"Shut up, everybody!" the boss called aloud. "Listen."
There was no sound in the clearing, save for the crackle of the fire. For a long time Dikar heard no sound except the crackle of the flames behind him, the tiny noises from the woods. And then there was another sound, so faint that he was not quite certain he heard it. In the star-prickled sky, it was a buzz like the buzz of a bee although no bee flies at night.
"There!" Jimlane pointed. Where he pointed a star moved, a sparkle of light like a star. "See it?"
"I see it," Dikar said, quietly. Then, more loudly but just as calmly. "Out the fire, Bunch. Quick."
They came running toward him, the Boys and the Girls, and past him into the edge of the woods and then out again, and now each had in his hands a birch bark bucket of earth. Marilee snatched a burning stick from the fire and darted with it into the woods, and the others threw earth on the fire, till the flames flickered and were gone, and the clearing was dark as the forest.
Dikar stared into the sky.
The buzzing was louder now, and nearer. The dot of light came nearer and nearer, moving among the stars, and about it the stars blotted out, and shone again behind it, and now Dikar could make out a black shape in the sky.
"In the houses, Bunch," he ordered, and he heard swift movement in the darkness, the padding of many feet. He was alone, standing under the canopy of the great oak, with the hot smell of burned wood in his nostrils and of baking earth.
The noise in the sky was no longer a buzz but a great roaring and the black shape was very distinct now; its spread wings, its long body, the yellow light at its very tip. Like a bird, it was, but larger than any bird. Its wings lay flat and without motion, like a soaring bird's, but no bird soared so long without wing flap, no bird soared so straight. It was a plane and there were men in it, and it was flying straight toward the Mountain. At the height it flew, it would just clear the tall tree that stood on the tip of the Mountain.
The roar of the plane beat at Dikar. The plane was almost overhead now and Dikar was afraid.
Dikar was afraid as he was in the dream that so often came to him in his sleep, dream of the dark Time of Fear when was a very little boy called Dick Carr, and the sky over the city would fill with screaming of sirens, and he would run hand in hand with his mother to crouch in the subway, the ground heaving and rolling under their feet. A dream it was, but also a memory so vague Dikar could not be sure which was memory, which dream. But this was no dream, this rattling thunder that clubbed at him out of the sky.
"It will go by," he said to himself. "They always go by."
Every once in awhile a plane would fly over the Mountain. At the first sound of it the Bunch would hide--if at night, first outing the fire. The Bunch knew, not quite knowing how, what the planes were, but they were not afraid of the planes. They hid from them because it was one of the musts the Old Ones had left, and the musts of the Old Ones must be obeyed.
No more than the rest of the Bunch Dikar had been afraid of the planes until the day not long ago when he had gone down into the far land from which they came.
Dikar had gone far and wide that day, a shadow flitting through the fields and the woods, a silent shadow none saw; but who had seen white men and women huddled within fences of thorn-covered wire, had seen them beaten by yellow men till the blood ran. He had seen a thing, dried and gray, swing from a tall pole at the end of a rope, and the rags that fluttered about the thing had told him it once had been a man. He had seen white men and women working, thin and sunken-eyed and so weak they could hardly stand; when they fell, had seen them lashed to work again by men dressed in green, black men with yellow faces.
Dikar had seen many terrible things that day, and he had learned how terrible they were who ruled the far land that had seemed so pleasant from his perch on the Mountain's tallest tree.
It was they who rode in the planes, and Dikar knew what it would mean to the Bunch if they found out the Bunch lived on the Mountain, and this was why Dikar was afraid when there was a roar in the sky and a plane flew overhead. But this plane was now hidden from Dikar by the oak's canopy, and the roar in the sky was lessening.
"It's gone by," he said to himself, "like they always--" The roar in the sky was loud again, the plane, lower now was again blotting out the stars--A white light blazed in the sky, a great white light like the sun! It floated down, making the woods green, filling the clearing with brightness!
Terror was ice in Dikar's veins.
This too was out of his dream, a white light floating down out of the sky, a noise like hundreds of sticks rattling along a hundred fences, screams and crashes, the screams of kids who were fleeing a destroyed city, the crashes of the trucks in which they fled. The truck in which was eight-year-old Dick Carr, in which were Mary Lee and the other kids who now were the Bunch, rocking to a halt on a tree-roofed side road. The two Old Ones stiff with terror on the front seat of the truck...
That white light floating down, showed only an empty clearing, weather-grayed houses about which there was no sign of life. The light was fading. The black plane was turning again to its course, was blotting the stars no longer, itself was blotted by the purple-dark Mountain. The roar in the sky became the buzz of a monstrous bee. Dikar wiped cold sweat from his forehead with the edge of his hand.
From the plane, held high by the tall forest and steep slope, they had seen nothing of life in the blaze of their white light and they had flown away. But why had they turned back? Why had they lit the clearing with their white light? Always before the planes had flown straight on, over the Mountain.
The bee-buzz in the sky faded to nothingness. The shrilling of insects in the woods began again. Dikar cupped hands about his mouth and called, "Come out. Come out wherever you are."
Forms began to come out of the doors of the houses. Dikar turned to face the woods. "Come out, Marilee," he called through his cupped hands. "M-a-a-arilee."
His shout rolled away into the purple-dark woods, seeking the cave where Marilee hid with the burning stick that must light the fire again, as was her job when a plane came in the night. "M-a-a-rilee." Behind Dikar the Bunch chattered, but no light from Marilee's flaming stick moved among the black tree trunks.
"Ma-a-rilee," Dikar called again, sending his shout into the whispering night of the woods. The woods sent his shout back to him. "Ma-arilee," hollow and mocking, and that was all the answer that came to his shout.
: TO FIGHT NO-FAIR.
Breath pulled in between Dikar's teeth and he was lunging past the oak's enormous bole, plunging into the dark woods. Earth was cold and wet to the soles of his feet. Cold, wet-earth smell was in his nostrils and the green smell of the woods and the smell of mouldering leaves and of the pale things that overnight grew among the leaves. Faintly in his nostrils, too, was the sharp tang of smoke, and that could only be from the stick Marilee had carried off to the cave.
Even to Dikar's eyes, keen as they were, there was no light here, but he moved swiftly, never stumbling, avoiding tree trunks and bushes with the sure deftness of the small woods creatures, no more aware than they how he did so. The ground lifted under his feet, and then there was no longer ground under his feet but rock.
Dikar stopped, sensing walls about him, a roof above him, and so knowing he was in the cave he sought. "Marilee," he called into the sightless blackness. "Marilee. Where are you?"
No answer came. But in his nostrils the smoke-tang he'd followed was sharp, so Dikar knew that Marilee had been here. In his nostrils was the warm, sweet smell of his mate, so that Dikar knew she was still here, somewhere in this blackness-filled cave.
He started moving again, slowly, groping with his feet in the dark. And his feet found her, found her form outstretched on the cave's rocky floor, unmoving even when his feet thudded against her.
"Marilee!" Dikar choked and went to his knees beside Marilee, gathered her into his arms.
She stirred in his arms! "Dikar." Breath gusted from Dikar's great chest at that uncertain murmur, breath he did not know till now had been caught in his chest, "Oh, Dikar."
"What happened to you, Marilee? What-?"
"I--Someone sprang on me from behind, just as I reached the cave and hit me! Dikar! The fire stick! Where-?"
"Not here. Or if here, gone out. No. Not here. Even if gone out its smell would be stronger--"
"The fire, Dikar!" Sudden terror in Marilee's voice, of life without fire, of food without fire to cook, of winter without fire to warm. She was out of his arms and on her feet. "I've lost the fire, Dikar."
Dikar whirled out of the cave, was running through the woods, Marilee at his side. They burst out of the woods into the clearing and Dikar was shouting, "Get the dirt off the fire logs, everybody. Quick."
Dikar went on without stopping, darting to the door of the Boys' House, into it. He lifted an axe from its pegs on the wall, was out in the open again, was running toward where the Bunch were scooping earth off the piled logs on the Fire Stone.
He shoved through the Boys and Girls, made out, by the dim light of the stars, a log they had uncovered, black, lifeless. His axe swept up, smashed down.
The log split open. Red' sparks flew, stinging Dikar's legs. He did not feel them. He was staring at the redness from which they had flown, the glowing red heart of the log that still had life in it, the life of the fire, the life of the Bunch. "Dry leaves," he commanded. "Bring dry leaves. Quick! Bring dry twigs. Billthomas! Halcross! Build up the fire. Fredalton! Take this axe and split up one of those logs into little sticks."
Dikar watched Billthomas put dry leaves on the glowing redness, watched the leaves take flame from the log's heart. Watched Halross feed little dry twigs to the leaves and the twigs catch flame from the leaves, and the sticks from the twigs. The fire grew again on the Fire Stone, and the light of the fire grew again in the clearing, but Dikar's forehead was deep-lined and his eyes were no longer blue, and in the darkness of them was a red light that did not come from the fire.
Dikar's eyes moved over the red-lit faces of the Bunch that stood about the Fire Stone watching the fire grow again; and his eyes seemed to ask a question of each face and pass on. They came to one face, and stayed on it, Dikar's brow-lines deepening.
That face was chunk-jawed, black-stubbled, the eyes too small, too closely set, but what held Dikar's gaze was the odd, leering grin that sat on the thick lips.
Tomball had had little to grin about since the day Dikar had returned from the far land and ended Tomball's short time as boss, forcing him to confess to the Bunch how he had tricked his way to being boss in place of Dikar. Why, then, was he grinning now?
"Do you think it was he who hit me?" Marilee whispered in Dikar's ear, "and ran away with the fire stick?"
"Who else of the Bunch would do a thing like that?"
"But why should he, Dikar? He's smart enough to know that if we lost the fire it would be as bad for him as for the rest of us."
"That's what I don't--Wait! I've got a hunch. Look. Walk along with me like we were just talking about nothing important. Laugh a little, you know, and hold on to my arm."
Marilee's fingers were cold on Dikar's arm, but her laugh rippled like a little stream running over pebbles in its bed. They walked slowly away from the fire reached the shadowy edge of the woods, were closed around by the forest darkness.
"Now!" Dikar said, and he was flitting through the forest night, Marilee a silent shadow behind him. It was like her to stay close behind, like her to ask no questions as he ran through the woods to the cave again.
At the cave-mouth Dikar stopped a moment, sniffing the air. "Yes," he said, more to himself than to Marilee. "I can still smell the smoke of the fire-stick. The wet night air holds smells a long time." Then he was moving again, following the sharp tang of smoke in the air, following it away from the cave and away from the clearing.
The scent-trail led him downhill. Soon the laugh of a streamlet came to his ears and then Dikar pushed through tangling bushes and came out into starlight on the edge of the brook that he heard. The smoke smell was very strong here-- "Look, Marilee!" Dikar pointed to a black something at, his feet, half in, half out of the water. "Here is your fire stick." He squatted to it.
"He brought it here to put it in the water," Marilee said, squatting beside him.
"'No," Dikar answered, his voice a growl deep in his chest. "No. He slipped on a wet stone and fell, and the water outed it. See. Here are the marks of his knees on the bank. But he brought it here because this was the nearest open place in the woods, the nearest place where its light could be seen from the sky."
"From the sky? Dikar! What do you mean?"
"I mean that I know now why the plane turned back." Even in the dimness Marilee could see that Dikar's face was hard and still, his lips tight and gray. "If he hadn't slipped and dropped the stick in the water, so that they were not sure they'd seen--" Dikar stood up. "Come," he said, grimly.
When they came again into the clearing, it was filled once more with the wavering light of the fire and everything was as it had been before Jimlane had heard the plane. Dikar paused beside the Fire Stone, stood there straddle-legged and glowering, a muscle twitching in his cheek.
Marilee laid finger tips on Dikar's arm. "There's Tomball," she whispered. "Talking to Bessalton down there near the eating place."
Dikar's gaze moved to where she had said. Bessalton was boss of the Girls and tallest of them, her cloak of hair black as deepest night, her legs long and slender, her hips wide. Tomball was heavy-built beside her, bulging arms hanging loose almost to his knees, great chest black-matted, his belly black with matted hair. Black-haired was Tomball, and squat. He was strongest of the Bunch, and there was shrewdness in him too, a shrewdness Dikar already had learned to fear.
The little muscle twitched in Dikar's cheek. "Marilee," he said, low-toned. "Find Jimlane and Billthomas, and tell them to come to me first chance they can without anyone seeing them."
She slipped away. Dikar watched her, slim and lovely, the fire's red light caressing her, and there was pain in his arms and his chest, sweet pain of the knowing that she was his.
Tomball too watched Marilee, small eyes following her, thick lips a little parted. Seeing this Dikar felt a tightness in his neck and across the back of his shoulders. His hands closed into fists. If he wasn't boss of the Bunch!
Dikar's hands opened and lifted, cupping around his mouth. "Ho Bunch!" he called through his cupped hands.
The talk in the clearing stopped, and the strollers turned to him. "Bedtime, Bunch," Dikar shouted. "A good sleep and happy dreams to you all."
"A good sleep to you, Dikar!" they cried to him, but Tomball did not cry Dikar a good sleep as he went toward the Boys' House with the others of the mateless Boys, while the mateless Girls went toward the Girls' House, and the mated pairs went hand in hand past the end of the eating place and into the dark woods behind. Dikar saw Marilee waiting for him by the eating place, but he did not go to her till Steveland and Halross, pimply-faced youngsters whose turn it was to stay awake the night and watch the fire, had taken their places on the smooth bench-rock near the Fire Stone.
"Be sure that one of you stays always awake," he told them. "Be sure to listen always for the sound of a plane in the sky. If you hear one wake the Bunch right away to out the fire."
"Yes, Dikar," Steveland said, his blue eyes wide. "We get you. A good sleep, Dikar."
"A quiet night to you both," Dikar said and went to join Marilee and go with her to the little house in the woods behind the eating place that, when they took each other for mates, he had built from logs to be theirs and theirs alone.
"Dikar," Marilee said, her eyes puzzled in the ruddy dusk that sifted through to her from the fire. "Why didn't you tell the Bunch about Tomball's hitting me and taking the fire stick to where the plane could see it? Why didn't you punish him for it?"
"Would it be fair, Marilee, to say to the Bunch that it was Tomball, when we do not know that it was? Would it be fair to punish him for doing it, when we do not know that he did it?"
"But we do know!"
"No, Marilee. We do not. You saw nothing and I saw nothing that would make us sure it was him. Or did you see something--something you have not told me?"
She stopped, Dikar stopped, looking at her face on which the dim red light fell leaving the rest of her in shadow, thinking how lovely her face was, the red light tangled in the cloudy softness of her hair, her gray eyes grave and thoughtful, her small mouth puckered.
"No-o," Marilee breathed at last. "No, I saw nothing that would make me sure it was Tomball. But I am sure, and you are sure, because we know that Tomball is the only one of the Bunch who would do a thing like that. Look, Dikar. Tomball wants to be boss, and if he cannot be boss of the Bunch he would destroy the Bunch, and he would stop at nothing to do it. You know all that as well as I do."
Sadness came into Dikar's face, and trouble in his eyes. "Yes, Marilee, I know that as well as you do. Tomball has always wanted to be boss, and when he couldn't get to be boss by fighting fair he fought no fair, and now that he knows he can't get to be boss by fighting either fair or no fair, he would destroy the Bunch rather than have me or anyone but him be boss. But it would not be right for me to fight him any other way than fair."
"Why, Dikar? If Tomball wants to destroy the Bunch, it seems to me it would be right for you to fight him any way you can, fair or no fair. Why isn't it?"
The lines were back in Dikar's forehead. Very clearly he knew the answer to what Marilee asked, but it was very hard to think of how to say it in words. "Look, Marilee," he cried. "When we were littler we played lots of games, and we always picked someone for umpire to see that everybody played according to the rules of the game, because if there were no rules there would be no game. Remember?"
"Yes, Dikar. I remember."
"Now sometimes the umpire himself would be no fair, letting one side break the rules. And then the other side would break the rules too, and pretty soon the game would bust up because with all the rules broken there was no game any more. Right?"
"Yes. But I don't see--"
His gesture stopped her.
"You will in a minute. Look. The life of the Bunch is no game, but it is lived according to rules, because if there were no rules, if every one of the Bunch did just as he or she wanted to, all the time, there would be no Bunch. Now, I don't think you or anybody else would say that if we hadn't lived all these years as a Bunch; sharing what we had, sharing the work, each doing what he can do best, all helping one another; any but the strongest of us would be alive and happy today. Would you?"
"No. We are all alive and happy after the long years here on the Mountain because we have helped each other."
"And played fair with each other. You call me boss and obey me, but you really obey the rules the Old Ones left us and the rules the Bunch has made for themselves, and all I am is an umpire to see that everybody obeys the rules, to see that everybody plays fair. Now, suppose I played no fair myself. Suppose, whenever I felt like it, I broke the rules. What would happen?"
She answered slowly: "Everybody else would break the rules too. I see. Because if the umpire is no fair, all the ones playing the game feel it's all right to be no fair too."
"Exactly. And pretty soon there would be no rules any more, and the Bunch would bust up. If Tomball is trying to destroy the Bunch, I've got to fight him. But if I fight him no fair, that will destroy the Bunch, sooner or later, much more surely than anything Tomball could do, or anything they who live in the far land can do. Now do you understand, Marilee?"
"I understand," Marilee said. And then she cried, "But you've got to do something, Dikar! You can't let him--" She stopped short, twisted to a noise in the brush behind her. "Dikar! There's somebody-!"
Dikar thrust her behind him. "Who's there?" he demanded, his neck thickening. "Who is it?"
Shadows moved in the shadows of the brush, where the red light from the fire could not reach.