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Chapter 1: Night Watch

Tull felt teeth pierce his ankle, each tooth as sharp as flint, and heard bones crunching. Dimly he realized that it was dark, that he heard the growl of a great lizard. He kicked at the beast, struggling to rouse from his slumber.

“Yaagh,” he called. Most dinosaurs in Hotland were afraid of men, and he hoped that his shout would startle whatever had seized him.

Fully awake, he realized that it was only a strong hand that held his ankle.

His good friend Ayuvah laughed at the joke. “Shitha!” Get up, Ayuvah said in the soft-nasal language of the Neanderthal, or Pwi, as they called themselves. “Tchima-zho, sepala-pi fe. I finish gladly, and take joy in my coming sleep.

Tull looked up into Ayuvah’s face and blinked to clear his vision. The great moon Thor was up, a green-blue monstrosity in the sky, and though it was only a quarter full, Tull could see the young Neanderthal man well in its surface.

The warm night air around camp smelled thick with the scent of leatherwood honey. Tree frogs whistled in the darkness beyond the edge of the Neanderthals’ little wooden fortress. Out across the plains, two male blue-crested hadrosaurs, with their long necks and duckbills, bellowed challenges to one another as they vied for a mate. The dinosaurs had been going at it solid for three days now in the valley below.

It must have been their calls that disturbed my sleep, Tull thought, and made me dream of predators. He felt glad that the honey harvest was almost finished. The hadrosaurs’ mating challenges had drawn a tyrannosaur into the valley earlier in the day. Ayuvah had killed it with his spear, but more would follow. Soon they would hike to the ship and sail back home to Smilodon Bay.

Tull pulled off his blanket and stretched. Ayuvah handed him the telescope, along with a war horn made from the horn of an aurochs, then went to pick at the stew beside the fire.

Adja, I fear,” Ayuvah warned quietly. Because he did not say how much he feared, he meant that he was afraid of something unspecific. Seven other Pwi slept quietly around the camp, none of them snoring. The fire had burned down to red coals that glowed like malevolent eyes.

“What do you fear?” Tull asked softly.

“There is much movement in the valley tonight. The hadrosaurs are mating, and I saw two sailfin carnosaurs come up from the swamp. Many smaller dinosaurs are milling about, creatures that have been flushed from the woods. And I saw something else, I think,” Ayuvah said, thoughtfully. “I believe I saw a lantern shining down by the wide spot in the river. But it was far away—and after a minute it went out.”

“Perhaps it was only a will-o-wisp,” Tull said hopefully. The swamp gases along the river sometimes vented at night.

Ayuvah shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“Egg raiders?” Tull asked.

Only humans or Neanderthals would make fire, and few dared travel in this part of the world. Many young Pwi crossed the ocean at one time or another to steal dinosaur eggs in Hotland. Back on their home continent of Calla, the sailors paid well for the eggs, then sold them in distant ports to those who were foolish enough to hatch them just to see what kind of monster came out.

Ayuvah shook his head. “It is too late for egg raiders. Autumn will soon be here. I do not think that they would be Pwi. My kin will be going home to take in the harvest.”

The Neanderthal was right. Only Scandal the Gourmet, with his love for leatherwood honey, paid men well enough to work in Hotland in this season.

“Besides,” Ayuvah said. “Egg raiders would not hunt at night.”

Tull hesitated to say his next word. “Slavers?”

“Maybe,” Ayuvah said, nodding. “Twenty Pwi down from Wellen’s Eyes went out on egg raid last spring—and none returned. Slavers could have captured them.”

“I’ve never heard of slavers coming to Hotland,” Tull said, but he wondered. Over the past several years, the predations of the Craal slavers had increased. Some Pwi even said that it was time to flee Calla to make a new home in Hotland, where the slavers would hesitate to follow.

Because Ayuvah’s words made him nervous, Tull put on his war gear. He pulled a lacquered leather vest made of iguanodon hide over his naked chest, and sheathed his kutow, a double-headed battle ax, at his belt. He took his wooden spear and war shield, and slung the aurochs horn around his neck.

The fortress here was hidden. It was little more than rocks and a few poles bound together among some trees near the edge of a small pool.

His guard post was halfway up a large dead leatherwood tree; its ancient branches just high enough so that a man, resting in their gnarled crook, could survey the valley.

From the tree, Tull could see the plains all around. Though vegetation was trampled and sparse, a herd of two hundred triceratopses, each forty feet long, fed on shrubs in the dark grassland to the north. Leatherwood forests covered a row of hills to the east, and upon one hill two miles away, a small fire burned in a tree at the edge of the deep woods. Tull pulled the telescope from its case and studied the tree.

Denni and Tchar, two fourteen-year-old Neanderthals camped by the hollow leatherwood, smoking the honeybees into a stupor. A brazier hung beneath a hive by a chain. In the firelight, Tull could see blond-haired Denni coaxing the fire while Tchar slept. Good boy, Tull thought, to be so diligent. I'll have to remember to congratulate him in the morning.

Iguanodons, huge and gray in the moonlight, feasted near the boys on the last of summer’s leaves. They were herd animals, large enough to scare off most smaller predators, alert enough to warn if something truly dangerous approached.

Good, Tull thought. The boys will be safe so long as the iguanodons stay near. Tull turned his spyglass off to the west, down to the wide spot in the river. Ayuvah was right. The brush was thick with movement. Too many dinosaurs were out, and they milled nervously through the brush, spooking at the smallest sound.

Tull studied the area. If someone had been down at the river carrying a lantern, then he might have seen the boys’ fire burning in the leatherwood tree when he came round the river’s bend. If the man were a slaver, he would then douse his lantern and sneak along the brush line like a wolf in the dark.

Tull wondered: If a dozen men crept through the brush by the river in the moonlight, would they scare the dinosaurs this much?

He wasn’t sure. A dozen allosaurs on the prowl, that would certainly scare the smaller animals into the open. If passing men made a lot of noise, they might scare the smaller animals, too. Tull turned a full circle, studied the plains carefully. In the moonlight, with his telescope, he could see well enough to feel secure.

A dozen small oviraptors broke into the open, scurrying from the brush near the hills. He focused on the spot, but could see nothing in the trees.

Tull hissed through his teeth, fingered his war horn. Whatever had frightened them was close to the boys. Tchar and Denni were young, and if they got into trouble, they might not have the presence of mind to get themselves out. Yet Tull could not blow the war horn without revealing his position.

Should I warn them, he wondered, about something that might be nothing? Anything could have scared the oviraptors.

Below him at the pond, the tree frogs abruptly quit whistling as someone stepped into the water. Tull flinched, looked down. Ayuvah’s younger sister, Fava, stood in the moonlight not eighty feet outside the fortress wall.

Fava was pretty, with sandy red hair. Her green eyes, uncommon among the Pwi, were set shallowly beneath her brows, which made her look more human than most deep-browed Neanderthals. Fava was a rarity, a purebred Pwi, not of mixed blood, like Tull.

Fava’s bare legs were decorated with colored ribbons, symbolizing that she was still a maiden. Bending over, she untied the ribbons, as if she would bathe.

Tull’s heart pounded, and he looked away as she began to strip off her summer tunic. He wondered if she knew that he was in the tree. How could she not know? he wondered. We always have a guard.

Fava gasped as she splashed into the pond. The water felt deliciously cool against her skin. Distilling honey was hot, sticky work, and Fava relished the thought of feeling clean again, clean like the night sky that caressed the moon’s cheek.

Fava dunked her head beneath the water’s surface to soak the honey smoke out of her hair. She rolled her head from side to side, letting the current ripple like fingers through her tresses. Fingers, she thought. Would that they were Tull’s fingers instead of the river’s.

He watches, up there in his tree, she thought. She pushed off against the rocks and silt of the pond’s bottom and took in a breath before she stretched out to float on her back under Thor’s blue-green light.

Fava shared her smile with the moon. Let him watch, she whispered to Thor. If Tull watched, perhaps he would see that she was a woman grown, a woman who offered potho ha-chima, the love that opens like a rosebud, instead of the simpler friendship of a childhood playmate.

For Fava was a girl no longer. Her goals and desires had evolved from the toys and games of a child into the larger world of kin, village and hearth. Like all Pwi women, she would take a mate once and forever, joining her spirit with his the way bark is bound to pith.

The water lapping against the shore offered a soft chuckle in response to Fava’s thoughts, so she splashed.

What if Tull didn’t want her? What if his heart yearned after some human woman, just as hers yearned after him? Tull’s father was human, so perhaps Tull aspired to a human life, a human wife. The thought unsettled Fava, so she dove beneath the surface again to wash the thought loose.

Surely, Tull could see that a strong Pwi woman like herself was better than the wilting flower of a human girl he’d chased after as a boy. Well, if he couldn’t, Fava would do her best to make him see.

She rose to the surface and stole a glance at Tull’s guard post over her bare shoulder.

Tull dared a glimpse toward the pond. He could see little. Fava’s pale flesh shone softly in the blue moonlight, and she swam with the grace of an otter. “Fava,” he whispered, “what are you doing?”

“Bathing,” she said. Fava was a sweet girl who seemed mystified by the world and always spoke with a strangely intense inflection, as if trying to convey how odd everything was.

Tull’s face burned with embarrassment.

“Mmmmm,” she sighed, splashing water. “I’ve been boiling honey for three days. My clothes are sticky, and they smell like leatherwood. Tell,” she said, speaking Tull’s name as well as her Neanderthal lips would allow, “Even my skin smells fondly of honey.”

Tull blushed and looked away. Fava teased him from time to time, yet it seemed like a game. Tull was not sure if she really wanted to catch him. For Neanderthals, all objects, all people, all places held kwea, the emotional weight of past associations. Tull felt drawn to Fava, but she’d always been like a little sister to him. The kwea he felt for her was friendly, the kwea built up from good times spent together.

He could not think of her as anything but the little girl she had been, someone to protect. But lately, the kwea was changing. She teased him often, and he felt a craving for her—the desire to treat her as a lover.

Yet he didn’t dare make such a move, afraid it would spoil their long friendship.

Besides, why would she want me, a halfbreed? Tull wondered. Not many women would want a half-human, half-Neanderthal for a husband. Fava could surely do better. No, she is just trying to embarrass me.

Tull breathed slowly and forced himself to watch the grasslands, but he could not concentrate on them with Fava swimming in the pool, the sinuous waves rippling away from her like silver ribbons untwining from her legs. She kept at it for half an hour, then climbed out to dry herself in the warm night air, shaking out her long, red hair with her fingers.

Tull struggled to keep his eyes averted. Several small dinosaurs had gathered in the valley to scavenge the carcass of the tyrannosaur Ayuvah had killed earlier in the day. Perhaps that was what had so many of the smaller dinosaurs, kavas, as the Pwi called them, on edge. The smell of a tyrannosaur, mingled with blood and offal, was sure to cause some alarm.

Once Fava had dressed, she entered the fortress, shinnied up the tree, and stood on the gnarled old branch beside Tull, one hand resting on the trunk of the tree.

She was tall for a Neanderthal, yet Tull looked down on her, for like many halfbreeds, he was taller than most Neanderthals, and broader of chest than any human.

“Tull, will you comb my hair?” she asked, standing precariously.

“I’m on guard,” he said.

“Everyone else is asleep!” Fava insisted.

Tull took the ivory comb she proffered. She turned her back and leaned against his thigh while he brushed her long, wet hair.

“I’m eager to get back home,” Tull said as he combed.

“Why?” Fava asked. “I thought you were happy to come on this trip. You said you were bored with picking fruit and hauling hay.”

“I fear,” Tull answered, and he told her about Ayuvah seeing a lantern.

“It would be a shame if the slavers come here,” she said. “Tsavathar’shi.” This place, too beautiful. She stood gazing out at the moonlight over plains. It was still an hour before dawn, and a quetzalcoatlus with a fifty-foot wingspan soared overhead, hunting for carrion. As Tull and Fava watched, it began to circle the dead tyrannosaur down in the valley.

Tull finished combing Fava’s hair, then tied it into a ponytail and patted her shoulder.

“Did I get the honey off?” she asked matter-of-factly, playing the part of a little sister again.

Tull leaned in. Her hair smelled of mountain spring water. “I think so, Friend.”

Fava turned and looked up at him smiling. Tull could not read her expression: Anger, desire, mockery?

“Friend?” she said, “are you sure that is all I am?” She leaned her head back.

Tull breathed the sweet scent of her neck. Her clothes still held the fruity, flowery scent of leatherwood honey, and somehow it made him dizzy.

Tull felt unsure how to answer, for if he told her the truth, she might go down and bathe again.

Suddenly he stopped worrying about it: on the hill far away, he saw a torch swinging in the darkness. Tull pulled out his telescope, gaze riveted on the honey tree: Two miles across the plain, Denni was swinging the brazier.

For a moment, Tull noticed nothing else, then he spotted men dressed in black boiling out of the brush. Denni was trying to drive them off with the brazier. Swords flashed in the moonlight.

“What’s happening?” Fava asked.

“Slavers!” Tull said. “Pirates from Bashevgo, I think—at least they are dressed in black. Denni is holding them back.”

“How many?” Fava asked. Tull heard fear and bewilderment in her little-girl voice.

He counted. “Ten or twelve that I can see.”

“Denni can’t fight so many. He is swinging the brazier to warn us!” Fava said. She grabbed the war horn from Tull’s neck, pulling it so hard that the leather string broke.

“No,” Tull said, “you’ll warn the slavers that we're here.”

Fava put the horn to her lips and blew, letting the deep bellow add to the mating cries of the blue-crested hadrosaurs on the plain below.

Tull watched through the glass as slavers turned as one toward the sounding war horn.

Fava’s little-girl voice turned hard. “Now Denni and Tchar know we are coming. And the pirates know they have a fight on their hands!”

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