But it appeared that humans in the city lived closer to their masters. Several times Alan saw them coming out of houses, and a few that he saw were not entirely naked, but wore bright bits of doth at various places on their bodies. Wiln expressed strong disapproval of this practice to Blik.
"Start putting clothing on these humans and they might get the idea they're Hussirs," he said. "If you ask me, that's why city people have more trouble controlling their humans than we do. Spoil the human and you make him savage, I say."
They had several places to go in Falldyn, and for a while Alan feared they would not see the Star Tower at close range. But Blik had never seen it before, and he begged and whistled until Wiln agreed to ride a few streets out of the way to look at it.
Alan forgot all the other wonders of Falldyn as the great monument towered bigger and bigger, dwarfing the buildings around it, dwarfing the whole city of Falldyn. There was a legend that humans had not only lived in the Star Tower once, but that they had built it and Falldyn had grown up around it when the humans abandoned it. Alan had heard this whispered, but he had been warned not to repeat it, for some Hussirs understood human language and repeating such tales was a good way to get whipped.
The Star Tower was in the center of a big circular park, and the houses around the park looked like dollhouses beneath it. It stretched up into the sky like a pointing finger, its strange dark walls reflecting the dual sunlight dully. Even the flying buttresses at its base carved up above the big trees in the park around it There was a railing round the park, and quite a few humans were chained or standing loose about it while their riders were looking at the Star Tower, for humans were not allowed inside the park. Blik was all for dismounting and looking at the inside of the tower, but Wiln would not hear of it.
"There'll be plenty of time for that when you're older and can understand some of the things you see," said Wiln.
They moved slowly around the street, outside the rail In the park, the Hussirs moved in groups, some of them going up or coming down the long ramp that led into the Star Tower. The Hussirs were only about half the size of humans, with big heads and large pointed ears sticking straight out on each side, with thin legs and thick tails that helped to balance them. They wore loose jackets and baggy colored trousers.
As they passed one group of humans standing outside the rafl, Alan heard a familiar bit of verse, sung in an undertone: "Twinkle, twinkle, golden star, I can reach you, though you're far.
Shut my mouth and find my head, Find a worm"
Wiln swung Robb around quickly, and laid his keen whip viciously across the singer's shoulders. Slash, slash, and red welts sprang out on the man's back. With a muffled shriek, the man ducked his head and threw up his arms to protect his face.
"Where is your master, human?" demanded Wiln savagely, the whip trembling in his four-fingered hand.
"My master lives in Northwesttown, your greatness," whimpered the human. "I belong to the merchant Senk."
"Where is Northwesttown?"
"It is a section of FaDdyn, sir."
"And you are here at the Star Tower without your master?"
"Yes, sir. I am on free time."
Wiln gave him another lash with the whip.
"You should know humans are not allowed to run loose near the Star Tower," Wfln snapped. "Now go back to your master and tell him to whip you."
The human ran off. Wiln and Blik turned their mounts homeward. When they were beyond the streets and houses of the town and the dust of the roads provided welcome relief to the burning feet of the humans, Blik asked: "What did you think of the Star Tower, Alan?"
"Why has it no windows?" Alan asked, voicing the thought uppermost in his mind.
It was not, strictly speaking, an answer to Bilk's question, and Alan risked punishment by speaking thus in Hussk. But Wiln had recovered his good humor, with the prospect of getting home in time for supper.
"The windows are in the very top, little human," said Wfln indulgently. "You couldn't see them, because they're inside."
Alan puzzled over this all the way to Wiln Castle. How could windows be inside and none outside? If windows were windows, didn't they always go through both sides of a wall?
When the two suns had set and Alan was bedded down with the other children in a corner of the meadow, the exciting events of the day repeated themselves in his mind like a series of colored pictures. He would have liked to question Robb, but the grown men and older boys were kept in a field well separated from the women and children.
A little distance away the women were singing their babies to sleep with the traditional songs of the humans. Their voices drifted to him on the faint breeze, with the perfume of the fragrant grasses.
"Rock-a-bye, baby, in mother's arm, Nothing's neaaby to do baby harm. Sleep and sweet dreams, till both suns arise, Then will be time to open your eyes"
That was a real baby song, the first he ever remembered. They sang others, and one was the song Wfln had interrupted at the Star Tower.
"Twinkle, twinkle, golden star, I can reach you, though you're jar.
Shut my mouth and find my head, Find a worm thafs striped with red, Feed it to the turtle shell, Then go to sleep, for all is well"
Half asleep, Alan listened. That song was one of the children's favorites. They called it "The Star Tower Song," though he had never been able to find out why.
It must be a riddle, he thought drowsily. "Shut my mouth and find my head..." Shouldn't it be the other way around "Find my head (first) and shut my mouth..."? Why wasn't it? And those other lines. Alan knew worms, for he had seen many of the creepy, crawly creatures, long things in many bright colors. But what was a turtle?
The refrain of another song reached his ears, and it seemed to the sleepy boy that they were singing it to him.
"Alan saw a little zird, Its wings were all aglow.
He followed it away one night.
It filled his heart with woe."
Only that wasn't the last line the children themselves sang. Optimistically, they always ended that song. "... To where he Weed to go"
Maybe he was asleep and dreamed it, or maybe he suddenly waked up with the distant music in his ears. Whichever it was, he was lying there, and a zird flew over the high fence and lit in the grass near him. Its luminous scales pulsed in the darkness, faintly lighting the faces of the children huddled asleep around him. It opened its beak and spoke to him in a raucous voice.
"Come with me to freedom, human," said the zird. "Come with me to freedom, human."
That was all it could say, and it repeated the invitation at least half a dozen times, until it grated on Alan's ears. But Alan knew that, despite the way the children sang the song, it brought only sorrow to a human to heed the call of a zird.
"Go away, zird," he said crossly, and the zird flew over the fence and faded into the darkness.
Sighing, Alan went back to sleep to dream of the Star Tower.
Blik died three years later. The young Hussir's death brought sorrow to Alan's heart, for Blik had been kind to him and their relationship was the close one of well-loved pet and master. The deprivation always would be associated to him with another emotional change in his life, for Blik's death came the day after Wiln caught Alan with the blond girl down by the stream and transferred him to the field with the older boys and men.
"Switch it, I hope the boy hasn't gotten her with child," grumbled Wfln to his oldest son, Snuk, as they drove Alan to the new meadow. "I hadn't planned to add that girl to the milking herd for another year yet"
"That comes of letting Blifc make a pet out of the human," said Snuk, who was nearly grown now and was being trained in the art of managing Wiln Castle to succeed his father. "It should have been worked while Blik has been sick, instead of allowed to roam idly around among the women and children."
Through the welter of new emotions that confused him, Alan recognized the justice of that remark. It had been pure boredom with the play of the younger children that had turned his interest to more mature experimentation. At that, he realized that only the aloofness he had developed as a result of being Blik's pet had prevented his being taken to the other field at least two years earlier.
He looked back over his shoulder. The tearful girl stood forlornly, watching him go. She waved and called after him.
"Maybe well see each other again at mating time."
He waved back at her, drawing a sharp cut across the shoulders from Snuk's whip. They would not turn him in with the women at mating time for at least another three years, but the girl was almost of mating age. By the time she saw him again, she probably would have forgotten him.
His transfer into adulthood was an immediate ordeaL Wiln and Snuk remained just outside the fence and whistled delightedly at the hazing Alan was given by the men and older boys. The ritual would have been more difficult for him had it not been so long delayed, but he found a place in the scheme of things somewhat high for a newcomer because he was older than most of them and big for his age. Scratched and battered, he gained the necessary initial respect from his new associates by trouncing several boys his own size.
That night, lonely and unhappy, Alan heard the keening of the Hussiis rise from Wfln Castle. The night songs of the men, deeper and lustier than those of the women and children, faded and stopped as the sound of mourning drifted to them on the wind. Alan knew it meant that Blik's long illness was over, that his young master was dead.
He found a secluded corner of the field and cried himself to sleep under the stars. He had loved Blik.
After Blik's death, Alan thought he might be put with the laboring men, to pull the plows and work the crops. He knew he did not have the trying for work in and around the castle itself, and he did not think he would be retained with the riding stock.
But Snuk had different ideas.
"I saw your good qualities as a riding human before Blik ever picked you out for a pet," Snuk told him, laying his pointed ears back viciously. Snuk used the human language, for it was Snuifs theory that one could control humans better when one could listen in on their conversations among themselves. "Blik spoiled all the temper out of you, but Til change that. I may be able to salvage you yet."
It was only a week since Blik's death, and Alan was still sad. Dispiritedly, he co-operated when Snuk put the bridle-helmet and saddle-chair on him, and knelt for Snuk to climb on his back.
When Alan stood up, Snuk jammed spurs savagely into his sides.
Alan leaped three feet into the air with an agonized yelL "Silence, human!" shouted Snuk, beating him over the head with the whip. "I shall teach you to obey. Spurs mean go, like so!"
And he dug the spurs into Alan's ribs agairu Alan twisted and turned momentarily, but his common sense saved him. Had he fallen to the ground and rolled, or tried to rub Snuk off against a ttornot tree, it would have meant death for him. There was no appeal from his new master's cruelty.
A third time Snuk applied the spurs and Alan spurted down the tree-lined lane away from the castle at a dead run. Snuk gave him his head and raked his sides brutally. It was only when he slowed to a walk, panting and perspiring, that Snuk pulled on the reins and turned him back toward the castle. Then the Hussir forced him to trot back.
Win was waiting at the corral when they returned.
"Aren't you treating it a little rough, Snuk?" asked the older Hussir, looking the exhausted Alan up and down critically. Blood streamed from Alan's gashed sides.
"Just teaching it right at the outset who is master," replied Snuk casually. With an unnecessarily sharp rap on the head, he sent Alan to his knees and dismounted. "I think this one will make a valuable addition to my stable of riders, but I don't intend to pamper it like Blik."
Wiln flicked his ears.
"Well, you've proved you know how to handle humans by now, and you'll be master of them all in a few years," he said mildly. "Just take your father's advice, and don't break this one's wind."
The next few months were misery to Alan. He had the physical qualities Snuk liked in a mount, and Snuk rode him more frequently than any of his other saddle men.
Snuk liked to ride fast, and he ran Alan unmercifully. They would return at the end of a hot afternoon, Alan bathed in sweat and so tired his limbs trembled uncontrollably.
Besides, Snuk was an uncompromising master with more than a touch of cruelty in his make-up. He would whip Alan savagely for minor inattention, for failure to respond promptly to the reins, for speaking at all in his presence. Alan's back was soon covered with spur scars, and one eye often was half closed from a whip lash across the face.
In desperation, Alan sought the counsel of his old friend, Robb, whom he saw often now that he was in the men's field.
"There's nothing you can do," Robb said. "I just thank the Golden Star that Wiln rides me and I'll be too old for Snuk to ride when Wiln dies. But then Snuk will be master of us all, and I dread that day."
"Couldn't one of us kill Snuk against a tree?" asked Alan. He had thought of doing it himself.
"Never think such a thought," warned Robb quickly. "If that happened, all the riding men would be butchered for meat The Wiln family has enough money to buy new riding stables in Falklyn if they wish, and no Hussir will put up with a rebellious human,"
That night Alan nursed his freshest wounds beside the fence closest to the women's and children's field and gave himself up to nostalgia. He longed for the happy days of his childhood and Blik's kind mastery.
Across the intervening fields, faintly, he heard the soft voices of the women. He could not make out the words, but he remembered them from the tune: "Star light, star bright, Star that sheds a golden light, I wish I may, I wish I might, Reach you, star that shines at night"
From behind him came the voices of the men, nearer and louder: "Human, see the little zird, Its wings are att aglow.
Don't follow it away at night, For fear of grief and woe."
The children had sung it differently. And there had been a dream....
"Come with me to freedom, human," said the zird.
Alan had seen many zirds at night they appeared only at nigjht and had heard their call. It was the only thing they said, always in the human language: "Come with me to freedom, human."
As he had before, he wondered. A zird was only a scalywinged little night creature. How could it speak human words? Where did zirds come from, and where did they go in the daytime? For the first time in his life, he asked the zird a question.
"What and where is freedom, zird?" Alan asked.
"Come with me to freedom, human," repeated the zird. It flapped its wings, rising a few inches above the fence, and settled back on its perch.
"Is that all you can say, zird?" asked Alan irritably. "How can I go with you when I can't fly?"
"Come with me to freedom, human," said the zird.
A great boldness surged in Alan's heart, spurred by the dreary prospect of having to endure Smik's sadism again on the morrow. He looked at the fence.
Alan had never paid much attention to a fence before. Humans did not try to get out of the fenced enclosures, because the story parents told to children who tried it was that strayed humans were always recaptured and butchered for meat It was the strangest coincidence. It reminded him of that night long ago, the night after he had gone into Falklyn with Blik and first seen the Star Tower. Even as the words of the song died away in the night air, he saw the glow of the zird approaching. It lit on top of the fence and squawked down at him.
The links of the fence were close together, but he could get his fingers and toes through them. Tentatively, he tried it. A mounting excitement taking possession of him, he climbed.
It was ridiculously easy. He was in the next field There were other fences, of course, but they could be climbed He could go into the field with the women his heart beat faster at the thought of the blonde girl or he could even climb his way to the open road to Falklyn.
It was the road he chose, after all. The zird flew ahead of him across each field, lighting to wait for him to climb each fence. He crept along the fence past the crooning women with a muffled sigh, through the field of ripening akko grain, through the waist-high sento plants. At last he climbed the last fence of alL He was off the Wiln estate. The dust of the road to Falklyn was beneath his feet What now? If he went into Falfclyn, he would be captured and returned to Wiln Castle. If he went the other way the same thing would happen. Stray humans were spotted easily. Should he turn back now? It would be easy to climb his way back to the men's field and there would be innumerable nights ahead of him when the women's field would be easily accessible to him.
But there was Snuk to consider.
For the first time since he had climbed out of the men's field, the zird spoke.
"Come with me to freedom, human," it said It flew down the road, away from Falklyn, and lit in the dust, as though waiting. After a moment's hesitation, Alan followed.
The lights of Wiln Castle loomed up to his left, up the lane of ttornot trees. They fell behind and disappeared over a hill. The zird flew, matching its pace to his slow trot Alan's resolution began to weaken.
Then a figure loomed up beside him in the gloom, a human hand was laid on his arm and a female voice said: "I thought we'd never get another from Wiln Castle. Step it up a little, fellow. We've a long way to travel before dawn."
They traveled at a fast trot all that night, the zird leading the way like a giant firefly. By the time dawn grayed the eastern sky,.they were in the mountains west of Falklyn, and climbing.
When Alan was first able to make out details of his nocturnal guide, he thought for a minute she was a huge Hussir. She wore the Hussir loose jacket, open at the front, and the baggy trousers. But there was no tail, and there were no pointed ears. She was a girl, his own age.
She was the first human Alan had ever seen fully clothed Alan thought she looked rather ridiculous and, at the same time, he was slightly shocked, as by sacrilege.
They entered a high valley through a narrow pass, and slowed to a walk. For the first time since they left the vicinity of Wiln Castle, they were able to talk in other than short, disconnected phrases.
"Who are you, and where are you taking me?" asked Alan. In the cold light of dawn he was beginning to doubt his impetuousness in fleeing the castle.
"My name is Mara," said the girl. "You've heard of the Wild Humans? I'm one of them, and we live in these mountains,"
The hair prickled on the back of Alan's neck. He stopped in his tracks, and half turned to flee. Mara caught his arm.