"I suppose the score is even now," he said to it, "and we'll never see each other again. So good hunting--and thanks."
It made a sound in its throat; a queer sound that was neither bark nor growl, and he had the feeling it was trying to tell him something. Then it turned and was gone like a black shadow across the grass and he was alone again.
He picked up his knife and bow and began the long, painful journey back to the caves, looking again and again at the ridge behind him and thinking: They have a code of ethics. They fight for their survival--but they pay their debts.
Ragnarok was big enough for both men and prowlers. They could live together in friendship as men and dogs of Earth lived together. It might take a long time to win the trust of the prowlers but surely it could be done.
He came to the rocky trail that led to the caves and there he took a last look at the ridge behind him; feeling a poignant sense of loss and wondering if he would ever see the prowler again or ever again know the strange, wild companionship he had known that day.
Perhaps he never would ... but the time would come on Ragnarok when children would play in the grass with prowler pups and the time would come when men and prowlers, side by side, would face the Gerns.
In the year that followed there were two incidents when a prowler had the opportunity to kill a hunter on prowler territory and did not do so. There was no way of knowing if the prowler in each case had been the one he had saved from the cloudburst or if the prowlers, as a whole, were respecting what a human had done for one of them.
Schroeder thought of again trying to capture prowler pups--very young ones--and decided it would be a stupid plan. Such an act would destroy all that had been done toward winning the trust of the prowlers. It would be better to wait, even though time was growing short, and find some other way.
The fall of one hundred and sixty-three came and the suns were noticeably moving south. That was the fall that his third child, a girl, was born. She was named Julia, after the Julia of long ago, and she was of the last generation that would be born in the caves.
Plans were already under way to build a town in the valley a mile from the caves. The unicorn-proof stockade wall that would enclose it was already under construction, being made of stone blocks. The houses would be of diamond-sawed stone, thick-walled, with dead-air spaces between the double walls to insulate against heat and cold. Tall, wide canopies of lance tree poles and the palm-like medusabush leaves would be built over all the houses to supply additional shade.
The woods goats were fully adapted that year and domesticated to such an extent that they had no desire to migrate with the wild goats. There was a small herd of them then, enough to supply a limited amount of milk, cheese and wool.
The adaptation of the unicorns proceeded in the following years, but not their domestication. It was their nature to be ill-tempered and treacherous and only the threat of the spears in the hands of their drivers forced them to work; work that they could have done easily had they not diverted so much effort each day to trying to turn on their masters and kill them. Each night they were put in a massive-walled corral, for they were almost as dangerous as wild unicorns.
The slow, painstaking work on the transmitter continued while the suns moved farther south each year. The move from the caves to the new town was made in one hundred and seventy-nine, the year that Schroeder's wife died.
His two sons were grown and married and Julia, at sixteen, was a woman by Ragnarok standards; blue-eyed and black-haired as her mother, a Craig, had been, and strikingly pretty in a wild, reckless way. She married Will Humbolt that spring, leaving her father alone in the new house in the new town.
Four months later she came to him to announce with pride and excitement: "I'm going to have a baby in only six months! If it's a boy he'll be the right age to be leader when the Gerns come and we're going to name him John, after the John who was the first leader we ever had on Ragnarok."
Her words brought to his mind a question and he thought of what old Dale Craig, the leader who had preceded Lake, had written: We have survived, the generations that the Gerns thought would never be born. But we must never forget the characteristics that insured that survival: an unswerving loyalty of every individual to all the others and the courage to fight, and die if necessary.
In any year, now, the Gerns will come. There will be no one to help us. Those on Athena are slaves and it is probable that Earth has been enslaved by now. We will stand or fall alone. But if we of today could know that the ones who meet the Gerns will still have the courage and loyalty that made our survival possible, then we would know that the Gerns are already defeated....
The era of danger and violence was over for a little while. The younger generation had grown up during a time of peaceful development of their environment. It was a peace that the coming of the Gerns would shatter--but had it softened the courage and loyalty of the younger generation?
A week later he was given his answer.
He was climbing up the hill that morning, high above the town below, when he saw the blue of Julia's wool blouse in the distance. She was sitting up on a hillside, an open book in her lap and her short spear lying beside her.
He frowned at the sight. The main southward migration of unicorns was over but there were often lone stragglers who might appear at any time. He had warned her that someday a unicorn would kill her--but she was reckless by nature and given to restless moods in which she could not stand the confinement of the town.
She jerked up her head as he watched, as though at a faint sound, and he saw the first movement within the trees behind her--a unicorn.
It lunged forward, its stealth abandoned as she heard it, and she came to her feet in a swift, smooth movement; the spear in her hand and the book spilling to the ground.
The unicorn's squeal rang out and she whirled to face it, with two seconds to live. He reached for his bow, knowing his help would come too late.
She did the only thing possible that might enable her to survive: she shifted her balance to take advantage of the fact that a human could jump to one side a little more quickly than a four-footed beast in headlong charge. As she did so she brought up the spear for the thrust into the vulnerable area just behind the jawbone.
It seemed the needle point of the black horn was no more than an arm's length from her stomach when she jumped aside with the lithe quickness of a prowler, swinging as she jumped and thrusting the spear with all her strength into the unicorn's neck.
The thrust was true and the spear went deep. She released it and flung herself backward to dodge the flying hooves. The force of the unicorn's charge took it past her but its legs collapsed under it and it crashed to the ground, sliding a little way before it stopped. It kicked once and lay still.
She went to it, to retrieve her spear, and even from the distance there was an air of pride about her as she walked past her bulky victim.
Then she saw the book, knocked to one side by the unicorn's hooves. Tatters of its pages were blowing in the wind and she stiffened, her face growing pale. She ran to it to pick it up, the unicorn forgotten.
She was trying to smooth the torn leaves when he reached her. It had been one of the old textbooks, printed on real paper, and it was fragile with age. She had been trusted by the librarian to take good care of it. Now, page after page was torn and unreadable....
She looked up at him, shame and misery on her face.
"Father," she said. "The book--I----"
He saw that the unicorn was a bull considerably larger than the average. Men had in the past killed unicorns with spears but never, before, had a sixteen-year-old girl done so....
He looked back at her, keeping his face emotionless, and asked sternly, "You what?"
"I guess--I guess I didn't have any right to take the book out of town. I wish I hadn't...."
"You promised to take good care of it," he told her coldly. "Your promise was believed and you were trusted to keep it."
"But--but I didn't mean to damage it--I didn't mean to!" She was suddenly very near to tears. "I'm not a--a bemmon!"
"Go back to town," he ordered. "Tonight bring the book to the town hall and tell the council what happened to it."
She swallowed and said in a faint voice, "Yes, father."
She turned and started slowly back down the hill, not seeing the unicorn as she passed it, the bloody spear trailing disconsolately behind her and her head hanging in shame.
He watched her go and it was safe for him to smile. When night came and she stood before the council, ashamed to lift her eyes to look at them, he would have to be grim and stern as he told her how she had been trusted and how she had betrayed that trust. But now, as he watched her go down the hill, he could smile with his pride in her and know that his question was answered; that the younger generation had lost neither courage nor loyalty.
Julia saved a child's life that spring and almost lost her own. The child was playing under a half-completed canopy when a sudden, violent wind struck it and transformed it into a death-trap of cracking, falling timbers. She reached him in time to fling him to safety but the collapsing roof caught her before she could make her own escape.
Her chest and throat were torn by the jagged ends of the broken poles and for a day and a night her life was a feebly flickering spark. She began to rally on the second night and on the third morning she was able to speak for the first time, her eyes dark and tortured with her fear: "My baby--what did it do to him?"
She convalesced slowly, haunted by the fear. Her son was born five weeks later and her fears proved to have been groundless. He was perfectly normal and healthy.
And hungry--and her slowly healing breasts would be dry for weeks to come.
By a coincidence that had never happened before and could never happen again there was not a single feeding-time foster-mother available for the baby. There were many expectant mothers but only three women had young babies--and each of the three had twins to feed.
But there was a small supply of frozen goat milk in the ice house, enough to see young Johnny through until it was time for the goat herd to give milk. He would have to live on short rations until then but it could not be helped.
Johnny was a month old when the opportunity came for the men of Ragnarok to have their ultimate ally.
The last of the unicorns were going north and the prowlers had long since gone. The blue star was lighting the night like a small sun when the breeze coming through Schroeder's window brought the distant squealing of unicorns.
He listened, wondering. It was a sound that did not belong. Everyone was safely in the town, most of them in bed, and there should be nothing outside the stockade for the unicorns to fight.
He armed himself with spear and crossbow and went outside. He let himself out through the east gate and went toward the sounds of battle. They grew louder as he approached, more furious, as though the battle was reaching its climax.
He crossed the creek and went through the trees beyond. There, in a small clearing no more than half a mile from the town, he came upon the scene.
A lone prowler was making a stand against two unicorns. Two other unicorns lay on the ground, dead, and behind the prowler was the dark shape of its mate lying lifelessly in the grass. There was blood on the prowler, purple in the blue starlight, and gloating rang in the squeals of the unicorns as they lunged at it. The leaps of the prowler were faltering as it fought them, the last desperate defiance of an animal already dying.
He brought up the bow and sent a volley of arrows into the unicorns. Their gloating squeals died and they fell. The prowler staggered and fell beside them.
It was breathing its last when he reached it but in the way it looked up at him he had the feeling that it wanted to tell him something, that it was trying hard to live long enough to do so. It died with the strange appeal in its eyes and not until then did he see the scar on its shoulder; a scar such as might have been made long ago by the rip of a unicorn's horn.
It was the prowler he had known nineteen years before.
The ground was trampled all around by the unicorns, showing that the prowlers had been besieged all day. He went to the other prowler and saw it was a female. Her breasts showed that she had had pups recently but she had been dead at least two days. Her hind legs had been broken sometime that spring and they were still only half healed, twisted and almost useless.
Then, that was why the two of them were so far behind the other prowlers. Prowlers, like the wolves, coyotes and foxes of Earth, mated for life and the male helped take care of the young. She had been injured somewhere to the south, perhaps in a fight with unicorns, and her mate had stayed with her as she hobbled her slow way along and killed game for her. The pups had been born and they had had to stop. Then the unicorns had found them and the female had been too crippled to fight....
He looked for the pups, expecting to find them trampled and dead. But they were alive, hidden under the roots of a small tree near their mother.
They were very young, small and blind and helpless. He picked them up and his elation drained away as he looked at them. They made little sounds of hunger, almost inaudible, and they moved feebly, trying to find their mother's breasts and already so weak that they could not lift their heads.
Small chunks of fresh meat had been left beside the pups and he thought of what the prowler's emotions must have been as his mate lay dead on the ground and he carried meat to their young, knowing they were too small to eat it but helpless to do anything else for them.
And he knew why there had been the appeal in the eyes of the prowler as it died and what it had tried to tell him: Save them ... as you once saved me.
He carried the pups back past the prowler and looked down at it in passing. "I'll do my best," he said.
When he reached his house he laid the pups on his bed and built a fire. There was no milk to give them--the goats would not have young for at least another two weeks--but perhaps they could eat a soup of some kind. He put water on to boil and began shredding meat to make them a rich broth.
One of them was a male, the other a female, and if he could save them they would fight beside the men of Ragnarok when the Gerns came. He thought of what he would name them as he worked. He would name the female Sigyn, after Loki's faithful wife who went with him when the gods condemned him to Hel, the Teutonic underworld. And he would name the male Fenrir, after the monster wolf who would fight beside Loki when Loki led the forces of Hel in the final battle on the day of Ragnarok.
But when the broth was prepared, and cooled enough, the pups could not eat it. He tried making it weaker, tried it mixed with corn and herb soup, tried corn and herb soups alone. They could eat nothing he prepared for them.
When gray daylight entered the room he had tried everything possible and had failed. He sat wearily in his chair and watched them, defeated. They were no longer crying in their hunger and when he touched them they did not move as they had done before.
They would be dead before the day was over and the only chance men had ever had to have prowlers as their friends and allies would be gone.
The first rays of sunrise were coming into the room, revealing fully the frail thinness of the pups, when there was a step outside and Julia's voice: "Father?"
"Come in, Julia," he said, not moving.
She entered, still a pale shadow of the reckless girl who had fought a unicorn, even though she was slowly regaining her normal health. She carried young Johnny in one arm, in her other hand his little bottle of milk. Johnny was hungry--there was never quite enough milk for him--but he was not crying. Ragnarok children did not cry....
She saw the pups and her eyes went wide.
"Prowlers--baby prowlers! Where did you get them?"
He told her and she went to them, to look down at them and say, "If you and their father hadn't helped each other that day they wouldn't be here, nor you, nor I, nor Johnny--none of us in this room."
"They won't live out the day," he said. "They have to have milk--and there isn't any."
She reached down to touch them and they seemed to sense that she was someone different. They stirred, making tiny whimpering sounds and trying to move their heads to nuzzle at her fingers.
Compassion came to her face, like a soft light.
"They're so young," she said. "So terribly young to have to die...."
She looked at Johnny and at the little bottle that held his too-small morning ration of milk.
"Johnny--Johnny----" Her words were almost a whisper. "You're hungry--but we can't let them die. And someday, for this, they will fight for your life."
She sat on the bed and placed the pups in her lap beside Johnny. She lifted a little black head with gentle fingers and a little pink mouth ceased whimpering as it found the nipple of Johnny's bottle.
Johnny's gray eyes darkened with the storm of approaching protest. Then the other pup touched his hand, crying in its hunger, and the protest faded as surprise and something like sudden understanding came into his eyes.
Julia withdrew the bottle from the first pup and transferred it to the second one. Its crying ceased and Johnny leaned forward to touch it again, and the one beside it.
He made his decision with an approving sound and leaned back against his mother's shoulder, patiently awaiting his own turn and their presence accepted as though they had been born his brother and sister.
The golden light of the new day shone on them, on his daughter and grandson and the prowler pups, and in it he saw the bright omen for the future.
His own role was nearing its end but he had seen the people of Ragnarok conquer their environment in so far as Big Winter would ever let it be conquered. The last generation was being born, the generation that would meet the Gerns, and now they would have their final ally. Perhaps it would be Johnny who led them on that day, as the omen seemed to prophesy.
He was the son of a line of leaders, born to a mother who had fought and killed a unicorn. He had gone hungry to share what little he had with the young of Ragnarok's most proud and savage species and Fenrir and Sigyn would fight beside him on the day he led the forces of the hell-world in the battle with the Gerns who thought they were gods.
Could the Gerns hope to have a leader to match?
John Humbolt, leader, stood on the wide stockade wall and watched the lowering sun touch the western horizon--far south of where it had set when he was a child. Big Summer was over and now, in the year two hundred, they were already three years into Big Fall. The Craigs had been impassable with snow for five years and the country at the north end of the plateau, where the iron had been found, had been buried under never-melting snow and growing glaciers for twenty years.
There came the soft tinkling of ceramic bells as the herd of milk goats came down off the hills. Two children were following and six prowlers walked with them, to protect them from wild unicorns.
There were not many of the goats. Each year the winters were longer, requiring the stocking of a larger supply of hay. The time would come when the summers would be so short and the winters so long that they could not keep goats at all. And by then, when Big Winter had closed in on them, the summer seasons would be too short for the growing of the orange corn. They would have nothing left but the hunting.
They had, he knew, reached and passed the zenith of the development of their environment. From a low of forty-nine men, women and children in dark caves they had risen to a town of six thousand. For a few years they had had a way of life that was almost a civilization but the inevitable decline was already under way. The years of frozen sterility of Big Winter were coming and no amount of determination or ingenuity could alter them. Six thousand would have to live by hunting--and one hundred, in the first Big Winter, had found barely enough game.