AS his bird-beast turned over and over with him in the air, Thorne, swinging at the ends of his safety chains, saw that they were falling toward a small lake in the midst of the marsh with fearful velocity. As they neared the water the crippled gawr made valiant efforts to right itself, and managed to change the last few hundred feet to a glide and a dive. They struck the water with an impact that almost robbed Thorne of consciousness. Dimly aware that he was being dragged down far below the surface of the lake, he held his breath, unhooked his safety chains, unfastened his belt and let his weapons sink. Then he fought his way swiftly to the top.
For some time the Earthman was too busy getting his breath to take note of his surroundings. Then he looked around for his mount, and saw it swimming directly away from him. Although the gawr was moving at a speed which he could not possibly hope to equal, he was about to set out in futile pursuit when a huge and terrible reptilian head suddenly reared itself between them, a scaly, silver gray head balanced on a thin, spiny neck. The monster looked first at the retreating gawr, then at the man, and began gliding swiftly toward him.
It was manifest from the start that he could not hope to outstrip his fearful aquatic enemy. As he forged ahead he glanced back from time to time, and saw that the monster was swiftly gaining on him.
With the shore but two hundred feet distant, he felt his last ounce of strength ebbing. Then just ahead of him he noticed a tiny ripple in the water, and there emerged a pair of jaws like those of a crocodile, but larger than those of any crocodile he had ever seen or heard of. There followed a broad, flat head, and thick neck, both covered with glossy fur, the head black, the neck ringed with a bright yellow band.
Hemmed thus between the two aquatic monsters, he plunged beneath the surface and dived under the oncoming beast, remaining under water until compelled to return to the surface for air.
When he had shaken the water out of his eyes, Thorne saw that the two monsters had met, and were engaged in a terrific struggle. The silver-gray scales of the one which had been following him flashed in the sun as it endeavored to shake off its smaller adversary which had seized it by the lower lip.
Suddenly it reared its head until the black-furred creature was drawn completely out of the water, and he saw that the latter was a web-footed animal about as large as a full-grown terrestrial lion, with short legs and a leathery, paddle-shaped tail which was edged with sharp spines. With the exception of the tail and claws, the body was covered with fur.
Thorne expected to see the smaller creature instantly slain. Instead, with a speed his eye could scarcely follow, it avoided the lunge of that terrible head, and turning, seized the slender, stalklike neck of its adversary in its own relatively large jaws. One powerful crunch, and the battle was over.
So absorbed had he been in this strange battle that Thorne had momentarily forgotten the peril that menaced him. Now, as the victor turned from the carcass of its vanquished enemy and swam straight toward him, he struck out for the shore, essaying the fast overhand stroke he had previously used on the surface, but his weary muscles had reached the limit of their endurance. Better death by drowning than in those horrible jaws. He filled his lungs and dived. At a depth of about fifteen feet he found a large water plant to which he clung with his last remaining strength.
But it seemed he was not even to be given his choice of deaths. Suddenly he became aware of a dark object in the green water above him. Then a huge pair of jaws closed around his waist, and with a deft twist, broke his hold on the water plant. A moment later he was lifted clear of the water.
The creature was carrying him swiftly toward the shore. He guessed that the monster was taking him to its lair, but on looking up, saw that it was heading directly toward the mouth of a narrow bayou. There, to his astonishment, he saw a small, flat boat, and standing in the boat a slender girl, who cried, “Good old Tezzu. Careful! Hold him gently.”
Thorne’s astonishment increased, for it was obvious that the girl was talking to the creature that carried him. Moreover, he assumed from her speech that she had sent this monster out to save his life.
The stern of the little craft sloped toward the water, and it was to this that the animal brought him. The girl seized a leg and an arm, and her efficient beast placed its snout beneath his body and rolled him into the boat.
Thorne essayed to sit up, but fell back weakly. Dimly, as through a haze, he saw the girl toss a rope to the beast, then felt the tug as the boat was towed ahead. The girl sat down, raised his head from the bottom of the boat and propped it in her lap.
“Who—who are you?” he asked.
She seemed surprised. “You do not know me?”
He stared hard. “I can scarcely see you. That haze . . . ”
“Don’t try. Close your eyes and try to sleep. Later we will talk.”
It was easy for Thorne to obey her. It was good to lie there and relax with that gentle hand on his forehead.
Presently, opening his eyes, he saw that they were gliding through a narrow channel in the marsh. Trees hung over the water, their branches so interlaced and festooned with moss and lianas that only occasional shafts of sunlight penetrated to the surface.
Thorne glanced up at the girl. By any standard she was unquestionably beautiful, with her slightly tip-tilted nose, her glossy black hair, and her dark brown eyes shaded by long curling lashes. Though she was small and slender she was undoubtedly athletic. Her sole articles of apparel were a narrow band of soft leather which incased her small, firm breasts, a cincture of the same material about her smooth, tanned thighs, and the belt from which her sword, dagger and mace were suspended.
It was when he caught a glimpse of the clear sky through a rift in the branches that Thorne suddenly thought of Lal Vak and Yirl Du. He sat up abruptly.
“What’s wrong?” the girl asked.
“I must go back at once.”
The girl looked puzzled. “Back? How? Where? What do you mean?”
“Back to the lake where I left my friends fighting. If they survived they will be searching for me.”
She shook her head. “It is too late. As it is we will barely make shelter before sundown. Tomorrow, if you like, I will take you back.”
“But tomorrow will be too late. They will think me dead.”
“Then, Borgen, they will be the more pleasantly surprised when you return to Castle Takkor.”
“Not Borgen, Sheb.”
For a moment she regarded him with a look of shocked surprise. Then sudden tears swelled in her eyes. “Has the ceremony been performed?”
“No. I was on my way to attend it with Lal Vak and Yirl Du when we were attacked, and you rescued me.”
Thorne now realized that she must have been very well acquainted with Sheb Takkor the elder, and that she undoubtedly knew far more about the man whose place he had taken than he did himself. He wondered what her relationship had been with Borgen Takkor.
Suddenly the girl seized a long, barbed spear which lay in the bottom of the boat, and lunged at something she saw in the rushes. Then, before Thorne could rise to help her, she drew a huge iridescent beetle about three feet long into the boat. Plunging the point of the spear into the planking to keep it from escaping, she then put an end to the impaled insect’s struggles by splitting its armored head with her mace. This done, she turned to the Earth man with a smile.
“We will fare well this evening. Now I can prepare your favorite dish.”
Thorne looked askance at the beetle and began to have misgivings as to what his favorite dish would be like.
At this moment the beast towing the boat ran up on a small island, dragging it after him onto a sloping beach that bore the marks of many landings.
“Enough, Tezzu,” called the girl. The creature dropped the tow-rope and came cavorting down to the boat like an affectionate dog, to be petted.
“You may bring the anuba, Sheb,” said the girl. “Tezzu will carry the javelins.”
Thorne judged that the anuba was the beetle. He withdrew the point of the spear from the planking while the girl handed the sheaf of javelins to her beast, then shouldered the heavy insect and followed her up a narrow path that wound through the undergrowth.
After walking about two hundred feet they came to a small cylindrical hut, made from stout posts driven into the ground in a compact circle and chinked with clay. The flat roof was made from the same crude materials, and the circular door was a thick cross section of an immense log.
“Don’t you remember this camp, Sheb?”
“I . . . ” Thorne was trying to frame a reply when, to his astonishment, the door flew open. A slender, spidery arm shot out and seized the girl by the wrist, jerking her through the opening. Then the door slammed shut.
Almost at the same instant a net dropped over the Earthman, jerking him backward. As he struggled in its enveloping meshes, he saw Tezzu drop the sheaf of javelins and with a roar of rage dash straight at the door where she had disappeared.