"You climbed down a rope of vines!" Marilee's hand went to the flowery circlet that covered her breast. "You might have been killed, Dikar!"
Dikar nodded. "Yes, I might have been killed, an' I didn't care much whether I was or not. I'd been stoned from the Bunch, remember, an' you had cried me no fair. Have some more of these berries, Marilee. They are swell."
"No. You have them." Marilee fed them to Dikar, placing them one by one between his lips. Then they were finished. Dikar lay back, and Marilee lay by his side, quiet and drowsy, and Dikar was dreamily content.
Marilee stirred. "Dikar. Does the rope still hang behind the stream where it leaps down?"
Dikar sat up, pounding his knee with his fist. "Jeeze! It does! I did not lift it when I came back to the Mountain, an' I've forgotten it since. I must do that. Tonight I must do it, as soon as it is dark enough that I cannot be seen from below when I go to the edge of the Drop. Do not let me forget."
"I sure will not," Marilee answered. And then, with that curiosity Dikar had noticed all the Girls had so much more than the Boys, she asked, "Just where is the rope?"
Dikar looked about him, thinking how he could tell her. He knew every inch of the Mountain as well as he knew the lines on his palm. "That's funny," he laughed suddenly. "That brook, there, is the very one at whose end the rope hangs. By following it down the Mountain you would get to it. But look," he went on, rising, "the sun no longer strikes straight down through the treetops, an' much as I hate to send you away, it is time for work again."
"Yes, Dikar," Marilee sighed, reaching a hand for him to take hold of and lift her by. "Time for work." As she came up she swung close to him, and her arms went around his neck and her lips pressed against his, and they were flame on Dikar's lips, burning flame in his veins. "Oh, Dikar," Marilee sobbed. "I hate not to be with you."
"It is only for a little while," Dikar murmured. "Only till night." He held her away from him, drinking her in with his eyes. "What are you goin' to do till night, Marilee?" he asked. "I like to know what you do, all the time, because that way I can think myself with you, an' am not so lonely for you when we are apart."
"That's sweet, Dikar," Marilee smiled, touching Dikar's cheek with her fingertips. "I shall be somewhere in the woods. Bessalton wants me to hunt for a certain kind of grass that is best for sewin' with. Think of me a lot, Dikar," she said, and Annjordan called her, and she was gone.
Dikar and the rest set to work again. Marilee's lips still burned on Dikar's, and the touch of Marilee's fingertips lingered on his cheek, and he would not wipe the sweat from his face lest he wipe that touch from it too.
The kerchunk-kerchunk of the axes ran loud and long through the woods, and the pile of cut logs grew slowly but steadily. The beams of sunlight striking down from the leafy roof of the forest slanted more and more, and the shadows lengthened. At last Dikar rested.
"Enough for today, fellows," he said. "Tomorrow we'll--" The words caught in his throat. He'd heard a sound from far down the Mountain, a sound that should not be in the woods.
The sound came again, very far off, but Dikar knew what it was. He'd heard it down in the far land, and once, only once, on the Mountain. That time he'd made the sound himself, shooting the little gun out of the great oak that canopied the Fire Stone.
: OVER THE DROP.
"Come, fellows," Dikar snapped, springing to the bush where hung his bow and arrows, snatching them up. "Quick." He was off through the woods, running down toward along the bank of the stream because there it was clearest of bushes and trees. The other four ran after him.
Long the time seemed, endless, that Dikar ran thus through familiar woods suddenly grown strange and fearful. Dreadful the thoughts that Dikar thought as he ran. Who had shot off a gun on the Mountain? Had that plane, last night, seen something to tell those who rode it that someone lived here? Had they climbed the Mountain, the men dressed in green that he'd seen in the far land, the men with yellow faces and black who were so brutishly cruel?
Never had Dikar run so fast. The others could not keep up with him, so fast he ran, but still he saw nothing but the flicking shadows of the woods and the glinting sun on the stream beside which he ran. The stream was rushing faster now, was hurrying to throw itself over the Drop, just ahead-- Dikar dug heels to stop himself. Something in the water--Jimlane! Jimlane lay face down in the water, very still, and the water that swirled away from the still, small body was pink and dreadful. Jimlane lay in the water, but on the bank of the stream lay Billthomas, limp as an arrowed deer, his side red and terrible with blood.
Dikar dropped to his knees beside Billthomas, and inside him Dikar was cold, cold as ice. "My fault," he heard himself groan. "I set you to watch Tomball, an' Tomball had the gun hid in the woods, an' he got it an' shot you. My fault, Billthomas."
Dikar touched Billthomas, and Billthomas moved under Dikar's hand, Billthomas' eyes opened and stared up into Dikar's face, unseeing. Then they smiled. A faint smile touched Billthomas' gray lips and they moved, but Dikar could not hear what they said.
"What?" Dikar's voice was hoarse, strange to him. "What, Billthomas?" He bent, got his ear near Billthomas' lips.
"What are you tryin' to tell me?"
"Tomball--" the faint whisper came. "Went--over Drop--Took--Marilee--with him..." The whisper faded, Billthomas' eyes closed.
"What?" Dikar yelled. "What was that about Marilee? Billthomas! Did you say Marilee-?" But he saw that Billthomas did not hear him.
Shouts, exclamations, above him told Dikar the Boys had meanwhile come up. "Jumped over the Drop!" someone exclaimed. "They must be smashed on the rocks--"
"No," something shrieked inside Dikar's head. "Not Marilee!" and he was on his feet, was twisting toward the edge of the Drop.
The stream rushed away from Jimlane's still body, rushed down to the end of the woods. Not five paces away it leaped out--up from where it leaped slanted a thick rope of plaited vines to the great trunk of the last tree of all and it was wound round and round that trunk, tight-fastened.
Tomball and Marilee had not jumped over the Drop-!
Somehow Dikar was at the edge of the Drop, careless whether from below they saw him or not. Dikar was looking down, his eyes burning.
Down and down fell the white spume of the stream, down and down fell the awful wall of the Drop, gray-shadowed. Far, far below, the stream smashed itself on a great, jagged rock and joined the waters that brawled white and angry among huge rocks that might have been tumbled there by some unimaginable giants at play.
For a wide space from the foot of the Drop the ground was covered by the great rocks, and that space was made somehow fearful by the shadow of the Mountain that lay on it, but beyond it the sun still lay on a green forest that stretched away to the far land.
Dikar's staring eyes found the edge of that forest, found two figures, small as the dolls the Girls used to make out of rags when first the Bunch came to the Mountain. Two figures clambered over the rocks, nearing the edge of the forest, and the one behind was chunky, black-haired, and the one ahead was brown with her mantle of brown hair!
Till now Dikar had clung to a hope that he had not understood Billthomas rightly, that Billthomas had been mistaken, but now that hope was ended. A terrible rage flared up in Dikar, a rage hotter than the heart of the fire on the Fire Stone. He snatched an arrow from the quiver hung on his shoulder, fitted it to his bow.
"This was why she asked me how I climbed down the Drop," ran searing through his mind. "She planned it this mornin' with Tomball. This mornin' she stole from our bed to seek Tomball an' warn him I'd set the kids to watch him, an' they planned then to kill the youngsters as soon as they'd found out how to flee from the Mountain, together."
He had Tomball on the angle of his arrowhead. The muscles in his arms swelled, the bow grew taut. Careful, now. Careful. The distance was great. He must not miss.
He might miss Tomball and hit Marilee.
What matter? She was as much to blame as he.
Dikar couldn't! His fingers wouldn't open on the bowstring, wouldn't loose the arrow that might bury itself in the flesh of Marilee.
But he must! Not because they fled him. Not even because they had killed Billthomas, and Jimlane. Because even if they didn't want to, the men in green would make them tell where they'd come from, make them tell about the Bunch. That thought opened Dikar's fingers.
Dikar's arrow flew straight and fast and true--far out over the rocks it veered, was no longer a live and deadly dart, was a dead stick tumbling aimlessly down, a plaything of the wind.
Another arrow lay ready across Dikar's bow, but he did not loose it. No use. They were too far--Marilee reached the woods, and Tomball. The woods swallowed them. They were making their way through those woods to Them-- Dikar turned to voices behind him, saw Danhall and Henfield, Johnstone and Bengreen, huddled just within the edge of the woods, pale-faced, mouths agape, eyes wide and dark. "Johnstone," Dikar snapped, banging his bow over his shoulder. "Take over as Boss. Take care of Billthomas an' Jimlane. I'm goin' down."
"You dare not," Danhill gasped. "Dikar, you dare not. The Old Ones will strike you--"
"Damn the Old Ones," Dikar snarled and was in the stream, had hands on the rope. He was lowering himself over the edge of the Drop. His legs caught around the vine-rope.
The water battered Dikar. The water filled Dikar's mouth and his eyes and his nose, so that he could not see nor breathe nor hear anything but the roar of the waters. The water had a hundred clubs that pounded Dikar, bruised him. Suddenly the water was only a stinging cold spray on Dikar's naked skin, and he was swinging free between the wet-black face of the Drop and the roar of the stream as it fell, and he was climbing down the rope of plaited vines.
This was as it had been that other time Dikar had climbed down this rope of plaited vines, but that time it had been night and once he had gotten through that first rush of waters it had been black-dark. Bad enough it had been to climb down into dizzy dark, but now there was light, and Dikar could see how the Drop came down from nothingness above and went straight down to nothingness below.
He could look down, endlessly down the swinging frail thread of the rope, down to where the jagged points of rock waited for him if he fell, and the stream smashed itself on the rocks as Dikar would smash if he fell.
From the rocks, so far below, there reached up hands that Dikar could not see, and they pulled at him, pulled him down to the rocks, his climbing too slow for them. Dikar wanted to let go of the rope, wild the desire was in him to let go and fall, fast and faster, down to those gray painted rocks.
Dikar was sick, sick with the terror that he would let go and with the wanting to let go. Suddenly his arms and his legs were without strength to move. He clung to the rope, unmoving, knowing that in the next moment, the very next, he would no longer have even the strength to hang on. "Dikar!" His name came through the mists that swirled around him. "Go on, Dikar. Go on." Dikar looked up to the voice, and he saw that it came not from far above, as it ought, but from the rope itself, from Danhall, hanging on the rope not far above him.
Down through the seething waters at the top of the rope, Bengreen climbed, the water streaming from him! They were following Dikar down. Danhall and Bengreen were following him where he went, in spite of their fear of the Old Ones, in spite of their fear of what might await them down below the Mountain. He was their leader, and they followed him-- Strength was back in Dikar's legs and his arms and he was climbing down again, but he kept his eyes on the wall of the Drop and did not look down. And at last his feet found rock beneath him and Danhall was beside him, and Bengreen; and then Henfield dropped off the rope.
"We wouldn't let Johnstone come," Danhall said, squeezing water from his brown beard, "because you said he should be Boss. What do we do next, Dikar?"
Dikar looked across the waste of tumbled rock to where Tomball and Marilee had been swallowed by the woods. "We go after 'em an' bring 'em back," he said through tight lips, "or we don't go back ourselves. Come on."
They climbed across the stony space, slipping and falling. When they reached the woods, that seemed no different from their own woods, it was easy at first to follow the trail of those they followed, by the small growth they had trodden down, by twigs bent with their passage. Marilee and Tomball had gone carelessly, not knowing they would be followed.
The shadow of the Mountain lengthened with the fast-dropping sun, and it grew dim about the four who hunted a Boy and a Girl. The green faded out of the bushes about them, the brown out of the tree trunks. All color grayed in the dimness, and suddenly there were no marks by which the four could tell which ways Marilee and Tomball had passed.
They cast around, their keen eyes searching each depression in the mossy floor of the woods, the way each tiny leaf hung on the brush, but they could find no sign of where Tomball and Marilee had gone, no sign that they'd ever been farther than where a twig pressed into the last mark of Tomball's foot.
The four Boys from the Mountain came together again, and huddled close, and they became aware that the graying air was chill against their skin, and the forest seemed strangely hushed about them.
"I don't like it here," Henfield said, and it seemed right that he spoke low-toned, as though someone were near to overhear what he said, someone or some thing no one could see. "There's somethin' wrong about these woods. They're too--too quiet." He was yellow-haired as Dikar, his chin fuzzed with what would soon be a beard like Dikar's. "The birds are still, an' the insects, an' I've not seen or heard a rabbit or a squirrel, or anythin' livin'."
"I don't get it." Bengreen was the shortest of the four, his face sharp, his eyes black and deep as a forest pool at night. "I don't get it at all. It's like--like Tomball an' Marilee got this far an' then--an' then were not."
"The Old Ones!" Henfield's voice was thin and piercing, louder it would be a scream. "The Old Ones have taken 'em an' they'll take us. We're lost! Dikar, we're dead an' worse than dead!"
: DEATH IN THE WOODS.
A chill struck deep into Dikar as he heard Henfield's cry. All his life, all his life that was real to him and not a dream of Long-Ago, Dikar had believed that anyone who broke a Must-Not of the Old Ones would meet with a punishment the more awful because none knew what it was. By climbing down the Drop Marilee and Tomball had broken the most fearful of those Must-Nots.
Dikar recalled that he was the first of the Bunch to have broken that Must-Not, and that he had not been punished. "The Old Ones sleep under the rocks," he snapped, angrily because of the tremble of fear that had not yet left him. "They're not in these woods an' there is nothin' else here that could have taken Tomball an' Marilee without leavin' a sign. Stop talkin' foolishness an' use your eyes, an' you will find some sign of what took 'em, or of which way they went."
"Maybe," Danhall grunted. "Maybe you can, Dikar, seein' you're so smart."
"Maybe I can," Dikar answered. "Wait here, an' I'll try." He turned from them, moved to a big tree near which they were standing, ran up into its top as swiftly and easily as any squirrel. Thick boughs made steps for Dikar's feet, leaves rustled against his face, stroked his body, and then his head came out through the roof of the tree into a sunlight strangely ruddy.
The top of the forest stretched away from Dikar, a strange, bright green in that light, and solid seeming. About as far from him as from the clearing to the edge of the Drop, the forest ended and past its end the ground rose in a hill that was neither green nor stone--gray like any other ground Dikar remembered ever seeing, but a pale yellow that seemed to be striped.
Up through this yellow ground a wide brown stripe curved to the top of the hill, where, sharp-lined against the darkening sky, was a house not as long as the Boys' House but higher, its roof curiously shaped. Midway up the front of the house another roof stuck out, and the outer edge of this was post-propped like the roof of the eating place.
Just above this smaller roof, a row of windows flashed red as though there was fire within, but no smoke rose from the house, so Dikar knew this could not be.
Dikar's eyes came back to the leafy canopy of the woods. A low exclamation guttered in his throat. All that green stretch swayed a little with the wind, but, quarter way between him and the edge of the forest a tree swayed against the wind, and then another, just beyond, did the same.
Dikar marked the direction in which the trees moved so strangely, and dropped down to the waiting Boys. "Found 'em!" he cried. "They've taken to the treetops. They're goin' that way." Dikar threw out his arm to show.
"Come on then," Bengreen cried.
"Not in such a hurry," Dikar checked him. "They don't know we follow 'em, an' they'll be goin' slow, not sure of what is ahead. We can take time to think, an' we must, for remember Tomball has the gun an' can kill us, one by one, before we get near enough to him to bring him down with our arrows."
"What then, Dikar?"
Dikar told them the plan that had come into his head, and, as he had ordered, they spread out wide either side of the path Tomball and Marilee traveled, wide of each other because that way there was less chance of making noise to warn Tomball. Then they moved in the direction those they hunted moved, swift and soundless as when they hunted a deer downwind.
Now that Dikar was alone he needed no longer to pretend to be unafraid. These woods were fear-filled, as Danhall had sensed, but not for the reason Danhall had named. The Old Ones did not prowl them, nor were there any other strange beings in them that could make a Boy vanish.
The dread that lay heavy here was the dread that lay over all this far land, of Them who were more cruel than any beast, of their fists and whips and guns and the fearful things they did to the people who once had lived peacefully in this land.
There was no longer an endless, rolling thunder in the sky, such as Dikar remembered from his dream of the Long-Ago, but in the sky was a dark, dark cloud, unseen but very real, that laid over all the land, over the forests and the fields and the cities, a night of the soul that had lasted long, too long.
Only on the Mountain had there been any light, this long time, any hope of a tomorrow. Dikar was thinking of his dream, as he ran naked and silent through the woods, was thinking of the Voice he had heard in his dream, the Voice that had spoken to the mothers who, with their very littlest children and the very oldest of the men, were the last ones left in the last city untaken by the hordes, the city there no longer had been any hope of saving from them.
"This is the dusk of our day," the Voice had said, "of the America we lived for, and die for. If there is to be any hope of a tomorrow, it must rest with these little children in an attempt to save whom you are about to sacrifice yourselves. If they perish, America shall have perished. If by some chance they survive, then, in some tomorrow we cannot foresee, America will live again and democracy, liberty, freedom, shall reconquer the green and pleasant fields that tonight lie devastated."
The little children of whom that Voice had spoken, all of them who survived the flight from the city, had grown now to be the Bunch on the Mountain. And now, when almost they were ready for their task of bringing that tomorrow to these once green and pleasant fields, two of them swung through the treetops to betray them to their enemies, and destroy them.
It was of this that Dikar thought as he ran through the woods. Had Tomball been only his own enemy, only one who had taken his mate from him, if Marilee had been only the mate who was false to him, Dikar would have sent Danhall and Henfield and Bengreen back to the Mountain and pursued them alone. But it was the enemies of the Bunch he hunted, the enemies of an America, love for which, though he had never known it, was part of Dikar's blood, part of his breath, part of his soul.
And so Dikar came to the edge of the forest and fell to his hands and knees and crawled a little way out into the high, yellow grasses that striped with yellow the hill beyond the forest, and lay there waiting.
Somewhere in these grasses, Dikar knew, along the front of the woods, lay the three others, their eyes on the tops of the trees, on the green brush that met the grasses, arrows fitted to their bows, as his was. For this was his plan.
When Tomball and Marilee came to the edge of the woods, and came out into the open, the nearest Boy would shoot them down at once, before they were seen, before Tomball had a chance to use his gun. That they would come into the open, Dikar did not question. Had not Tomball tried, last night, to show the flame of the fire stick to the plane? Tomball was not afraid of Them. Tomball had come down to the far land to look for Them.
If only it did not get too dark to see Tomball, and Marilee, before they came out of the woods. The sun no longer lay on the grasses here. It just touched the roof of the house, there on top of the hill, soon would leave that too.
The sun no longer lay on the grasses, here where Dikar hid, but the hot smell of the sun was in his nostrils, and the ground was still warm with it. The ground was warmer than the ground on the Mountain ever got, it was warm as the body of Marilee when Marilee lay against Dikar's body, and the scent of the grasses was like the scent of Marilee's breath.
A lump rose in Dikar's throat. He was waiting here for Marilee, waiting to send an arrow into her slim, brown body. As so many times he had waited hidden in the forest to kill a deer, he was waiting to kill Marilee.
In that very instant that her lips lay on his, burning, Marilee had been thinking how she would find Tomball, how she would tell him of the rope that hung over the edge of the Drop! With her arms about Dikar, she had planned how to help Tomball kill Jimlane and Billthomas!
If ever anyone deserved to be killed, it was Marilee!
The ache in Dikar's breast was not an ache but a terrible, tearing pain--his muscles tightened. His head lifted, his lips tight-pressed within his beard, his nostrils flaring, ears and eyes straining.
Dikar started to ease, tensed again. No, that rustle in the treetops was not made by the wind. It came nearer. Nearer. Something brown, moving, showed among the leaves. Vanished. An' arm it had been, of this Dikar was sure, though he could not be sure whether it was Marilee's or Tomball's. They had come straight to him. He it was who must kill Tomball. Who must kill Marilee.