by Rod Hunsicker
all rights reserved!
"How long are you going to allow this unauthorized specimen to roam around to present a state of possible biological contamination?" There were two people in the room. The one who asked this question was a male of average height, dressed in soft white clothing. His voice was a bit contrite and he was frowning at the other person.
The second person, an attractive woman similarly dressed in soft white, ignored his question as she continued to examine some data before her.
"Maeve, did you hear me?"
Apparently, she did because she turned and smiled sweetly at the man. "There is no reason for concern, Richart. The specimen has been read. He contained no dangerous biological anomalies."
"Readings are not always completely reliable. Even yours," returned the man. It was not so much that he was irritated that she was doing something out of order, after all, it was policy to place any extra planetary or dimensional specimen through a second cleansing program once it had been placed on the planet's surface. He was irritated because he was genuinely concerned that the specimen was potentially dangerous to Kregen's indigenous population. Particularly the apim population.
"My readings are reliable! That is one of the directives of this experiment," replied the woman sharply.
"That remains to be proved. Shouldn't we take more
She turned and looked at her companion. Placing her hands on her hips she laughed. "Do you want me to dip him in the Pool of Aphrasoe?"
"Don't play games with me, Maeve. That would be inappropriate. Your experiment would be concluded immediately upon his acceptance or denial. You wouldn't do that.
"No, I suggest a more standard cleansing technique," continued Richart.
"Standard sterilizing techniques were performed upon his initial transportation. I doubt if anything got past the "bug sprays", Richart." She took a few steps over to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry. Seriously, he won't start a plague. You worry to much!"
"I hope you are right," muttered Richart, unable to hide the doubt in his voice.
The spring was low because of the dry season. A few feet away the grass was brown and mud turned to dry dirt where the grass wasn't growing. Cat Smiling turned and looked at his own tracks in the gummy semi dry ground in the space where it turned from mud to dirt. His dark, impassive face tilted a bit. Puzzled, he walked over and squatted by his tracks.
One of his red-brown fingers traced the indention of his heel imprint. He thought it should be deeper. According to his tracks he was lighter than he knew himself to be. To test the accuracy of this observation, he left tracks in the mud, wet ground and dry dirt, and when he examined each respectively his trail wise eyes told him that he was not as heavy as he thought he should be. The tracks were not right!
He rubbed his hands over his barrel chest and hard stomach. He did not feel thinner, though he had thought for a long time that he felt lighter, and now his tracks proved this to him. A stab of panic unsettled him as he wondered if he had lost some of his substance. Was he fading away, as if only a dream creature, and would he soon be nothing more than a memory? Whose memory?
Cat Smiling clamped down on these frightful speculations. He felt that he was not just having a vision, he was living in a land of vision. It was unsettling that he was alone in such a strange land. He must remain calm if he were to survive. He would wait a bit, test his weight each day through the measurement of his tracks and see if he was loosing substance. Perhaps, his light weight was merely a condition of this new land. He was still not certain as to what this new land was or what kinds of creatures lived here. He was still not certain what manner of spirits animated the land. His sense of these things was off balance. He was not a man to waste time in wishful thinking, but for a moment he wished that Old Coyote Fang were with him. He was certain that the old shaman would be able to explain some of the unexplainable things that were part of this new world. He was certain, almost, that he was in a new world now, and not in the Land Beyond the Sun. This new place was alive. Its air was filled with savage freshness. He no longer felt uncomfortable in the pinkish sunlight or burning under the rays of two different suns. His deepest regret, other than being separated from his people, was that there were no buffalo. What was a Nerm without buffalo?
Cat Smiling's face became impassive. He was indulging in foolish thoughts. With or without buffalo, he was still a warrior of "People". He was Cat Smiling, and it that had always been enough.
He left his tracks in the mud and walked into the tall grass where his new "pony" was waiting.
He shot the rodent through the body. It would have fallen back into its hole except for the arrow which propped its squirming furry form above ground. The Comanche walked over and picked up the rodent by the arrow that transfixed it. He severed its head with his sharp metal knife. Supper.
Later, as he ate the rodent, he thought how like a wild cat he had become.
If nothing else, the wild cat was a great mouser. So had become
Time passed. It became apparent to Cat Smiling that nearby a trail was being used by raiders or slavers. The raiders didn't use the trail with any regularity, but it was used often. Cat Smiling spent a lot of time watching the parties as they traveled across the plains. Occasionally, he stole something from the slavers. He didn't have to kill anyone else because he had determined that these odd creatures didn't have the exceptional senses that one might expect from men with animal features. A manlike creature with the head and fur of a fox didn't have the hearing and olfactory sense of a real fox. Except for their animal features, these creatures were not much different from ordinary men.
With the skill that made his people famous, the Comanche stole more mounts from the parties. Now he had four mounts in his possession. Before stealing each mount he had studied the beasts in the enemies' remuda until he discovered which one was the best to steal, and naturally, that was the one that he took. Right from under their noses.
Stealing the horned beasts from the strange men had fortified Cat Smiling. It was a little of his old world. Back in the Land of One Sun he had been a very good thief. Many horses had been stolen from the Spanish and other Indian tribes. Before he had been taken from the Land of the One Sun he had been well on his way to becoming a rich man. Rich in many horses.
He didn't know what his fate would be in this Land of Two Suns. He didn't know why or how he came to be here. All he could do is continue as he had done in the old land, and hope that one day he would return to the Land of One Sun and to his people.
A new party of slavers and their slaves rode and marched through the thigh high grasses. As he had done before, Cat Smiling searched for something to steal. There were several fine horned beasts, but these prizes were not what caught his eye. For the first time he saw a woman he looked upon with favor. Cat Smiling had been without a woman for many weeks. His lust had grown strong, and his two wives were back in the Land of One Sun. Taking a woman where he found her was no problem for the Comanche. Women found on the trail were taken with the intention to rape and discard.
His dark eyes narrowed as he gazed at the woman. She had long black hair and a sound, attractive body. It was just as important to Cat Smiling that she be sound of body as she be attractive because he had the instant notion of stealing and keeping her. Her skin was burned red tan from the sun. She was of the white race. He couldn't see the color of her eyes, nor was that important to him. She was bound to a brace of other captives with the iron ropes that the Spanish called encadenados. This was a problem because his knife would not cut these chains. One or more of the men had to have a key to the chains. Cat Smiling knew that this was the way that chains worked because he had seen the Spanish use them. Cat Smiling watched the men to see who had the keys. He had to keep pace with the party and did so at a fair distance away because it was easier not to be seen that way and he knew where they were going anyway.
Two hours later he ran into some good luck. One of the captives fell over and died. A huge, hairy man walked over and withdrew a key from his belt and unlocked this man. The body was left where it lay and the party moved on.
Now that he knew which man had the key, or at least one of the men who had a key, Cat Smiling thought his chances of taking the woman were greatly increased. The suns were lowering in the sky. It would be night soon. The Comanche hoped that he could steal the woman then.
As shadows began to swallow the world, Cat Smiling crept close to the
camp. He could hear their voices speaking in some strange tongue.
This was not important. It was important that he keep track of the
big, hairy man and the black haired woman. The woman was fed with
the rest of the captives, still in chains, and later all the captives were
fastened to great stakes that had been driven into the ground.
Cat Smiling thought this was a good idea, though where the captives might go chained together he did not know.
The raiders ate better food than they had given to the captives. They drank from bottles, and Cat Smiling thought they were drinking some kind of brew. They laughed and joked. Some of them were friendly to each other, and some of them were not. He noticed that some of the animal men kept to themselves and several groups were formed according to race. It was clear that the big hairy key holder was one of the band's leaders. Cat Smiling kept his eyes on that one.
After night had fallen for several hours, Cat Smiling inched his way toward the camp. There were several sentries. The Comanche did not doubt that he could pass them, but he wasn't sure that he could pass them again with the woman in tow. Perhaps, she would resist him, and that would make a lot more noise than would have occurred if he were leading a beast out of the camp. Also, the captives were closer to the raiders than the mounts were.
Then luck came to Cat Smiling again. When most of the raiders were asleep, the big man rose to his feet with a stout club in his hand. He was fully armed with knife and ax, so Cat Smiling wondered what he would do with the club. The big, hairy man went over to the captives, kicked a few and grabbed a handful of black hair of the woman that Cat Smiling wanted. He laughed brutally and unchained the woman from the others. Still holding her by the hair, he roughly pulled her away from the camp. Once along the way he hit her on the buttocks with the club.
Cat Smiling couldn't believe his good luck. It was obvious what he was going to do with her. The Comanche wondered why he bothered to take her to a private place. Most Comanches were not shy about raping women. The cat in him smiled as he crept along a path to intercept the big hairy man and the woman.
About 30 yards away from the camp, the big man stopped and pushed the woman to the ground. She rolled and came up sobbing. The slave driver calmly took a length of rope from his belt and motioned for her to turn around. Wildly, the woman shook her head. Her hands balled up into fists, and for a moment she looked like she would launch herself upon the man. Instead, she wheeled and tried to run away.
The big man laughed, took a quick, big step toward her and clubbed her. She hit the ground hard, but wasn't knocked unconscious. She tried to get to her feet, panic in her face, when the big man hit her again, twice around the shoulders and back. She dropped to her hands and knees, whimpering in pain and shame.
The big man pushed her head down to the ground with his boot and pulled her hands behind her. Roughly, he tied them securely and stepped back with a smile. Then, one quick tug pulled her gray loincloth from her body, and she was naked before him.
The woman mumbled something in her own language. She mumbled it over and over as she heard the sound of the big man's belt being unbuckled.
As Cat Smiling drew close to them, he realized why the big man wanted privacy for the rape. He was not a big man everywhere. The Comanche nearly laughed.
The slaver bent over the woman with his large hands gripping her hips. He was almost giggling as he prepared to enter her.
Something hit him in the back. He lost his legs and fell to the grassy ground. Something else hit him in the head, and he lost the rest of his body.
Cat Smiling stood over the slaver's dead body with a bloody ax in hand. It had been easier than he thought. The woman still had her face buried in the grass, and probably wasn't aware that the man who was about to rape her was dead. To prevent any outburst from her, Cat Smiling straddled her, pulled her head back and gagged her. All this was done quickly and efficiently. He had much practice at dealing with captives.
With the woman tied and gagged, the Comanche returned to the dead man. His death had not stirred his comrades so Cat Smiling felt he had some time to play with. Most interesting about the man was the great ax that was strapped to his hirsute back. Cat Smiling removed the ax and held it before him. Although his lips did not move, the cat within him smiled. He cleaned the big man's blood off its long handle.
The ax was double bladed and immaculately sharp. At the end of the handle was a iron ring. Holding the ring, Cat Smiling swung the ax in a vicious arc. What a fine weapon, he thought as he strapped it to his body.
By now the woman was looking at him with wide eyes. There was a flash of discomfort when he discovered that her eyes were blue. Not important now; the Comanche shrugged. The rest of her looked good.
He helped her to her feet and indicated that she come with him. There was indecision in her eyes. That much he could see in the strong moonslight. She was breathing raggedly through her nose, no longer able to gasp through the gag. Cat Smiling pushed her in the direction he wanted to go. He made a sign for quiet that was well known on the Great Plains of his homeland. Still, she hesitated. Then he spoke to her in his own tongue. His rich masculine voice commanded her to go. She didn't know what words he was saying but his meaning was clear. She made her decision and went in the direction he wanted.
The light was strong enough so she could make her way through the mid sized grass. Cat Smiling directed her by pushing on her shoulder toward the right way. It was not long before they walked over a small hill and into a shallow where his mounts were waiting. There were two mounts there. Cat smiling lifted the woman up on one of the beasts, and quickly leaped on his own pinto. As quietly as possible he walked his beasts away from the slavers' camp until their central campfire was hardly able to be seen.
It was a hard ride through the night. Her captor kept her hands tied and the gag in her mouth until they had come to his own camp where they stopped to pick up his other two mounts. The Comanche thought it was imperative that they continue to ride in order to put as much distance between themselves and the slavers as possible. Cat Smiling was not confident that the slavers wouldn't mount up and chase them as soon as they had discovered that the big key holder was dead. There were twenty armed men in their ranks and the Comanche knew that if they caught them they would kill him.
With her hands untied the woman proved to be a adequate rider. She was no burden as they continued to ride all night and into the next morning. It was only when they had crossed a place of stones and had arrived at a hiding place that Cat Smiling knew about did they finally stop.
The Comanche took care of his mounts and then offered the woman something to drink and eat. She watched him suspiciously as she satisfied her thirst and hunger. When she was done, Cat Smiling let her take care of her natural needs. When that was done he tied her hands and feet together and laid down to rest. He was tired and needed to sleep and he had no wish for her to cave in his skull while he slept.
The woman was clearly frightened of the Comanche and made no sign of rebellion. With the stoicism of a slave she made herself as comfortable as possible. Soon she was asleep too.
Cat Smiling awoke in late afternoon. He stretched and groaned his pleasure at being alive. The woman was already awake and staring at him with those strange blue eyes. The Comanche had seen blue eyes only rarely in some of the Spanish that he had encountered in trade and war. This woman could not be Spanish, though she was certainly white.
He squatted by her and spoke to her in Comanche. "I am Cat Smiling, warrior of the Antelope Band. Do you understand my words?"
The woman did not and shook her head.
Then he spoke to her in some other languages that he knew. She did not understand Apache, Kiowa or Spanish. She spoke to him and her words were meaningless.
He cut her bonds and told her to make her toilet. He used sign language that was based on fundamental human symbols, and she seemed to understand. Later, they ate and pushed on.
They spoke little for the next two days. They traveled much and rested when very tired until they came to a place where Cat Smiling had his main camp. It was in a small depression surrounded by a crop of spindly trees. There was a stream that cut into the clearing amid the trees which filled a pond. Cat Smiling had built a lean too near a large rock. It was the only thing that suggested creature comfort in the place. The woman dropped off her mount and sank to her knees next to the pool. The water was fresh and tasted good. The Comanche watched her with a slight smirk on his thin lips. Then he kicked her in the butt and tumbled her into the pond.
To her credit she didn't scream or cry. Frightened she sat in the shallow water and wondered what her captor would do next. Cat Smiling rubbed his body and pointed to the water. Clearly, he wanted her to bath. At his command, she did this. When she was done, he took her by the arm and stood her naked in the grass.
What happened to her next was humiliating. The Comanche put her through a thorough examination. He checked her as he would a horse, including her teeth. It was necessary to determine if he had made a correct decision. He had no use for an unhealthy woman. He poked, prodded and squinted at every part of her body until he was satisfied that she was in good shape. Her only problem was that she was a bit thin from maltreatment.
If there was one thing that Cat Smiling feared it was sickness. He hoped that his own power was sufficient to stave off sickness, but in this new place he wasn't as confident as he might have been back home. And if he got sick there was no medicine man here to spell him healthy. His own medicine bag was empty. He had found no power objects in this place to supplement his own power.
With the health issue behind him, the Comanche noted how well formed the woman was. She stood only an inch below his eye level. Her body was athletic symmetry sheathed in a pleasant feminine form. Her breasts were well shaped and larger than he was used to. Her face was longer than most Comanche maidens, and her nose was straighter. Still, her complexion was a clear sun burned tan. She looked like a woman. She smelled like a woman.
There was no need for Cat Smiling to bathe. His people rarely bathed unless it was for ceremonial reasons. He had insisted that the woman wash off the dirt that had coated her so he could examine her more closely. Now that he was certain she was not diseased, he nodded to her and pointed to the lean to. She nearly bolted. There was no where for her to go. She had no idea where she was. The man before her was very calm, and not in the least lecherous, but she knew what he wanted from her next.
He stepped close to her and put his hand on her trembling shoulder. He pressed his forefinger to her heart and then pressed that forefinger to his own chest. Then he pointed to the lean-to.
She wanted to cry. She wanted to run. Instead, she walked slowly over to the lean to and submitted to his will. He took her with a natural ease. With none of the brutality that other slavers had forced her to submit to. When it was over, the Comanche got up, mounted his pinto and rode away.
She had been raped without violence. Now she was left alone to make her own choices. When the Comanche came back she was waiting for him.
"The man is a unconscionable savage! How could you hope that he could meet the service requirements of a savapim?" Richart slapped his hands down on the console before him. "He raped that woman."
Maeve remained calm, though she was a bit concerned. "Not necessarily. Not according to his own culture. Additionally, he was not brutal or forceful about it."
"Not brutal! Only because she submitted. What choice did she have?" exploded Richart.
"You are being unnecessarily prudish, Richart. Rape is an everyday part of Kregen life. It all comes under the bloody banner of slavery," said Maeve evenly.
"Its not customary for our agents to indulge in it. We require a higher morality," retorted Richart.
"That is true, but this project is not just about the acquisition of a superior apim. Its about the testing of my theories and the application of those theories. Also, the project is far from finished. We can't let ourselves be too traumatized by his 'raping' the Hamalese woman. She was going to be raped anyway, many times and far more brutally than the rape that was enforced by this man. Instead, look at it from another perspective. He was not brutal. He was rational. This rape scene only serves to support my theory that he is a cut above the ordinary savage as was indicated by my new reading process.
"Others of his society wouldn't have been kind. His people are not a kind people. You've read some of my briefs on the culture of his people. I have made note of young girls raped and left to die by the raiding trail. This man, though he considers women to be chattel, is not of that brutal breed. If he has that rational foundation to his character, then we can build upon that. Perhaps, he will become the exceptional savapim I believe he can be and in the doing so, validate my own expectations."
Richart shook his head. "I find it uncomfortable to witness rape of any kind, Maeve. Oh, I know it goes on, and I hope that someday we can put a stop to it. Its just not something I consider appetizing viewing material. Even in an experimental observation procedure."
She smiled at her companion. It was a warm, soft smile. "I know, Richart. I agree with you, but we can't let hurt feelings terminate the experiment. You are a good hearted man and a good friend. In more ways than one. I appreciate your support. Not many would stand by me in this situation."
"We've been friends for a long time, Maeve. I just hope we aren't both heading for trouble," said Richart. He crossed his arms over his muscular chest and grimaced.
"Faith, my friend, faith," she replied.
The slavers never found them. At night, Cat Smiling tied her hands and feet. He did this for three months until he felt he could trust her. He did it in the same spirit that he hobbled his ponies. During that time he concentrated on learning her language so they could get along better.
One of the first words he learned was "zorca" This was the name for the horned beasts that he had been stealing from the slavers. It was a good word to know.
Since he had taken the woman the little pinto dove had not flown over his head as often as before. Cat Smiling wondered if it disapproved of the woman.
Because he was not sure whether she was a real woman or some sort of vision he did not speak to the woman on a friendly basis every day. At first, he simply pointed to things and expected her to give him the word for that thing. Usually, he remembered the word after being told once. Occasionally, he asked her to repeat the word, as if he had forgotten, and she wondered if he were testing her by making sure she gave him the same word every time for the same thing.
He never went out of his way to teach her his own language, though he spoke to her in his language as he might do so to a normal woman. She learned a small supply of words through listening to him. Normally, his people were a gregarious lot, but Cat Smiling was not a man to chatter in an idle fashion. At first his disinterest in speaking was disturbing to her. Often she would catch him staring at her with his deep black eyes, and she wondered what he was thinking. Later she would understand why his name was Cat Smiling. It was his habit to look at a thing fully, yet display little expression on his face when he did. It was equally disturbing to know that even if she heard his thoughts she wouldn't be able to understand them. She had been brought up in a world with many different peoples and cultures, but always there was a common language to bind them. Being unable to communicate with another human being was something rare to her.
Gradually the tension between them lessened, and she was able to be happy again. He had looked at her oddly when she laughed out loud for the first time in his presence. He had not laughed himself or had even smiled during this incident. He simply looked at her for an extra moment and then went back to what he had been doing. It was not long after she began to laugh and smile that the Comanche started to sing. He had a fine voice, and listening to him she thought he had been singing for a long time. Perhaps, he came from a race of singers. He sang on occasions that became regular to her. Often at night he sang, or after a meal, or just when he was relaxed and in need of recreation.
He taught her all the things that a Comanche woman must know. All the things that a woman had to do. She learned how to make jerky from the meat of prairie birds. She learned how to use a fire drill to make fire. She learned how to skin animals and sew clothing. She learned how to cook in a way that satisfied him. She learned many things that she had never known before. There was a stolid basis to her personality that helped her accept her new position in life. Stolidity was a characteristic of her people.
She was Erion Thumes of Hamal. Her family had been well off, and so had she until she had been stolen by slavers almost a year ago. She had been flying over the ocean in a small voller when the flier had died on her, forcing her to land upon the water. A passing ship had taken her and kept her. That had been the beginning of her nightmare.
Her life was less a nightmare now, and closer to a dream. She thought that the only way out of her dream was to teach Cat Smiling her language so she could ask him to let her go. One day she would have the courage to ask him for that.
"You are breaking another line of standard procedure," commented Richart lightly. "Allowing him to learn Kregish in a natural way is slow and inefficient."
Maeve laughed lightly and turned to her companion. "Why do you always bring up the obvious? Have you decided to posture as my conscience?"
"Just making you cognizant of the little things," replied Richart.
"Natural language acquisition is part of the experiment. We've discussed this, before. All of our extraplanetary savapims are 'fed' the language pill in order to expedite communication with all groups in the field. Unfortunately, I still believe that learning the language in such a artificial way leads to a subtle restructuring of the personality."
"Of course, it does, you ninny! In order to understand Kregish and to operate efficiently in Kregen societies some data base of Kregen culture must be included in the learning code. But not enough to cause radical personality complications or alterations," remarked Richart. This was knowledge that was so simple that it shouldn't have to be mentioned.
Maeve signed. "I'm looking for something other than the standard, Richart. The specimen is learning the language easily. He seems to have a faculty for languages. My research has turned up that he, like many of the aborigines of his homeland, are multi lingual to some degree.
"I want to retain as much of the natural integrity of his mind set as possible. This is the best possible way."
Richart glanced at the three dimensional image of the woman in a sphere before him. "Did you have something to do with him meeting the Hamalese woman?"
"No. Interesting, isn't it," said Maeve. "It points to my hypothesis that some people are more pivotal in the way that reality unfolds than others."
Richart shook his head. "Don't get carried away, Maeve. Opportunity presents itself to everyone. Its just that some people are more attentive and reactive to opportunity than others. If this Hamalese woman is an 'opportunity' to your Earthman, then it is only because he selected her from a host of other possibilities because of his own criteria. Nothing mystical or supernatural about that."
Maeve leaned back in her chair and squinted at her friend. "Always the empirical one, eh, Richart. Always my douse of cold water."
He walked over and put his broad, powerful hand on her shoulder. She felt nice and warm under the soft white fabric of her shirt. "I'm not saying that your new reading technique isn't doing what you think it can do. I'm not saying it hasn't selected this man as a Pivotal. I'm just saying your research is still in its early stages yet."
"Our research, Richart. We're in it together," she reminded him with a smile.
"Yes," he mused, "together."
She had a habit of periodically chewing on a root. One of the first things she had done after he had taken her and released her from her bonds was to find the root and begin to chew. He had tried the root himself and had been repulsed by its bitter taste. Now that he could communicate with her more clearly, he asked her what the root was for.
"To prevent pregnancy," she answered simply.
He knew that she must have been raped many times during her slavery. He knew that he had taken her many times. He felt the heat of anger as he realized she was preventing his seed from taking in her. It was almost an insult. He advanced on her menacingly.
She stood her ground, raised her head defiantly and continued to chew. He considered beating her, as any man might beat a woman for rejecting him. His hand raised, but did not fall. Instead, he turned and stalked away.
She continued to chew on the root.
He sat and looked at the moons. He never grew tired of watching them dance across the sky. Like many things about this strange place they excelled in liveliness. Cat Smiling noted that even the air was fresher, more invigorating that it had been back home.
The woman came and sat beside him. He knew she was lonely, for he rarely spoke to her except to learn her language. To him she was only a captive. Something he had taken for his pleasure. Such was the prerogative of men.
She didn't say anything. She watched the sky with him.
"We should start a garden," she said. She spoke softly, hesitantly, as she always did when she initiated a conversation.
He was uncertain about the meaning of the word garden. She explained what it meant and went on, "My father was an overlord of a great farm. Growing things is in our blood. The things we grew fed an empire."
There was pride in her voice. She spoke of things that were long ago and far away. Cat Smiling had no personal interest in gardening. He recognized it as woman's work and thought that her father must not have been much of a man to do woman's work. His people raised no food from the ground. Such vegetables or fruits that was part of their diet were found in the wild by women. If need be, men could locate edible wild plants. Cat Smiling knew that some men who were of another people grew food in rows so that they could eat them later. He thought this a strange habit.
"My people do not grow food. We hunt it. We eat the meat of the buffalo and antelope. Sometimes we drink of the buffalo's blood while it is still warm. This is good," said Cat Smiling.
She smiled at him. She was always pleased when he told her something about himself. Looking at his face she measured it against the faces that she was used to viewing at home. His face was broad, copper-red and with high cheek bones. His black eyes were slightly slanted, and his lips were a cruel slash. His body was short by most standards, but thick and muscular. She knew that he was strong.
"Many people on Kregen are hunters. I'm not sure where we are, but I heard some men talking about Segesthes. We are close to the ocean, though, "she volunteered.
"I have never seen an ocean," Cat Smiling mused. He was in a rare conversational mood. "Others have told me about it. In some trading camps I heard the Spanish describe it."
"Spanish?" she wondered. "Are they men or diffs?"
Cat Smiling laughed. She had tried to explain the difference between true men, whom she called apim, and the animal-men whom she called diffs. From her descriptions of these diffs, Cat Smiling came to understand that they were not spirit beings. They may be beings with different spirits, but of themselves they were not something better than true men.
"They are not People, but they are men. They look much like you," he said. "In the place where I come from there are no diffs."
This statement astounded her. From her earliest days she had known that there were diffs in the world. Many kinds of diffs. True, in her country there were far more apims than diffs, but diffs were everywhere. She couldn't imagine a place without diffs. And said so.
Cat Smiling shrugged. "It doesn't matter, woman. The only people that are true people are Nerm." He gave one of the words in his own language that named his race.
"Sometimes I think that everyone thinks that," she said quickly. "I mean that every racial or social group thinks that it is the true special group in the world."
He thought about this for awhile, then said, "That is probably true. We, the Nerm, are special because of the way we live, more than the bodies that we are. Our life is different from the Apache or the Kiowa. Far more different is the way of the Spanish. And your way, woman, is different from the Nerm.
"Yet, the bodies are the same. My grandmother was an Apache. I loved her very much, and as a boy sometimes followed her out on the plains to gather herbs and medicines. She was not "People", yet she gave birth to my father. She was a captive of my people for many many years, and never fully became one of us. On her dying day she cried out for her own people, the Apache.
"From what you have told me, woman, the differences between diffs are deeper. They are in the body. This world, Kregen, is a very strange place."
"Or perhaps, Cat Smiling, you are a strange man," she offered.
The Comanche reached over and grasped her shoulder. She knew what the gesture meant. She searched his eyes for warmth and thought she saw some in the heat flashing in their blackness.
Not long after they had talked, Cat Smiling began to teach her to dance. One night when there was nothing else to do and it was too early to retire, he got up and walked over to her. She had been standing next to one of the small trees that littered their private oasis. She looked at him with trembling eyes, expecting him to take her by the arm as he did when he wanted to have sex with her. This time he did not do that. Instead, he began singing in his rich, deep male voice and looked into her eyes with a small smile on his wide, thin lips. He placed his hands on her hips and began to pull her into one of his dances. At first it was awkward for her. She didn't know the steps and the only music that they had was Cat Smiling's singing. His grip on her hips was gentle, though, and she began to swing and sway to his rhythm until they glided together across the grass paved floor that spread out around the campfire. When the dance was finished, Cat Smiling laughed out loud and rubbed her head with his hand. She smiled without thinking and laid her palm on his chest. The Comanche laughed again and led her into another dance. He taught her several dances that night, and they enjoyed dancing from that time forward.
"See, my favorite friend, he is bonding with her. And she is bonding with him," exclaimed Maeve as she pointed to the image in front of them. Before them on a screenless background through the super science magic of the Savanti was a real life showing of Cat Smiling and Erion as they danced together in the night.
"Yes, it appears that the Hamalese woman is housebreaking the Nerm cat," noted Richart with an insincere sneer.
"Its wonderful, Richart. They are teaching each other. Through this teaching, Cat Smiling will adapt to Kregen."
Richart grimaced skeptically. "We'll see," he said.
Days later, he returned from one of his long absences. He had several new zorcas in tow. This time, however, he brought something else. He rode over to where she was working on a hide and looked down at her. He seemed thoughtful as he considered her.
"Lahal," she said with a smile. It was easy to smile at him now. "I see you have taken more fine zorcas."
"Yes," he agreed. He looked up and saw the pinto dove flying above. It had been a long time since he had seen it. Perhaps, it was a good sign.
"I have no meal made. Its early yet," she said.
Cat Smiling stared at her with his sparkling black eyes. She waited for him to speak. He did not, but instead reached into a leather pouch and brought something out of it. Surprisingly, it was a mirror. A fine mirror set in silver and jewels.
"I brought you something, Erion." He handed her the mirror and watched her take it with delight. Although she was able to see her reflection in the pond, this was the first time in many months that she had been able to see herself clearly in a mirror. Happily, she discovered that she was still pretty.
"A woman should see her own beauty," said Cat Smiling. "The men of my people covet these looking glasses. They are a high treasure among them. But not all men are so vain, and I think that you will like this treasure more than me."
She looked up at him sharply, startled, wondering what he meant. He said no more. Instead, he took his new zorcas over to his remuda.
Several days later he found some disturbing tracks. Large, many footed with the walking style of a predator. The tracks had been found a mile away from their camp, and Cat Smiling thought that this was close enough for alarm. He loaded up Erion on a gentle mare and took her to view the tracks. He asked her if she recognized them.
"No," she said after some hesitation. "I am not very good at reading tracks."
Cat Smiling regarded her with one of his blank stares.
"This is a predator. A large one. See how it places its rear feet in the tracks of its fore feet. It makes it difficult to see that this beast has more than four feet. That's something I'm still getting used to, around here," Cat Smiling said in a rare instructive mood. He squatted down and pulled the grass away. It was not easy to find good tracks in grass like that, but he managed to show her a clear print.
"I think we should be wary of this beast. I wonder what it feeds on. Certainly not prairie dogs or bush birds," said the Comanche, the last sentence in his own language.
Then he looked up at Grass Burner, his favorite zorca. Perhaps, the predator had been lured to his camp by the smell of many zorcas. It may have picked up his trail as he had returned to camp.
"We have to be careful," he said. He accentuated this statement with a hard stare her way.
"Of course, " she muttered.
"I don't know much about the big predators of this new place. I will try to track it down before it raids our camp," said the Comanche. "Go back to the camp."
She obeyed quickly. Fear crinkled her face as she rode her zorca hard for their camp.
As she was riding away, Cat Smiling checked his weapons. He had long since made a bow of his own liking. It was a Comanche bow, of sorts, being of short length. He was unable to make any glue because there were no buffalo to be found from which the ingredients of a glue could be extracted. So it was a simple affair. He had spent a lot of time on it, though, and he thought it would be good for at least thirty yards.
He fletched his arrows with three feathers so they would fly true. Certainly these were not the feathers of proper birds. Only the prairie hens of this world had been available. Prairie hen feathers would have to do.
In addition to the feathers he had grooved lightning on the shafts. This was because of the Thunder Bird vision that had come to him several moons ago. The lightning of the Thunder Bird would add speed and accuracy to his arrows.
He regretted having no lance. He had not yet found the proper wood to make one, nor had he been able to steal one from any parties passing through his territory. A lance was the best sign to show this new world, and himself, that he was a strong and courageous warrior. To reassure himself he touched the shaft of his great ax. It was the best weapon he had ever owned. With it he was sure he could face any man. He was not so sure about whatever large predator he was hunting.
He followed the tracks out onto the rolling plains. He had to proceed on foot, leading his mount along, and the tracking was hard and slow. The spoor lead him away from his camp. Several miles away he noticed that the beast was doubling back, going directly toward his camp. Cat Smiling leaped on his zorca, suddenly very alarmed, and rode furiously back the way he came.
He stormed into the camp. Erion looked up at him startled. What was the matter? Were they being attacked? For the first time she saw concern on his savage face, and when she realized he had been concerned for her, she was astonished. It had been to her side that he had raced first, not the zorcas. This was a wonderful thing. Why it was wonderful that she should care that a savage would feel affection for her was equally astonishing. Yet she did.
After he was sure that the predator was not in the vicinity, he took her again. Later, he noticed that she did not chew the root.
As they grew closer together, they spoke more freely to each other. Cat Smiling would encourage her to speak of her homeland. As he listened to her it occurred to him that her home was similar to the homes of all white people. Houses, streets, workers, a kind of order that would never appeal to a Comanche warrior. What interested him most that she never spoke of firearms. When he asked her about them directly she didn't seem to know what they were. If the white men of this land did not have firearms it was a good thing for Cat Smiling.
She spoke of the little things that cluttered her memories.
Of kitchen tables, dresses and parties. Of outhouses and barns,
and the names of people she had known or was related to. Cat
Smiling listened to all these little things with unusual tolerance, because
he knew that they were only the chattering of a woman. In his
heart he was happy that she was chattering because it meant that she was
comfortable with him.
He could tell from her words that she wanted to go home. Sometimes she even said it directly, "I wish I were home!" Usually, this was said in a whimsical voice, or in a sudden gasp of exasperation when things weren't going just right. Although he never said it out loud, Cat Smiling wished he could go home too.
Then, one night he spoke freely to her. He spoke of the buffalo, and how he wished he could see them again. Smell them and taste them. Take from their bodies the things he needed just as he had done in the old home. He missed the great herds that stretched out black as far as the eye could see. When he spoke of these things his impassive face would grow soft and there was a far away look in his black eyes. She felt close to him then, as she supposed he felt close to her when she told him of her home.
He never offered to take her home. He seemed content with their existence, alone on the great plain. She felt guilty when she thought that she should tell him that to the north there were herds of great beasts, not his buffalo to be sure, but huge grazing beasts that he might take a liking to. She didn't want to tell him because if he went north she was sure she would never get home again.
As she grew closer to him she slowly lost her dream of going back home. She felt life within her womb and noticed a slight extra curve to her belly. So it was that, finally, she mentioned that there might be a herd of great grazers to the north, though she couldn't be sure since this wasn't her country. Cat Smiling became excited. They had been lying on the grass when she told him the news. He rolled over onto his feet and hands and cat walked over to her. His black eyes glittered in his hard lined face.
"Grazers? To the north?" he repeated. "Why haven't you told me this before?"
What could she say? At that moment she regretted saying anything. Would he punish her for telling him something he was sure to feel she should have told him long ago?
"I don't know," she muttered, lowering her eyes. "I just thought about it as I was thinking of the buffalo you were describing."
He froze into one of his peering postures. She kept her eyes down, fearful to meet his stare. Then he laughed, so rare a laugh, and leaped to his feet.
"We will go to the north. I thought there should be herds of big grazers in this land. The grass grows thick and plentiful. Something must be out there to eat it. I have stayed too long in this place," he announced. There was no argument. The next morning they broke camp and marched north.
With the rising of the suns they rode away. Erion looked back over her shoulder at the little garden she had grown. It was the only thing that marked that they had been there except for a few bare spots on the ground. There were tiny sprouts that had just begun to push out of the ground. She swallowed a lump of sorrow as she tore her eyes away from the garden. Her future lay ahead.
They didn't travel hard. Cat Smiling seemed in no hurry for all his enthusiasm to find the grazers Erion had hinted of. It was not his way to hurry. There was plenty of time.
Seven days later, the Comanche saw sign on the ground. Huge prints that could only be made by a grazer. It was a happy camp they made that night.
The next day, Cat Smiling left her with the zorcas and ranged ahead. The grazers were close. It was better that he see them first alone. He wasn't sure of what danger they might represent.
He followed the trail of the herd easily. There was something among the tracks that disturbed him. Another animal rode on the borders of the herd. This animal seemed to be a riding beast because there were signs of men nearby where the men had leaped off the beasts. Disappointment clouded Cat Smiling's enthusiasm. It appeared as if these grazers were not wild. They might be domesticated like the cattle of the Spanish.
He kept to the trail. It was necessary to verify his suspicions. The afternoon was old when he came to the herd. He crept up slowly on Grass Burner, like an old wolf slinking on the heels of a young pack. His heart leaped when he saw the grazers. They were huge beasts with deep chests and great horns. His heart sank down when he saw the men riding next to the herd. The beasts they were riding were not zorcas. They were much larger, more ferocious and of many legs.
Even more depressing that these men were present was the fact that they were white men. Some of them had yellow hair. White men were never a welcome sight to the Comanche. It would have been better to deal with these men if they had been People.
The men were dressed in leather and well armed with bows and metal weapons. They looked tough and competent. A different breed than the slavers. There was something cleaner about these men. Something of the wind in their faces. Cat Smiling figured that they would be different from the Spanish he had known back in his homeland.
He would not meet them today. He would return and confer with Erion. She might be able to tell him more about these white men.
He turned his zorca around and rode quickly to the camp.
The night was nearly upon the earth when he got close enough to see her fire clearly. Then he heard the scream. A shrill, ferocious scream of some catlike animal. Something was attacking his zorcas. He kicked Grass Burner into a full run. He remembered the predator's tracks he had seen a week ago.
His bow was in his hand as Grass Burner hurled him into the camp. One of his zorcas was already down. Erion stood by the camp fire with a brand in her hand. She was shouting at something, waving the brand. Then, out of the shadows, Cat Smiling saw a streak of brown launch itself at her. She batted at it defensively, but it collided with her, swiping her with one of its many paws. Fortune was with her as the brand touched its back and it leaped away with a screech of pain.
The Comanche mastered his fearful mount and charged the predator. Shooting under Grass Burner's neck, Cat Smiling launched four arrows at the beast. All four hit it soundly. It screamed with this new pain and whirled to face its new enemy. Without hesitation, Cat Smiling put a fifth arrow into its brain.
The catlike beast flopped in the air like a fish out of water. It was dying. Cat Smiling leaped off his mount with his ax in hand. There was no need to attack the killer. It was soon dead.
He glanced over the camp. There were two dead zorcas. Grass Burner stood by on trembling legs. Erion was lying still on the ground. The Comanche could almost smell her spilled blood. He was by her side in an instant.
She lay unconscious on the blood stained grass. The predator had not struck a killing blow, but the damage he had done was horrific. The side of her face bore two deep slashes, out of which blood was steadily flowing. Somehow the claws had missed her eyes and had been stopped by her skull. Though she was not dead, it was evident that she might soon be if not attended to.
Cat Smiling was no stranger to wounds. He carried her over to the fire and started to administer the first aid that he had been taught by the old medicine man and his old Apache grandmother. He sewed up the two wounds with needle and thread he kept in a medicine pouch he had made since arriving on this new land. He applied an ointment that Erion had given to him to put in his pouch. He worked quickly and efficiently.
Her pain was bad when she awakened. He stood with his zorcas and heard her crying in the night. In a moment of tenderness he went over and held her.
Cat Smiling made a more permanent camp. As the days passed Erion grew stronger. They had been fortunate. No infection set in. After a couple of weeks, the Comanche picked out what remained of her stitches.
After he had done this he went over to check on his zorcas. A few minutes later he heard her cry out. Something crashed on a stone. Alarmed, he ran over to her. She was kneeling down crying in her hands. Beside her was the mirror he had given her. It was broken.
"I"m hideous. Ugly," she screamed. "How can you bare to look at me?"
He was calm as he stood before her. "I have seen many things. What makes you think you are ugly? Is your nose cut off from your face?"
She looked up at him with tear swollen eyes. The right side of her face was red, raw and scarred. "My nose? What are you talking about? Can't you see these horrible scars? Are you blind, you fambly?"
He remained standing and somewhat aloof, though his voice softened. "I see your scars. They are a warrior's scars, though you are just a woman. And you still have your nose."
"My nose! What is all the nonsense about my nose?"
"Among my people if a woman is unfaithful to her husband he cuts off her nose. A woman without a nose is truly ugly." He reached down and touched the tip of her nose with his finger. "You have a fine nose."
She couldn't speak and she couldn't think. His words froze her. When he smiled she began to thaw.
"You don't hate me for being ugly?"
"No," he said simply.
She rose up and threw her arms around his neck. He permitted this. And more, he circled one of his arms around her waist and gave her a hug.
Overhead, a pinto dove circled.