The kzin screamed and leaped.
The gagrumpher was a young one, lagging a little behind the herd, half-asleep on its feet in the warm forenoon. The kzin landed on its back, above its middle pair of legs. The centauroid reared up, shrieking. The gagrumpher herd wheeled, the males charging back.
But the gagrumpher's rearing had brought its throat in range of the feline's razor fangs. The kzin swung its jaws, slashing. There was time for one crushing bite at the neck bones, and it was down, racing for the trees like an orange shadow a second before the gagrumpher bull-males arrived.
The wounded gagrumpher stood for a moment, blood jetting, then it collapsed, its oxygen-starved brain already dying, though its rear legs kicked for some time under the instinctual commands of the dorsal ganglial knot.
The males could not pursue the predator into the trees, and as they stood in a bellowing group, the snarl of another kzin tore the air on the opposite side of the clearing, between them and the rest of the herd. They could not leave the females and the other juveniles unguarded. They hastened back, and the herd moved on.
The body of the adolescent became still in its pool of blood as the dorsal ganglia died. A colony of leather-flappers that had risen shrieking into the sky returned to their trees, and the forest settled down again to its own affairs.
Warily, two kzin approached the kill. The killer, like its prey, was a youngster, showing a mixture of kitten spots and adolescent stripes against its bright orange fur. The other was older—much older. There was gray at its muzzle, one eye and one arm were artificial, its ears were torn shreds and the fur at its neck and shoulders grew raggedly over a complex of scar tissue. The youngster kept watch as the elder kzin lowered its great head and lapped the blood, then crouched and lapped in turn.
The forest was quiet again. They ate undisturbed.
"That was a good kill, Vaemar," the elder kzin said. He gave the youngster a grooming lick.
"Thank you, Raargh-Hero. But I doubt I could handle an adult yet. And it was a stupid one to lag behind the herd in this close country."
"Then you have seen the fate of the stupid. You feel nothing in the ground?"
"Feet. Distant enough."
"Yes. I think so." The pattern of the gagrumpher's centauroid footfalls could never be mistaken for those of a quadruped, but many of Wunderland's native life-forms were centauroid.
"Are they approaching or receding?
"I think . . . I think they are still receding."
"Be sure, be very sure. The males could be returning quietly through the cover."
"They do not sound heavy."
"Nor would they, to your senses yet, if they put their feet down slowly. They are very different things, leaping on the back of a dreaming youngster, and looking up to see a dozen charging adult males. You do not want to be under those forelegs when they rear up. I have heard some humans made the skins of our kind into what they call rrrugz . Adult gagrumphers can do the same more quickly."
"They are moving away, Raargh-Hero, I am sure of it now."
"Indeed. Do you know why they move away?"
"The males know we are here. Their usual response would be—I will not say of such clumsy and noisy herbivores to 'stalk' us—but to attempt to take us by surprise. If they are moving away, it is for a reason. Perhaps some other enemy approaches.
"Never feel shame like the foolish ones at using ziirgah. It is a gift of the Fanged God," the old kzin went on. Ziirgah was the rudimentary ability of all kzinti to detect emotions of other hunters or prey. Most used it quite unthinkingly, but because it was developed in a few into the despised talent of the telepaths, many felt unease at using it consciously. It had saved Raargh's life on more than one occasion.
"Always danger, Raargh-Hero."
"Vaemar, when you look at me, see always two things: I am old, and I am alive. I notice danger. Not all who were kits with me, or recruits, or fighting soldiers, did so. . . . Listen now!"
"There . . . !" The young kzin's ears and tail shot up.
"Yes, mechanism! You know the enemy now."
"We must get under cover!"
"Finish your meat. It is your kill, and we have enough time. We will take the haunches to salt before the Beam's beasts and the snufflers get them."
The sound of the vehicle grew. The kzinti slashed what remained of the gagrumpher carcass to pieces, bagging it in tough fabric. They were in deep cover, invisible, when the human car, flying low, entered the clearing.
It landed beside what was left of the gagrumpher, and the driver got out. The human examined the scattered, bloody bones, the imprints of clawed feet and of Raargh's prosthetic hand on the ground about, sniffing with a feeble, almost useless nose, then crossed the clearing toward the shade of the red Wunderland trees where the kzinti lurked. His eye lighted on some of the bagged meat.
"Anyone for chess?" he called.
The young kzin leaped from the undergrowth. His hands with sheathed claws struck the human in the chest, knocking him down. Though far less than fully grown, he already overtopped and easily outweighed the man.
"Be careful, Vaemar," the elder admonished him in what, five years previously, would have been called the slaves' patois. "He has not the strength of a Hero!" He made a swipe at Vaemar with his prosthetic arm. The youngster ducked and rolled away.
"There is no offense, Raargh," the human said in the same dialect, those words in the Heroes' Tongue being couched in the Tense of Equals. He climbed to his feet and reached to scratch the top of the youngster's head. "Young will be young."
"Urrr. To live with you monkeys, young need be cautious. You have a board?"
"Old weakling! To let youngster leap you so!"
"Many of us are old, Companion, but some of us have a trick or two yet."
"Come to our cave." He spoke now with the grammar of the Heroes' Tongue to this human who understood it, rather than the simplified patois. "We have got it well set up now. Even a chair for any monkey brave enough to stick its nose in. Vaemar will cover your eyes while I make safe the defenses."
The human held his captured chessman up to the light. "These are nice pieces."
"Vaemar made them. He is good with a sculpting tool."
"From what you tell me he is good at many things. But he is fortunate to have you."
"So what you will tell the Arrum ?"
"There is no point in lying, to them or to you. So far they have asked little of me. He has the right to live as he wishes, as do you . . . but I think . . ."
"Yesss? Go on." A hint of the Menacing Tense.
"Someday he will need more than this."
"It is good to stalk the gagrumphers and fight the tigripards, good to look out at night upon the Fanged God's stars, or sleep under them when we range far, to scent the game in the forests under the hunters' moons or lie in the deep grass glades at noontide," said Raargh. "Few high nobles live so well. And unlike high nobles we have no palace intrigues to poison our livers."
The man nodded, pinching his lower lip between thumb and index finger in a characteristic gesture of thought. "And yet . . . for him it cannot be like this forever. You know as well as I he is exceptional. Your kind on this planet need leaders now, and they will need them tomorrow."
"To lead them to what?"
"Hardly for me to say."
"To become imitation monkeys? Apes of apes?"
"Do you really think the seed of Heroes would accept such a destiny? I think not."
"What then? Check! Urrr."
"You know your kind have some deadly enemies among the humans on this world. Jocelyn van der Stratt is far from the only one of her party. I think, as you do, I know, that Vaemar may be a great treasure for this planet, a natural leader for the Kzin but one who can deal with humans, too. What might we not do combined? I think even Chuut-Riit may have felt that, or something like it. It will be very slow, but perhaps on Wunderland both our kinds have been given a strange chance.
"But there are many humans who do not want kzinti leaders to emerge, who do not want the Kzin to be. Vaemar has a duty, companion mine. And so, I think, do you. Perhaps, if I may speak as soldier to soldier, a harder one than any you faced in battle."
"You think the monkeys will attack us? There will be many more guts spilled then. There are many Heroes left on Ka'ashi!"
"I hope not. And I think I have grounds for hope. Each day that passes is a day in which humans and Kzin share the planet, a day for some memory of the war and the Occupation to be forgotten. But it is slow."
"It does not matter if the days here pass fast or slowly," said Raargh. "We hunt, we watch the stars. Vaemar grows. I will not be able to play chesss with him much longer—too many easy victories for him on this little board, and my authority is undermined."
"If he can beat you easily, Raargh, he must be a player indeed. But most kzinti who bother with the game become masters. . . . Once when we talked, you too said the Kzin of Wunderland would have need of him."
"He still does not get the best out of his rooks. He does not use them to smash through the front. . . . And I am not good enough a player to be the best teacher for him—I announce checkmate in three moves, by the way. They do not have need of him yet."
"We hold things together, I grant you, but there are a lot of hopes on that youngster."
"He comes. Let him try his rook work on you. He has been waiting for his game."
"If you can beat me so easily, what hope have I against him?"
"I, who am old, am schooling myself to perceive things like a human. He, who is young, has only me to learn from, me, and one or other two oddities about in these unpeopled parts. . . . You are right, he will have to go soon, though it shaves my mane and twists my liver to say it. . . . But I warn you, he learns quickly."
The sound of the human car died away. Raargh gazed after it for a long time. Night was falling on Wunderland, Alpha Centauri B magnificent in the purplish sky, the sky that humans now ruled.
"Finish salting and dressing the meat, Vaemar," he said. "I must pace and think."
The forest made way for the kzin, though he was hardly hunting. He made a single, small kill, enough for relaxation and a clear mind.
I lost my own kit and my mate in the ramscoop raid,he thought. Must I lose Vaemar too?
Perhaps not. As things had once been, a Hero did not worry over his kits, who should make their own fortune, provided only that they did not dishonor him. But ever since the human acquisition of the hyperdrive had turned the tide of battle in space, for Raargh and Vaemar ever since the day the Patriarchy's forces on Wunderland had surrendered to the victorious humans and Raargh had fled with the Royal Governor Chuut-Riit's last kit to the open country beyond the great scarp of the Hohe Kalkstein, things had been different.
They had lived wild and free, but not entirely so. Wunderland was a sparsely settled world, and during the Kzin occupation and the decades-long war its human population had been further reduced, through heavy casualties, through the poverty and chaos that spread with a destroyed infrastructure, and as a result of suddenly being denied many modern drugs and medical procedures. Birth rates had collapsed as death rates had soared. Now, with rebuilding and the UNSN present in force, and with automated farming and food-production methods being restored, the cities were draining off the human rural population from many areas.
The remaining kzin, considerably to their own surprise, had, after the chaos and fighting that followed the Liberation, been allowed a fair degree of freedom, though they had been stripped of most of the land and estates which they had taken and, except in part of the asteroid Tiamat, where they had their own community, and recently in part in the settlement at Arhus, were subject to human government and laws in major matters. But there was still much wild country. Kzin like Raargh who settled in the backwoods were largely left alone (the little matter of the stolen air-car in which he had escaped after the Kzin surrender seemed to have been forgotten, and the car was still with them). But, he knew, they were under a degree of discreet, and even frank, surveillance. It would not, he suspected, be a good idea to test the limits of their freedom. Cumpston had taken it upon himself to call upon them. There were other humans who crossed their paths from time to time as well, such as the female called Emma, who apparently lived in the forest somewhere to the southeast.
Sometimes he sold meat to the scattered human vegetation-cultivators in the area, rounded up or killed beasts for them, guarded their farms in their absence, or used his great strength to do other work. He had thus acquired goods and a small store of money. "You can trust old Raargh to do a job," he had heard one say. "He's not so bad for a ratcat." Here, in the open country beyond the Hohe Kalkstein, the claws of the occupying kzinti had rested relatively lightly, and his prosthetic arm and eye, though actually more effective than natural ones for many purposes, made him look less dangerous. It had been strange and distasteful at first to have to deal with former slaves and prey animals on such terms, but with the passage of time he was becoming used to it. The cultivator's words, when he thought them over, had actually not displeased him.
There were also, Raargh knew, many humans who wished to kill every kzin on Wunderland. This provoked a fighting reflex, but it was hardly unexpected. He had installed defensive measures at their cave. The advice of other humans, including his chess partner Colonel Cumpston, had been to lie low and let, as he put it, "time heal some wounds."
Those that were not fatal to start with,thought Raargh. Too many dead Heroes, too many dead monkeys, for all to be forgotten. I sometimes forget how favored by the Fanged God I am. How few who joined the Patriarch's Forces with me now live! Hroarh-Captain travels with a cart replacing his legs. He remembered Hroarh-Captain as a young officer, bursting through with his troops to rescue him, sole survivor of his platoon, at the First Battle of the Great Caves.
And that led to another thought. The human Rykermann, who had fought beside him in the caves when they had been surrounded by morlocks. They had believed they would die together and had exchanged certain confidences. He had helped Rykermann's mate, Leonie, to escape the morlocks, and had asked Hroarh-Captain for Rykermann to be given fighter's privileges and for his life to be spared. And Rykermann in return had asked something for him, something which Hroarh-Captain had agreed to . . . partly for politics and because it was convenient, it was true, but . . . There were a few humans he could talk to. This is a human world now and I need human advice and contact. I do not like it, but if Vaemar is to live here and lead, he will need it too. He cannot stay in the forest forever.
Cumpston was a good chess partner and had intervened to save his life from the female Jocelyn van der Stratt in the burning ruins of the refugee camp outside Circle Bay Monastery, the day the last Kzin forces on Wunderland surrendered. The abbot of the monastery, too, another old chess partner . . . But Cumpston, he knew, was an ARM agent still, and Raargh suspected his interest in Vaemar was more than avuncular. Raargh was prepared to admit that the stocky human might somehow presume to "like" them, but chess was not his only agenda. And the abbot was old and feeble. Raargh did know how he continued to impose his will on the . . . monks? monkeys? whatever they were called . . . who he had been set to dominate.
It is Rykermann among the humans who owes me most,he thought. His life and his mate's life. He is high in their dominance structure, too. The television in the car had shown him Rykermann speaking in the monkey-assembly, when troops of them got together to chatter about laws. He had had Vaemar watch it too, as part of his education for this new world. I will go to Rykermann, he thought.