AFTER a few moments of digging, Yirl Du grasped something and dragged it up out of the sand. It was a pole about eight feet in length, one end of which was inserted in a cylinder six inches in diameter and four feet long. Three pairs of straps were fastened to this cylinder and a bit of stirrup-shaped metal projected from its lower end.
At the opposite end of the pole was a cone-shaped cushion of reddish-brown resilient material.
Swiftly the Jen of the Takkor Free Swordsmen unearthed three more objects like the first, and two poles about sixteen feet long. Then he dragged out two large metal water bottles and two boxes, to all of which carry-straps were attached.
Opening one of the boxes, Thorne discovered food, fire-powder and medical supplies. Among these was a bottle of rjembal gum. He heated some of this by burning a small quantity of fire-powder. Then he dressed Yirl Du’s wounds and burns, after which his henchman did the like for him.
“Now, my lord,” said Yirl Du, “if you will be seated I will strap on your desert legs for you.”
Although Thorne had no idea what the pole and cylinder combinations were for, he began to understand when his retainer brought two of them and, after inserting his feet in the stirrups, began strapping them to his legs. When they were properly fastened in place, he next strapped a box to the Earthman’s back, slung his javelins in their quiver, and hung his water bottle by a strap across his shoulder. Then he handed him one of the poles.
“Now you are ready, my lord,” he said, “and I’ll be on my own desert legs very shortly.”
It did not take Yirl Du long to do for himself what he had done for Thorne. Then, grasping his pole with both hands, he thrust one end into the sand beside him, and drew himself up until he stood on his two long stilts. Thorne followed his example. With his weight on them the tops of the stilts were compressed a little way into the cylinders, which evidently contained powerful springs. The resilient, cone-shaped feet kept the stilts from sinking into the sand and added to the illusion of floating feather-like through space which the springs induced.
Yirl Du started off, walking toward the northwest. Thorne attempted to imitate his gait, but found it quite difficult, much like walking on bed springs or an aerial artist’s net. At each step his desert legs threw him forward like a springboard, so that several times he was compelled to use his long pole to keep from falling on his face.
Presently he got the swing of it, whereupon Yirl Du gradually increased the pace until both of them were running. Not until then did the Earthman discover the tremendous advantage of traveling with desert legs. At each step the stilt now sank deeply into the cylinder, then hurled him upward and forward like a catapult.
The night was cold and frosty, and the exercise just sufficient to make him draw in great lungsful of the sweet desert air. What a relief after the baridium pit, with its searing, acrid fumes and its deadly clouds of corrosive dust!
As the night wore on and morning approached, the bright nearer moon once more popped above the western horizon, and hurtling forward to greet its slower, paler companion, made the sand particles and frost crystals glitter and sparkle. But long before the two moons could meet in the sky, the sun, heralded by a brief flash of silver-gray light, shot above the eastern horizon in the full blaze of its glory, and both satellites faded from view.
A few moments later, Yirl Du sighted a clump of conifers, and the two men made for it. They found a dry waterhole, but this did not daunt them with their full bottles, and the trees offered concealment and shade. Unstrapping their desert legs, they gathered firewood, brewed pulcho, and with the hot, stimulating beverage, washed down their morning meal of dried meat and hard traveler’s cakes. Then, after extinguishing their fire with sand, they stretched out in the shade to sleep.
Thorne fell asleep almost immediately. Nor did he awaken until Yirl Du shook him soundly.
“The day is all but sped, my lord,” he said. “I have brewed fresh pulcho and prepared our evening meal. We should eat and be ready to start as soon as the sun sets.”
“What of our enemies? It seems strange that no signs of pursuit have developed.”
“But they have developed,” replied Yirl Du. “I am a light sleeper, and several times during the day as I lay awake, I saw bands of warriors mounted on gawrs flying overhead. Had they paused to search our hiding place we would have been killed or captured long ere this. Fortunately they did not.”
The sun set just as they finished their meal, and they packed their belongings and strapped on their desert legs by the light of the nearer moon. Then they set out once more. Yirl Du had estimated that by traveling all night and sleeping during the daytime, they would be able to reach the edge of the Takkor Marsh in three nights. Here he would know how to find Thaine, if she were still alive and uncaptured, and they would be able to fulfill Thorne’s promise to help her search for her father.
They made swift progress traveling by the light of the nearer moon, but it soon set and as on the night before there was a period of darkness during which only the stars and planets glittered overhead. This slowed them down considerably, as they were forced to proceed in the dark with extreme caution. And so, when the farther moon appeared above the eastern horizon, they welcomed it with joy, for it meant that they could set out once more at full speed.
They had traveled for some time by its pale light when Thorne noticed, over at his left, an object projecting above the horizon which he at first took for a tall, tufted conifer. But he suddenly became aware that it was moving; not like a tree swaying in the breeze, but actually traveling over the ground and coming with considerable speed in his direction. As the thing rapidly drew closer he was able to make out a huge head with a hooked beak, a long, scrawny neck, and a large, bird-like body supported by two legs, each of which was at least fifteen feet in length. The head of the monster, he judged, towered at least thirty feet above the ground.
He called to his companion. “Ho, Yirl Du. Do you see what is coming after us?”
His henchman looked around. “A koree! We must hasten, or we are dead men. It is the great man-eating bird of the desert.”
They accelerated their pace from a trot to a run. Soon they had lengthened their thirty-foot steps to nearly fifty. But the koree kept coming on, and despite their utmost exertions, gaining on them.
Thorne, less skillful with the desert legs than his companion, began to fall behind, while the monster, still shortening the distance between them soon towered only fifty feet behind. It was a hideous thing—a giant bird with a crest of waving plumes, and a huge curved beak that looked fully capable of cutting a man in two with a single snap.
Its long lean neck was bare of feathers and covered with a wrinkled, leathery skin. Like the neck, the body was leathery and naked. The wings, which were short and obviously useless for flight, were featherless, but covered with sharp, horny protuberances which made them quite formidable weapons. The long legs were armored with large, rough scales, and the toes were equipped with sickle-shaped retractile claws. The monster ran with its ugly head projecting far forward and its wings sticking stiffly out from its leathery body, as if to prevent its intended victim from suddenly doubling back to the right or left.
In the meantime Yirl Du, noticing that the koree was likely to catch up with Thorne at any moment, dropped back beside him.
“We must separate,” Yirl Du told him. “The bird will follow one of us. The other must then turn and follow it, hurling as many javelins into it as possible.”
They separated, and the bird followed Thorne. Yirl Du instantly turned and pursued it. His first throw struck just behind the left wing, but despite his great strength and skill at hurling the javelin, he was only able to drive it through that tough skin for a little way. A second, striking below it, penetrated to a depth of about a foot. But it was enough to exasperate the monster, which turned and rushed at its persistent tormentor.
Thorne now turned and hurled a javelin. Striking at the point where the right leg joined the body it only penetrated deeply enough for the barb to hold. He tried a second cast, this time throwing with all his might. The javelin passed clear over the body of the bird and struck it in the back of the neck. Like the first, however, it only sank in up to the first barb, and therefore did not do much damage. It was enough, however, to make the monster turn and charge him.
Instantly the Earthman shot out at right angles to the course he had been following. But he made the mistake of watching the bird without looking at the ground before him, and ran straight into a tangle of desert sand-flowers. First one stilt, then the other, caught in the snarl of tough vines, and he plunged, face downward, into the sand about twenty feet beyond.
He managed to retain his grip on the long pole he carried, although it had been split when he fell, and now, after turning on his back, attempted to raise himself onto his desert legs once more.
But he was not quick enough. Already the koree towered above him, its huge beak distended for the kill.