliff above her, now stopping occasionally to lower its nose over the edge and sniff at her, and again reaching down a mighty paw whose great talons clawed desperately to seize her, sweeping but a few inches above her head.
For an hour or more this lasted until the hungry cat, baffled and disgruntled, wandered away into the jungle in search of other prey, voicing his anger as he went in deep throated roars.
Nat-ul felt along the ledge to right and left with her fingers. The surface of the rock was weatherworn but not polished as would have been true were the ledge the accustomed pathway of padded feet. The girl felt a sense of relief in this discovery at least she was not upon the well beaten trail leading to the lair of some wild beast, or connecting the cliff top with the valley below.
Slowly and cautiously she wormed her way along the ledge, searching for a wider and more comfortable projection, but the ledge only narrowed as she proceeded. Having ventured thus far the girl decided to prosecute her search until she discovered a spot where she might sleep in comparative safety and comfort. As no such place seemed to exist at the level at which she was, she determined to descend a way. She lowered her feet over the ledge, groping with her sandaled toes along the rough surface below her. Finally she found a safe projection to which she descended. For half an hour Nat-ul searched through the pitch black night upon the steep cliff-face until accident led her groping feet to the mouth of a cave a darker blot upon the darkness of the cliff. For a moment she listened attentively at the somber opening. No sound of breathing within came to her keen ears. Satisfied that the cave was untenanted Nat-ul crawled boldly in and lay down to sleep exhausted by her long day of flight.
A scraping sound upon the cliff face awakened Nat-ul. She raised herself upon an elbow and listened attentively. What was it that could make that particular noise? It did not require but an instant for her to recognize it a sound familiar since infancy to the cliff dweller. It was the trailing of the butt of a spear as it dangled from its rawhide thong down the back of a climbing warrior. Now it scraped along a comparatively smooth surface, now it bumped and pounded over a series of projections. What new menace did it spell?
Nat-ul crawled cautiously to the opening of the cave. Here she could obtain a view of the cliff to the right, but the climber she could not see he was below the projecting ledge that ran before the threshold of her cavern. As she looked Nat-ul was startled to see a woman emerge from a cave a trifle above her and fifty feet, perhaps, to her right. The watcher drew back, lest she be discovered. She heard the stranger's cry of delight as she sighted the climber below. She saw her clamber down to meet the new comer. She saw the man an instant later as he clambered to the level of her ledge. Her heart gave a throb of happiness her lips formed a beloved name; but her happiness was short lived, the name died ere ever it was uttered. The man was Nu, the son of Nu, and the woman who met him threw her arms about his neck and covered his lips with kisses. It was Gron. Nat-ul recognized her now. Then she shrank back from the sight, covering her eyes with her hands, while hot tears trickled between her slim, brown fingers. She did not see Nu's easy indifferent laugh as he slipped Gron's arms from about his neck. Fate was unkind, hiding this and unsealing Nat-ul's eyes again only in time to show the distracted girl a momentary glance of her lover disappearing into Gron's cave with an arm about the woman's waist.
Nat-ul sprang to her feet. Tears of rage, jealousy and mortification blinded her eyes. She seized the knife that lay in her girdle. Murder flamed hot in her wild, young heart as she stepped boldly out upon the ledge. She took a few hurried steps in the direction of the cave which held Nu and Gron. To the very threshold she went, and then, of a sudden, she paused. Some new emotion seized her. A flood of hot tears welled once more to her eyes tears of anguish and hurt love this time.
She tried to force herself within the cave, but pride held her back. Then sorrowfully she turned away and descended the cliff face. As she went her speed increased until by the time she reached the level before the forest she was flying like a deer from the scene of her greatest sorrow. On through the woods she ran, heedless of every menace that might lurk within its wild shadows. Beyond the wood she came upon a little plain that seemed to end at the edge of a declivity some distance ahead of her. Beyond, in the far distance she could see the tops of mountains rising through a mist that floated over an intervening valley.
She would keep on. She cared not what lay ahead, only that at each step she was putting a greater distance between herself and the faithless Nu, the hateful Gron. That was all that counted to get away where none might ever find her to court death to welcome the end that one need never seek for long in that savage, primeval world.
She had crossed half the clearing, perhaps, when the head of a bull aurochs appeared topping the crest of the gulf ahead. The brute paused to look at the woman. He lowered his head and bellowed. Directly behind him appeared another and another. Ordinarily the aurochs was a harmless beast, fighting only when forced to it in self-defense; but an occasional bull there was that developed bellicose tendencies that made discretion upon the side of an unarmed human the better part of valor. Nat-ul paused, measuring the distance between herself and the bull and herself and the nearest tree.
While Nat-ul, torn by anguish, fled the cliff that sheltered Nu, the man, within the cave with Gron, again disengaged the fingers of the woman from about his neck.
"Cease thy love-making, Gron," he said. "There may be no love between us. In the tribe of Nu, my father, a man takes but one mate. I would take Nat-ul, the daughter of Tha. You are already mated to Tur. You have told me this, and I have seen his child suckling your breast. I love only Nat-ul you should love only Tur."
The woman interrupted him with an angry stamp of her sandaled foot.
"I hate him," she cried. "I hate him. I love only Nu, the son of Nu."
The man shook his head, and when he spoke it was still in a kindly voice, for he felt only sorrow for the unhappy woman.
"It is useless, Gron," he said, "for us to speak further upon this matter. Together we must remain until we have come back to our own countries. But there must be no love, nor more words of love between us. Do you understand?"
The woman looked at him for a moment. What the emotion that stirred her heart her face did not betray. It might have been the anger of a woman scorned, or the sorrow of a breaking heart. She took a step toward him, paused, and then throwing her arms before her face turned and sank to the floor of the cave, sobbing.
Nu turned away and stepped out upon the ledge before the cave. His quick eyes scanned the panorama spread out before him in a single glance. They stopped instantly upon a tiny figure showing across the forest in the little plain that ran to the edge of the plateau before it dove into the valley beside the inland sea. It was the figure of a woman. She was running swiftly toward the declivity. Nu puckered his brows. There was something familiar about the graceful swing of the tiny figure, the twinkling of the little feet as they raced across the grassy plain. Who could it be? What member of his tribe could have come to this distant island? It was but an accidental similarity, of course; but yet how wildly his heart beat at the sight of the distant figure! Could it be? By any remote possibility could Nat-ul have reached this strange country?
Coming over the edge of the plateau from the valley beyond, Nu saw the leaders of a herd of aurochs. Behind these must be the herders. Will the girl be able to escape them? Ah, she has seen the beasts she has stopped and is looking about for a tree, Nu reasoned, for women are ofttimes afraid of these shaggy bulls. He remembered, with pride, that his Nat-ul feared little or nothing upon the face of the earth. She was cautious, of course, else she would not have survived a fortnight. Feared nothing! Nu smiled. There were two things that filled Nat-ul with terror mice and earthquakes.
Now Nu sees the first of the herders upon the flanks of the herd. They are hurrying forward, spears ready, to ascertain what it is that has brought the leaders to a halt what is causing the old king-bull to bellow and paw the earth. Will the girl see them? Can she escape them? They see her now, and at the same instant it is evident that she sees them. Is she of their people? If so, she will hasten toward them. No! She has turned and is running swiftly back toward the forest. The herders spring into swift pursuit. Nu trembled in excitement. If he only knew. If he only knew!
At his shoulder stood Gron. He had not been aware of her presence. The woman's eyes strained across the distance to the little figure racing over the clearing toward the forest. Her hands were tightly clenched against her breast. She too, had been struck with the same fear that haunted Nu. Perhaps she had received the idea telepathically from the man.
The watchers saw the herders overtake the fugitive, seize her and drag her back toward the edge of the plateau. The herd was turned back and a moment later all disappeared over the brink. Nu wavered in indecision. He knew that the captive could not be Nat-ul, and yet something urged him on to her succor. They were taking her back to the Lake Dwellings! Should he follow? It would be foolish and yet suppose that it should be Nat-ul. Without a backward glance the man started down the cliff-face. The woman behind him, reading his intention plainly, took a step after him, her arms outstretched toward him.
"Nu!" she cried. Her voice was low and pleading. The man did not turn. He had no ears, no thoughts beyond the fear and hope that followed the lithe figure of the captive girl into the hidden valley toward the distant lake.
Gron threw out her arms toward him in a gesture of supplication. For a moment she stood thus, motionless. Nu continued his descent of the cliff. He reached the bottom and started off at a rapid trot toward the forest. Gron clapped her open palm across her eyes, and, turning, staggered back to the ledge before the cave, where, with a stifled moan she sank to her knees and slipped prone upon the narrow platform.
NU REACHED the edge of the plateau in time to see the herders and their captive arrive at the dwellings on the lake. He saw the crowds of excited natives that ran out to meet them. He saw the captive pulled and hauled hither and thither. The herders pointed often toward the plateau behind them. It was evident that Nu's assault upon the sentry of the previous night taken with the capture of this stranger and the appearance of Nu and Gron upon the cliff the day before had filled the villagers with fear of an invasion from the south. This only could account for the early return of the herders with their aurochs.
Taking advantage of what cover the descent to the valley afforded and the bushes and trees that dotted the valley itself, Nu crept cautiously onward toward the lake. He was determined to discover the identity of the prisoner, though even yet he could not believe that she was Nat-ul. A mile from the shore he was compelled to hide until dark, for there was less shelter thereafter and, too, there were many of the natives moving to and fro, having their herds browsing in the bottom lands close to their dwellings.
When it was sufficiently dark Nu crept closer. Again he hid in the reeds, but this time much closer to one of the causeways. He wished that he knew in precisely which of the dwellings the captive was confined. He knew that it would be madness to attempt to search the entire village, and yet he saw no other way.
At last the villagers had retired, with the exception of the sentries that guarded the narrow bridges connecting the dwellings with the shore. Nu crept silently beneath the nearest causeway. Wading through the shallow water he made his way to a point beyond the sentinel's post. Then he crossed beneath the dwelling until he had come to the opposite side. Here the water was almost to his neck. He climbed slowly up one of the piles. Stopping often to listen, he came at last to a height which enabled him to grasp the edge of the flooring above with the fingers of one hand. Then he drew himself up until his eyes topped the platform. Utter silence reigned about him utter silence and complete darkness. He raised himself, grasping the railing, until one knee rested upon the flooring, then he drew himself up, threw a leg over the railing and was crouching close in the shadows against the wall.
Here he listened intently for several minutes. From within came the sound of the heavy breathing of many sleepers. Above his head was an opening a window. Nu raised himself until he could peer within. All was darkness. He sniffed in the vain hope of detecting the familiar scent of Nat-ul, but if she were there all sign of her must have been submerged in the sweaty exhalations from the close packed men, women and children and the strong stench of the illy cured aurochs hides upon which they slept.
There was but one way to assure himself definitely he must enter the dwelling. With the stealth of a cat he crawled through the small aperture. The floor was almost covered with sleepers. Among them, and over them Nu picked his careful way. He bent low toward each one using his sensitive nostrils in the blind search where his eyes were of no avail. He had crossed the room and assured himself that Nat-ul was not there when a man appeared in the doorway. lt was the sentry. Nu flattened himself against the wall not two yards from the door. What had called the fellow within? Had he been alarmed by the movement within the hut? Nu waited with ready knife. The man stepped just within the doorway.
"Throk!" he called. One of the sleepers stirred and sat up.
"Huh?" grunted he.
"Come and watch it is your turn," replied the sentry.
"Ugh," replied the sleepy one, and the sentry turned and left the hut.
Nu could hear him who had been called Throk rising and collecting his weapons, donning his sandals, straightening and tightening his loin cloth. He was making ready for his turn at sentry duty. As he listened a bold scheme flashed into Nu's mind. He grasped his knife more tightly, and of a sudden stepped boldly across the room toward Throk.
"Sh!" he whispered. "I will stand watch in your place tonight, Throk."
"Huh?" questioned the sleepy man.
"I will stand watch for you," repeated Nu. "I would meet " and he mumbled a name that might have been anything, "she said that she would come to me tonight during the second watch."
Nu could hear the man chuckle.
"Give me your robe," said Nu, "that all may think that it is you," and he reached his hand for the horn crowned aurochs skin.
Throk passed it over, only too glad to drop back again into the slumber that his fellow had disturbed. Nu drew the bull's head over his own, the muzzle projecting like a visor, and the whole sitting low upon his head threw his features into shadow. Nu stepped out upon the platform. The other sentry was standing impatiently waiting his coming, at sight of him the fellow turned and walked toward one of the dwellings that stretched further into the lake. There were seven in all that were joined to the shore by this single causeway Nu had entered the one nearest the land.
In which was the prisoner, and was she even in any of this particular collection of dwellings? It was equally possible that she might be in one of the others of which Nu had counted not less than ten stretching along the shore of the lake for at least a mile or more. But he was sure that they had first brought her to one of the dwellings of this unit he had seen them cross the causeway with her. Whether they had removed her to some other village, later, he could not know. If there was only some way to learn definitely. He thought of the accommodating and sleepy Throk would he dare venture another assault upon the lunk-head's credulity. Nu shrugged. The chances were more than even that he would not find the girl before dawn without help, and that whether he did or no he never would escape from the village with his life. What was life anyway, but a series of chances, great and small. He had taken chances before well, he would take this one.
He reentered the dwelling and walked noisily to Throk's side. Stooping he shook the man by the shoulder. Throk opened his eyes.
"In which place is the prisoner?" asked Nu. He had come near to saying cave, but he had heard Gron speak of the hide and thatch things which protected them from the rains by another name than cave, and so he was bright enough to guess that he might betray himself if he used the word here. For the most part his language and the language of the Lake Dwellers was identical, and so he used a word which meant, roughly, in exactly what spot was the captive secured.
"In the last one, of course," grumbled the sleepy Throk.
Nu did not dare question him further. The last one might mean the last of this unit of dwellings or it might mean that she was in the last village, and Nu did not know which the last village might be, whether north or south of the village where he was. Already he could feel the eyes of the man searching through the darkness toward him. Nu rose and turned toward the doorway. Had the fellow's suspicions been aroused had Nu gone too far?
Throk sat upright upon his hides watching the retreating figure in his dense mind questions were revolving. Who was this man? Of course he must know him, but somehow he could not place his voice. Why had he asked where the captive was imprisoned? Everyone in all the villages knew that well enough. Throk became uneasy. He did not like the looks of things. He started to rise. Ugh! how sleepy he was. What was the use, anyway? It was all right, of course. He lay back again upon his aurochs skins.
Outside Nu walked to the shore and replenished the beast-fire. Then he turned back up the causeway. Quickly he continued along the platforms past the several dwellings until he had come to the last of the seven. At the doorway he paused and listened, at the same time sniffing quietly. A sudden tremor ran through his giant frame, his heart, throbbing wildly, leaped to his throat Nat-ul was within!
He crossed the threshold the building was a small one. No other scent of human being had mingled with that of Nat-ul. She must be alone. Nu groped through the darkness, feeling with his hands in the air before him and his sandaled feet upon the floor. His delicate nostrils guided him too, and at last he came upon her, lying tightly bound to an upright at the far end of the room.
He bent low over her. She was asleep. He laid a hand upon her shoulder and as he felt her stir he placed his other palm across her lips and bending his mouth close to her ear whispered that she must make no outcry.
Nat-ul opened her eyes and stirred.
"S-sh," cautioned Nu. "It is I, Nu, the son of Nu." He removed his hand from her lips and raised her to a sitting posture, kneeling at her side. He put his arms about her, a word of endearment on his lips; but she pushed him away.
"What do you here?" she asked, coldly.
Nu was stunned with the surprise of it.
"I have come to save you," he whispered; "to take you back to the cliffs beside the Restless Sea, where our people dwell."
"Go away!" replied Nat-ul. "Go back to your woman."
"Nat-ul!" exclaimed Nu. "What has happened? What has changed you? Has the sickness come upon you, because of what you have endured the sickness that changes the mind of its victim into the mind of one of the ape-folk? There is no woman for Nu but Nat-ul, the daughter of Tha."
"There is the stranger woman, Gron," cried Nat-ul, bitterly. "I saw her in your arms I saw your lips meet, and then I ran away. Go back to her. I wish to die."
Nu sought her hand, holding it tight.
"You saw what you saw, Nat-ul," he said; "but you did not hear when I told Gron that I loved only you. You did not see me disengage her arms. Then I saw you far away, and the herders come and take you, and I did not even cast another look upon the stranger woman; but hurried after your captors, hiding close by until darkness came. That I am here, Nat-ul, should prove my love, if ever you could have doubted it. Oh, Nat-ul, Nat-ul, how could you doubt the love of Nu!"
The girl read as much in his manner as his words that he spoke the truth, and even had he lied she would surely have believed him, so great was her wish to hear the very words he spoke. She dropped her cheek to his hand with a little sigh of relief and happiness, and then he took her in his arms. But only a moment could they spare to sentiment stern necessity called upon them for action, immediate and swift. How urgent was the call Nu would have guessed could he have looked into the hut where Throk lay upon his aurochs skins, wide eyed.
The man's muddy brain revolved many times the details of the coming of the fellow who had just asked the whereabouts of the prisoner. It was all quite strange, and the more that Throk thought upon it the more fully awake he became and the better able to realize that there had been something altogether too unusual and mysterious in the odd request and actions of the stranger.
Throk sat up. He had suddenly realized what would befall him should anything happen to the community because of his neglect of duty the primitive communal laws were harsh, the results of their infringement, sudden and relentless. He jumped to his feet, all excitement now. Not waiting to find a skin to throw over his shoulders, he grasped his weapons and ran out upon the platform. A quick glance revealed the fact that no sentry was in sight where a sentry should have been. He recalled the stranger's query about the location of the captive, and turned his face in the direction of the further dwellings.
Running swiftly and silently he hastened toward the hut in which Nat-ul had been confined, and so it was that as Nu emerged he found a naked warrior almost upon him. At sight of Nu and the girl behind him Throk raised his voice in a loud cry of alarm. His spear hand flew back, but back, too, flew the spear hand of Nu, the son of Nu. Two weapons flew simultaneously, and at the same instant Nat-ul, Nu and Throk dropped to the planking to avoid the missiles. Both whizzed harmlessly above them, and then the two warriors rushed upon one another with upraised axes.
From every doorway men were pouring in response to Throk's cry. Nu could not wait to close with his antagonist. He must risk the loss of the encounter and his ax as well in one swift move. Behind his shoulder his ax hand paused for an instant, then shot forward and released the heavy weapon. With the force of a cannon ball the crude stone implement flew through the air, striking Throk full in the face, crushing his countenance to a mangled blur of bloody flesh.
As the Lake Dweller stumbled forward dead, Nu grasped Nat-ul's hand and dragged her around the corner of the dwelling out of sight of the advancing warriors who were dashing toward them with savage shouts and menacing weapons. At the rail of the platform Nu seized Nat-ul and lifted her over, dropping her into the water beneath as he vaulted over at her side.
A few strong strokes carried them well under the village, and as they forged toward the shore they could hear the searchers running hither and thither above them. The whole community was awake by now, and the din was deafening. As the two crawled from the water to the shore they were instantly discovered by those nearest them, and at once the causeway rattled and groaned beneath the feet of a hundred warriors that sped along it to intercept the flight of the fugitives.
Ahead of them were the dangers of the primeval night; behind them were no less grave dangers at the hands of their savage foes. Unarmed, but for a knife, it was futile to stand and fight. The only hope lay in flight and the chance that they might reach the forest and a sheltering tree before either the human beasts behind them or the beasts of prey before had seized them.
Both Nu and Nat-ul were fleet of foot. Beside them, the Lake Dwellers were sluggards, and consequently five minutes put them far ahead of their pursuers, who, seeing the futility of further pursuit and the danger of being led too far from their dwellings and possibly into a strong camp of enemies, abandoned the chase and returned to the lake.
Fortune favored Nu and Nat-ul, as it is ever credited with favoring the brave. They reached the forest at the edge of the plateau without encountering any of the more formidable carnivora. Here they found sanctuary in a tree where they remained until dawn. Then they resumed their way toward the cliffs which they must scale to reach the sea. The matter of Gron had been settled between them they would offer to take her with them back to their own people where she might live in safety so long as she chose.
It was daylight when Nu and Nat-ul reached the base of the cliffs. Gron was not in sight. At the summit of the cliff, however, two crafty eyes looked from behind a grassy screen upon them. The watcher saw the man and the maid, and recognized them both. They were ascending he would wait a bit.
Nu and Nat-ul climbed easily upward. When they had gained about half the distance toward the summit the man, shunning further concealment, started downward to meet them. His awkwardness started a loose stone and appraised them of his presence. Nu looked up, as did Nat-ul.
"Tur!" exclaimed the latter.
"Tur," echoed Nu, and redoubled his efforts to ascend.
"You are unarmed," cautioned Nat-ul, "and he is above. The advantage is all his."
But the cave man was hot to lay hands upon this fellow who had brought upon Nat-ul all the hardships she had suffered. He loosed his knife and carried it between his teeth, ready for instant use. Like a cat he scrambled up the steep ascent. Directly at his heels came his sweet and savage Nat-ul. Between her strong, white teeth was her own knife. Tur was in for a warm reception. He had reached a ledge now just below a cave mouth. Lying loosely upon the cliff-side, scarcely balanced there, was a huge rock, a ton or two of potential destruction. Tur espied it. Just below it, directly in its path, climbed Nu and Nat-ul. Tur grasped in an instant the possibilities that lay in the mighty weight of that huge boulder. He leaped behind it, and bracing his feet against it and his back against the cliff, pushed. The boulder leaned and rocked. Nu, realizing the danger, looked to right and left for an avenue of escape, but chance had played well into the hands of the enemy. Just at this point there was no foothold other than directly where they stood. They redoubled their efforts to reach the man before he could dislodge the boulder.
Tur redoubled his efforts to start it spinning down upon them. He changed his position, placing his shoulder against the rock and one hand and foot against the cliff. Thus he pushed frantically. The hideous menace to those below it swayed and rocked. Another moment and it would topple downward.
Presently from the cave behind Tur a woman emerged, awakened by the noises from without. It was Gron. She took in the whole scene in a single glance. She saw Nu and with him Nat-ul. The man she loved with the woman who stood between them, who must always stand between them, for she realized that Nu would never love her, whether Nat-ul were alive or dead.
She smiled as she saw success about to crown the efforts of Tur. In another instant the man who scorned her love and the woman she hated with all the power of her savage jealousy would be hurled, crushed and mangled, to the bottom of the cliff.
Tur! She watched her mate with suddenly narrowing eyes. Tur! He struck her! He repudiated her! A flush of shame scorched her cheek. Tur! Her mate. The father of her child!
The rock toppled. Nu and Nat-ul from below were clambering upward. The man had seen Gron, but he had read her emotions clearly. No use to call upon her for help. Out of the past the old love for her true mate had sprung to claim her. She would cleave to Tur in the moment of his victory, hoping thus to win him back. Nor was Nu insensible to the power of hatred which he might have engendered in the woman's breast by repulsing her demonstrations of love.
Another push like the last and the boulder would lunge down upon them. Gron stood with her hands clutching her naked breasts, the nails buried in the soft flesh until blood trickled down the bronze skin. The father of her child. Her child! The pitiful thing that she deserted within the shelter by the beach! Her baby her dead baby! Dead because of Tur and his cruelty toward her.
Tur braced himself for the final push. A smile curled his lip. His back was toward Gron otherwise he would not have smiled. Even Nu did not smile at the thing he saw above him the face of a woman made hideous by hate and blood-lust. With bared knife Gron leaped toward Tur. The upraised knife buried itself in his back and chest. With a scream he turned toward the avenger. As his eyes rested upon the face of the mother of his child, he shrieked aloud, and with the shriek still upon his lips he sank to the ledge, dead.
Then Gron turned to face the two who were rapidly ascending toward her. Words of thanks were already upon Nu's lips; but Gron stood silent, ready to meet them with bared knife. What would she do? Nu and Nat-ul wondered, but there was no retreat and only a knife-armed woman barred their way to liberty and home.
Nu was almost level with her. Gron raised her knife above her head. Nu sprang upward to strike the weapon to one side before it was buried in his breast; but Gron was too quick for him. The blade fell, but not upon Nu. Deep into her own broken heart Gron plunged the sharp point, and at the same instant she leaped far beyond Nu and Nat-ul to crash, mangled and broken at the foot of the lofty cliff.
Death, sudden and horrible, was no stranger to these primeval lovers. They saw that Gron was dead, and Tur, likewise. Nu appropriated the latter's weapons, and side by side the two set out to find the beach. They found it with only such delays and dangers as were daily incidents in their savage lives. They found the boat, too, and reached the mainland and, later, the cliffs and their tribe, in safety. Here they found a wild welcome awaiting them, for both had been given up as dead.
That night they walked hand in hand beneath the great equatorial moon, beside the Restless Sea.
"Soon," said Nu, "Nat-ul shall become the mate of Nu, the son of Nu. Nu, my father, hath said it, and so, too, has spoken Tha, the father of Nat-ul. At the birth of the next moon we are to mate."
Nat-ul nestled closer to him.
"My Nu is a great warrior," she said, "and a great hunter, but he has not brought back the head of Oo, the killer of men and mammoths, that he promised to lay before the cave of Tha, my father."
"Nu sets out at the breaking of the next light to bunt Oo," he answered quietly, "nor will he return to claim his mate until he has taken the head of the killer of men and mammoths."
Nat-ul laughed up into Nu's face.
"Nat-ul but joked," she said. "My man has proved himself greater than a hunter of Oo. I do not want the great toothed head, Nu. I only want you. You must not go forth to hunt the beast-it is enough that you could slay him were he to attack us, and none there is who dares say it be beyond you."
"Nevertheless I hunt Oo on the morrow," insisted Nu. "I have never forgotten my promise."
Nat-ul tried to dissuade him, but he was obdurate, and the next morning Nu, the son of Nu, set forth from the cliffs beside the Restless Sea to hunt the lair of Oo.
All day Nat-ul sat waiting his return though she knew that it might be days before he came back, or that he might not come at all. Grave premonitions of impending danger haunted her. She wandered in and out of her cave, looking for the thousandth time along the way that Nu might come.
Suddenly a rumbling rose from far inland. The earth shook and trembled. Nat-ul, wide eyed with terror, saw her people fleeing upward toward their caves. The heavens became overcast, the loud rumbling rose to a hideous and deafening roar. The violence of the earth's motion increased until the very cliffs in which the people hid rocked and shook like a leaf before a hurricane.
Nat-ul ran to the innermost recess of her father's cave. There she huddled upon the floor burying her face in a pile of bear and lion skins. About her clustered other members of her father's family all were terror stricken.
It was five minutes before the end came. It came in one awful hideous convulsion that lifted the mighty cliff a hundred feet aloft, cracking and shattering it to fragments as its face toppled forward into the forest at its foot. Then there was silence-silence awful and ominous. For five minutes the quiet of death reigned upon the face of the earth, until presently from far out at sea came a rushing, swirling sound a sound that only a few wild beasts were left to hear and the ocean, mountain high, rushed in upon what had been the village of Nu, the chief.
WHEN Victoria Custer opened her eyes the first face that she saw was that of her brother, Barney, bent above her. She looked at him in puzzled bewilderment for a moment. Presently she reached her hands toward him.
"Where am I?" she asked. "What has happened?"
"You're all right, Vic," replied the young man. "You're safe and sound in Lord Greystoke's bungalow."
For another moment the girl knit her brows in perplexity.
"But the earthquake," she asked, "wasn't there an earthquake?"
"A little one, Vic, but it didn't amount to anything there wasn't any damage done."
"How long have I been er this way?" she continued.
"You swooned about three minutes ago," replied her brother. "I just put you down here and sent Esmeralda for some brandy when you opened your eyes."
"Three minutes," murmured the girl "three minutes!"
That night after the others had retired Barney Custer sat beside his sister's bed, and long into the early morning she told him in simple words and without sign of hysteria the story that I have told here, of Nat-ul and Nu, the son of Nu.
"I think," she said, when she had finished the strange tale, "that I shall be happier for this vision, or whatever one may call it. I have met my dream man and lived again the life that he and I lived countless ages ago. Even if he comes to me in my dreams again it will not disturb me. I am glad that it was but a dream, and that Mr. Curtiss was not killed by Terkoz, and that all those other terrible things were not real."
"Now," said Barney, with a smile, "you may be able to listen to what Curtiss has been trying to tell you." It was a half question.
Victoria Custer shook her head.
"No," she said, "I could never love him now. I cannot tell you why, but it may be that what I have lived through in those three minutes revealed more than the dim and distant past. Terkoz has never liked him, you know."
Barney did not pursue the subject. He kissed the girl good night and as the east commenced to lighten to the coming dawn he sought his own room and a few hours' sleep.
The next day it was decided that Victoria and Barney should start for the coast as soon as porters could be procured, which would require but a few days at the most. Lieutenant Butzow, Curtiss and I decided to accompany them.
It was the last day of their stay at the Greystoke ranch. The others were hunting. Barney and Victoria had remained to put the finishing touches upon their packing, but that was done now and the girl begged for a last ride over the broad, game dotted valley of Uziri.
Before they had covered a mile Barney saw that his sister had some particular objective in mind, for she rode straight as an arrow and rapidly, with scarce a word, straight south toward the foot of the rugged mountains that bound the Waziri's country upon that side in the very direction that she had previously shunned. After a couple of hours of stiff riding they came to the foot of the lofty cliff that had formerly so filled Victoria with terror and misgivings.
"What's the idea, Vic," asked the man, "I thought you were through with all this."
"I am, Barney," she replied, "or will be after today, but I just couldn't go away without satisfying my curiosity. I want to know that there is no cave here in which a man might be buried."
She dismounted and started to climb the rugged escarpment. Barney was amazed at the agility and strength of the slender girl. It kept him puffing to remain near her in her rapid ascent.
At last she stopped suddenly upon a narrow ledge. When Barney reached her side he saw that she was very white, and he paled himself when he saw what her eyes rested upon. The earthquake had dislodged a great boulder that for ages evidently had formed a part of the face of the cliff. Now it had tilted outward a half dozen feet, revealing behind it the mouth of a gloomy cavern.
Barney took Victoria's hand. It was very cold and trembled a little.
"Come," he said, "this has gone far enough, Vic. You'll be sick again if you keep it up. Come back to the horses we've seen all we want to see."
She shook her head.
"Not until I have searched that cave," she said, almost defiantly, and Barney knew that she would have her way.
Together they entered the forbidding grotto, Barney in advance, striking matches with one hand while he clung to his cocked rifle with the other; but there was nothing there that longer had the power to injure.
In a far corner the feeble rays of the match lighted something that brought Barney to a sudden halt. He tried to turn the girl back as though there was nothing more to be seen, but she had seen too and pressed forward. She made her brother light another match, and there before them lay the crumbling skeleton of a large man. By its side rested a broken, stone-tipped spear, and there was a stone knife and a stone ax as well.
"Look!" whispered the girl, pointing to something that lay just beyond the skeleton.
Barney raised the match he held until its feeble flame carried to that other object the grinning skull of a great cat, its upper jaw armed with two mighty, eighteen-inch, curved fangs.
"Oo, the killer of men and of mammals," whispered Victoria Custer, in an awed voice, "and Nu, the son of Nu, who killed him for his Nat-ul for me!"