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Chapter 2: Slavers

Tull and Fava jumped from the tree, straight into camp. Ayuvah and the others were throwing on their war gear.

“Slavers have attacked Denni and Tchar,” Fava said.

“How many?” Ayuvah asked, pulling on a leather helmet with brass studs.

“I saw only ten or twelve,” Tull said. “But there could be more.”

Ayuvah faltered. He looked at the boys. At nineteen and twenty, Tull and Ayuvah were the oldest in their group. The others were mere boys, none over fifteen, yet they were pulling out their war shields, strapping on leg guards with pale faces.

The slavers were grown men with years of experience with the sword, and the Neanderthals could be walking into a trap. Besides Tull, Ayuvah, and Fava, there were only six boys in the camp. They stared at Tull and Ayuvah in disbelief, eyes wide from terror.

Tull wondered, Is it better to lose all eleven of us, or only two?

Ayuvah was the best fighter and hunter from their hometown of Smilodon Bay, and the boys would follow if he chose to fight. But surely if it came to a pitched battle, the boys would lose.

It would be better to die, than to live our lives knowing that we had run from such a fight, Tull realized. He’d seen how shame could destroy a Neanderthal, sapping him of strength, of the very will to live. They were far more prone to such emotions than were humans. We have no choice but to fight, even if we are all killed or carried into slavery.

An hour later, just as the sun rose in a pink ball on the horizon, Ayuvah and his party made their way through the dew-soaked fields to the leatherwood forest.

They’d prepared for an ambush as they marched, but saw no sign of the slavers on the plain. Yet Tull was sure the slavers were watching. By now, they knew they would be fighting only nine Neanderthals. At a distance, would they know that six were only boys and one was a woman? Fava had come only to help distill the honey, yet she carried a shield and spear like any male warrior.

The Neanderthals spread out in a fan formation as they crept to the honey tree, climbing over fallen logs, watching for rocks that could turn an ankle.

At the tree line, five tan-and-silver iguanodons hunched among the leatherwood, feeding on flowery branches. The Pwi circled downwind of the tree.

As they neared, Ayuvah stopped the younger boys with the wave of his hand. He sniffed the air, testing the scent. His nose was broader than a human’s, and his sense of smell was strong.

“The slavers are gone,” Ayuvah said with certainty, and began stalking through the trees again. A moment later, someone cried out, “Denni, Tchar!”

They found the two Neanderthals tied to the tree in the morning sunlight, naked and unmoving. Tull could only see Tchar well, and the boy’s right hand lay on the ground a dozen feet in front of him. The slavers had beaten him black and blue, and then torn the tree open. The angry bees had stung him many times, and Tchar’s face was so swollen that his eyes were closed. Tull circled the tree just enough to see Denni, and then wished that he hadn’t.

The slavers had slit Denni’s belly open, then inserted a forked stick and twisted it, unrolling his intestines, pulling them out inch by inch and stringing them over bushes like sausages.

The amount of blood dripping down Denni’s legs showed that he had been alive while the slavers did their work. Yet Tull had heard no screams. Perhaps he’d been too far away. Or perhaps Denni had suffered in silence, refusing to show weakness.

Tull felt the veins in his neck throb, and for a moment the world went red as he fought rage and grief.

Ayuvah rushed forward to cut the boys loose. He dragged them away from the tree and brushed the dead bees off Tchar.

More than angry, Ayuvah seemed forlorn.

“They’re dead,” Ayuvah said. For an instant Tull had dared hope that the boys clung to life.

The younger Pwi watched the brush, fearful of an ambush. One boy began crying in fear while another made gagging sounds.

Ayuvah searched the camp for a moment, studying footprints. The slavers had worn heavy boots, not the soft moccasins of the Pwi, and their tracks were easy to follow. “There were only ten slavers,” Ayuvah said after several moments. “They knew that we would hunt them if they took captives; they did not want to fight us.”

Fava hissed, “We should hunt them like wolves anyway!” Tull could barely restrain himself from leaping into the trees to follow their trail.

Ayuvah studied the faces of the boys.

Tull realized that the slavers would have the advantage if they were not hindered by captives. Against experienced swordsmen, the boys would easily be cut down.

“The slavers are probably waiting for us,” Tull said. “If we follow them, we’ll walk into their trap.”

Indeed, a creeping worry hit him. There were few Pwi here in Hotland at this time of the year. His little band of honey gatherers were probably the only ones. So why were the slavers here—unless they had come specifically to hunt Tull and his friends?

The implications worried him. The only people who knew he was here were people from his hometown of Smilodon Bay. There were only a few hundred people in town, and he knew them all, had known them all of his life.

Could someone back home be in league with slavers?

He peered at Ayuvah, who had painted his face blue and wore a necklace of teeth from a great bear. His friend was huge and strong, but there was wisdom on his brow. Ayuvah let out a breath and said, “Tcho-oh-fenna-ai.” It grieves me like death that we can do nothing.

The Neanderthals carried the bodies of Denni and Tchar down to the river. In a brief ceremony, the Pwi threw flowers upon their corpses, and then gave them to the water.

The young boys cried bitterly. With these two dead, it meant that the Neanderthals of Smilodon Bay had lost five men to the slavers so far this summer.

The three others had simply been carted away at night after working in the fields.

When the comrades finished with the funeral, they crept back to the fort, packed their kegs of honey, and prepared for the trip home. With slavers about, they could linger no longer.

As a last act, they burned their little wooden fortress. It had served the honey harvesters and egg hunters for many seasons, but now that the slavers knew where it lay, the Pwi could never return.

Tull felt empty and horrified. Always in the past, Hotland had seemed like a place of escape, a place of adventure and freedom, but now the memories of it would be forever tainted with the kwea of murder and mourning.

Tull suspected that some of the slavers had been Neanderthals, thralls who had lived so long under the domination of the Slave Lords that they no longer minded enslaving their own. Neanderthals were stronger than humans, with a much keener sense of smell. Slavers used such thralls as trackers, so Tull worried that the slavers might hunt them at night by scent.

Tull’s party retreated at a grueling pace, racing day and night over a range of hills, carrying their load of honey and watching for slavers.

In the pass at Froth River, Ayuvah topped a hill and stood for a long moment, surveying the trail below. Dinosaurs had trampled the vegetation along the river, and Ayuvah spotted a pack of raptors, tan with green spots—some breed of allosaur—stalking through the trees along the river with their heads hunched low. The raptors, vicious predators about twelve yards long, were heading south into the wind. Tull’s heart nearly stopped at the sight of them. He would never have spotted them on his own.

“This way,” Ayuvah said, pointing west to give the raptors a wide berth. But when the rest of the party followed Ayuvah up a side path, Tull headed down the original trail, scuffing the dirt, snapping twigs. He hoped that the slavers were following them, and that they’d stumble into an ambush.

Nothing can ruin your day like a pack of raptors, Tull thought. They attacked in lunges from three or four directions at once, snapping and feinting, creating openings for others in the pack.

After a hundred yards, he loped back uphill and turned to catch up with his companions. Yet Tull could not rest easy. If the slavers were tracking his people, they might spot the raptors in time and turn back. Or they might not be following at all.

The Neanderthals’ ship was up ahead, on the north fork of the Pteranodon River. It was small for a sea-going vessel, but it was too large to hide. Tull worried that the slavers had found it already. The discovery of the ship might have precipitated last night’s attack.

What would the slavers have done if they’d found the ship? Burn it?

No, Tull’s men had been filling it with honey. It was not as sleek or sturdy as one of the slaver’s vessels, but it was still worth a lot of money. They might not value the ship highly, but they’d want to steal it rather than burn it.

Indeed, if they’d found the ship, they might have set a trap. What better way to catch slaves? Tull’s men wouldn’t have a backup plan. If they didn't make it to the ship, they might never make it off the continent at all except in the belly of a slave hold.

So they marched all day and all night again, fearing what lay ahead as well as what came behind. As they neared the sea, could taste the salt air, they came to a small hill and looked down to see their sailing ship moored in the channel of a dirty brown river, pulled up between trees. The water had lowered over the past month, so that the ship tilted in the shallows.

Everything looked peaceful. From the hill, they could see grass along the river, golden straw bleached by the sun and trampled by dinosaurs. There were few places where an ambush might hide.

Dimetrodons lay on the riverbank, their sails upright, warming themselves in the morning sun. Giant turtles rested on fallen trees out in the river. A few small egg-hunting dinosaurs, miniature versions of the raptors, loped along the riverbank, hunting for crayfish, snakes and other small game in the shallows.

Little gray pteranodons with soft down and spade-shaped tails glided over the river, snapping at giant dragonflies in shades of green, blue, and crimson.

“We should send one man down to the boat,” Tull said. “To make sure that the slavers haven’t set a trap.”

He glanced about, and saw the jaws drop on some of the boys. Fava peered at him in wonder. The others hadn’t considered the possibility of a trap.

He didn’t dare send any of them. He didn’t want to lose another boy on this trip. “I’ll go,” he offered.

He dropped his pack, then pulled his shield from his back. He tightened the strap on his leather helmet, drew his sword, and took a step down the trail.

Ayuvah, eyes wide, grabbed Tull’s bicep to stop him. Ayuvah’s face seemed pale, his mouth parted in surprise.

“Something wrong?” Tull asked. Ayuvah was always the first to spot danger.

A whirlwind whipped through the grass, climbing up the hill. It collided with Ayuvah, then dispersed. Ayuvah stood for a long time, just watching the river.

Fava ventured, “I don’t think the animals would be so carefree if the slavers were hiding down in the brush.”

“It’s not that,” Ayuvah said. “I feel strange … so strange.” His voice trailed off. “I feel as if father is here, as if he has come for us.” Ayuvah closed his eyes, breathed slowly. “Yes, he wants us to come home.”

Ayuvah’s father, Chaa, was a powerful shaman. He served as the Spirit Walker for his people, peering into the paths of the future. Yet a Spirit Walker could not use his sorcerous powers easily. He had to stand at the gate of death, leave his body behind, and send his spirit to travel the twisted paths of the future. Few Pwi who had the power were courageous enough to try, and even then, they only did it in times of deadly peril.

“Yes,” Ayuvah said. “There is bad news at home.” Ayuvah lifted his chin, cocked his ear as if listening. “It has to do with serpents, dying sea serpents.”

Tull pondered. For a thousand years, great serpents had protected his homeland from the dinosaurs that sometimes swam across the ocean from Hotland. Created by the genetic engineers that terraformed Anee, the serpents formed a living wall of protection, an “eco-barrier.”

But over the past three years the number of serpents and the number of hatchlings had been decreasing until finally this spring there had been no serpent hatch at all. Everyone wanted to believe that it was only a temporary problem, but it sounded like Chaa had been forced to walk the paths of the future, to use his powers to seek a solution.

Ayuvah said, “Yes, I am sure of it—Chaa wants us to come home. There are no slavers waiting for us at the ship. They gave up the hunt yesterday. We must set sail immediately!”

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