MY FIRST thought was for Tuarra. I turned my face to see the girl on her feet, shivering in the coldness of the dawn, rubbing her arms and speaking swiftly to the blue man standing over me. There was a hopelessness in the slope of her smooth shoulders that told me better than any words the trouble we were in. Something of loathing touched her face when she looked at our captors. Blue hands reached for me, yanked me to my feet.
I found myself facing the big blue man who had first stood over me and glared. He was a handsome man in a kilt of spotted fur and broad red belt from which hung two handguns and two swords. A thin fillet of gold about his head indicated his high rank above the gilded horns at his temples. Long black hair hung down to his shoulders where the strands were gathered together and twisted into what looked to be heavy gold nuggets.
As I was held upright before him, the man drew back his lips in a savage snarl and drove the back of his hand full against my mouth. Since my ankles were tied, I went over backward into what was left of our fire. One touch of those coals on my naked flesh sent me rolling sideways out of them, after a moment of agonizing pain. I rolled into the ankles of the man who had hit me, driving his legs out from under him, sending him flying. Sharp exclamations of surprise rose up from the others. The blue man lay where I had felled him, oddly limp. Then I saw a trickle of blood at his temple where his head had hit the well wall.
His followers ran to him, bent over him, probing his injury. One of them looked at me where I had risen to my knees and his lips drew back in a silent snarl. He made a motion with his hands and I was lifted bodily into the air and carried to a horned dral. My ankle thongs were cut; I was dumped unceremoniously onto its saddle, with my wrists still bound tightly behind my back.
Tuarra walked to another beast and mounted, urging her dral close to mine. There was fear in her eyes as she watched the unconscious blue man lifted and placed on a sort of stretcher between two drals. From his trappings, I assumed the man I had felled was an important one among the blue men. How important he was I would learn along the route of march, after Tuarra taught me her language.
As I was watching the other blue men mount up, Tuarra toed her dral close to me; reaching out, she caught the bridle of my animal and urged it to a canter beside her own. One of our captors glanced at her and grunted, then turned away. Evidently she was to be my companion on the ride ahead.
The blue men moved out of the ancient ruins and along an unmarked path across the red desert. They went in double file, with the stretcher carrying their unconscious chieftain in the rearguard. There were fifty or more blue men in the cortege. They rode easily, without obvious interest in their surroundings; apparently they were in home country here, with little to fear.
As we rode, Tuarra pointed a finger at the blue men. “Azunn,” she said, and looked at me. I repeated the word dutifully and pointed in turn to our captors.
This was the beginning. All the long day she talked to me, pointing at various objects, at other times making me understand what she meant by gestures. It is not too difficult to learn a language when all you can speak is that language. Besides, I had an intense desire to be able to converse with this girl who cantered so close to me that her leg touched mine from time to time. Her closeness, her interest in teaching as well as my own in learning, made me a good pupil.
The language of Llarn is fluid, filled with soft vowels and few harsh consonants, so that it is a pleasure to hear and, once mastered, a joy to speak. I had no similar Earth speech on which to form a base. I was as an infant; I must learn to talk all over again. Yet Tuarra made my lessons a constant delight with her soft laughter, her gentle teasings at my hesitancy, her soft applause—which she registered by a purring sound deep in her throat—at my few successes.
We stopped for the night camp near a stretch of hardened ground, an oasis of sorts without shrubbery or vegetation of any kind, yet containing water below, which the Azunn reached by sinking a pipe fitted with a boring device. All Azunn expeditions carry a number of these drilling devices, powered by a turn—screw handle; in a matter of minutes they have clear water flowing from an outlet valve into cooking pots and flasks. The water was sweet and cold, a liquid happiness to the throat after a day of riding across barren desert sands.
Tuarra was my maid and my teacher at the evening halt. She roasted my steak and baked a fluffy sort of biscuit that actually melted when held in the mouth. It had a honey taste to it. She kept up her teaching all through the meal; occasionally a curious blue man would come and stand over us listening, make a laughing comment and walk away.
Tuarra paid no attention to the Azunn. It seemed to me that she did not quite consider them her equals. I was to discover that she was intensely proud, that her rank in her home city of Kharthol was that of daganna, or princess, since she was the daughter of Drakol Tu, dagan-overlord of Kharthol.
To augment her spoken instructions, she began after the meal to scratch numbers and symbols in the hard packed dirt of our campsite. These she also assigned names to, with little sighs of exasperation that she could not make clearer to me the ideas which she had in mind. Infinity to an Earth-man is represented by the figure eight lying on its side. The Llarn conception of infinity is a wavy line. Idea, too, is a word with which we had a little difficulty, as was the verb to love.
Naturally, we did not cover all this ground the first night. The Azunn were many miles from the heart of their homeland. This expedition was a stab into the more northerly territory, desert lands which belonged to no one race on Llarn, but that were looked upon as a badlands, where nothing grew except the dry thoril shrubs and few dwarf plants. They were several days’ ride from home.
My lessons went on, day after day, as my body toughened to the hot red sun and grew used to the scorching heat that rose from the red sands. As my muscles hardened to the feel of the dral between my thighs, I began to feel more at ease on this alien planet. Earth and its memories receded in my mind, became like a dream existence known long ago.
We were on the trail close to twenty days when we sighted a distant city. We had come to the edge of the desert and left it behind us, three marches ago; now we rode through a countryside of undulating hills covered with a coarse green grass and here and there sparse groves of trees. A cool wind blew across this ancient land and soothed skins burned dark by the desert sun.
Tuarra lifted her arm, pointing. “Azorra, the home city of the Azunn,” she told me. “Here rules Morlan Az, the man you hit so hard he has not yet recovered consciousness.”
There was pride in her voice, pride that made me flush with pleasure, though I hastened to point out that Morlan Az had cracked his skull on a well wall. She shrugged idly, as if to say that this was a mere formality; what mattered most was that I had done it.
“I’m surprised they’re treating me so well. If Morlan Az is their dagan, I should think they’d have buried their swords in my hide for what I did to him.”