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There has always been war and violence upon Barsoom. A million years ago pirates ruled the oceans—and those who were not strong enough to defend themselves paid the ultimate price!

Pirates at Xanator

David Bruce Bozarth

A Story of Ancient Barsoom

Kujiro woke from an unplanned nap. He scratched the back of his forearm to ease the ache of the new-healed break. That act brought, unbidden, a memory of the raging storm which broke the back of the Aaanthorian merchant ship Wind-Sith on the treacherous reefs of forgotten Xanator. During that night of biting wind and black nightmarish seas more than a ship's stout timbers were shattered; a Malagor panthan's life of zealous avoidance of perfidious women was torn asunder as well.

Kujiro's arm was cracked when the heaving deck cast the Malagor panthan into the sea. The injury had left Kujiro dependent upon the assistance of the Wind-Sith's only other survivor, a clanless Aaanthorian woman. Yeruja, a tall woman with sun-blond hair and green eyes, had kept the mercenary's head above water and later helped the Malagor panthan scale the thirty-foot cliff below ancient Xanator.

Kujiro's eyes narrowed as he remembered the events which immediately followed their shipwreck. They had barely reached the storm-lashed ledge above the sea when a geas was laid upon him; another's will, more powerful and most malignant, directed the warrior's body to enter into a desolate, dark city, at once magnificent, yet foreboding.

The Malagor panthan had fought with every nerve and fibre to break the force which controlled his mind, but aught prevailed. He was drawn deeper into the city, which he recognized as the ancient home of his forebears. The Aaanthorian woman, confused by Kujiro's manner, had followed.

He recalled her voice, strident above the raging wind. "Panthan!" He remembered the grip of Yeruja's hand on his shoulder. She attempted to turn him from the entrance to the great aerie's hall, but could not answer or turn aside for the power which held him had robbed the mercenary of self-determination.

"Panthan!" Yeruja had called again as they wound through aisles of dust covered statues so incredibly life-like the woman had gasped more than once, believing one had moved. "I like not this place, panthan. What spell holds you?"

Kujiro could not answer though his mind wished to scream "Zhuo!" The mercenary's greatest desire was to turn and run from the lair of the witch-hag of Xanator but his will—and the control of his limbs—was no longer his.

To the far end of the hall Yeruja followed, seawater dripping from hair, clothes and body leaving a dark trail in the thick dust. They came to stand before two high-backed chairs on a raised dias occupied by the likenesses of a withered man with a tortured expression and a coldly beautiful, sharp-faced woman. A snarl of hate seemed to twist the woman's lips.

"What is this place?" Yeruja's voice echoed. "It is evil. Evil and be-damned!"

The man with the broken arm gave no response—he could not—instead Zhuo's implacable will propelled him up the steps onto the dias; a slow march which he fought, delaying for as long as possible the fate he knew awaited. Across the dias Kujiro's body advanced in jerky motion toward the beautiful woman with the malevolent expression.

Yeruja kept pace, tugging Kujiro's sleeve, "Let us leave this place."

Kujiro turned helpless eyes toward the sailor woman.

A flash of lightning illuminated the interior through high placed windows. In that instant Yeruja saw two things: Kujiro's hopeless desperation and a movement on the dias. She turned, stunned to see the female statue slowly shifting, glowing softly.

"Issus!" Yeruja shuddered. "What magic?"

Another lightning bolt revealed that every statue, every male statue, bore the same terrified expression as her Malagor panthan companion. All looked toward the stone woman on the dias. "Witch!" Yeruja cried.

The Aaanthorian tried to turn Kujiro away, she only succeeded in knocking Kujiro to his knees. The man slowly arose, to continue the journey to what Yeruja knew would be his doom.

"No!" Yeruja cried. "You cannot have him!"

Though she would have done the same had she not been alone, the woman's defense was trebled because of all the crew of the late Wind-Sith, only she and the Malagor panthan had survived.

Yeruja cast about for a weapon while impeding the mercenary's progress. Her nerves shivered and her skin crawled as a prickly nimbus of light coalesced around the female statute. It seemed as if haughty laughter, taunting and imperious, filled the chamber, yet the Aaanthorian's ears heard nothing but the wind and rain raging outside the chamber.

He was not a large man but the Malagor panthan was strong, too strong for Yeruja to hold back. She looked again for a weapon—anything—and saw the scepter laying across the old man's lap. Taking it up, the Aaanthorian glanced over her shoulder. There was no doubt of danger, the stone woman was half-risen, a hand beckoning the Malagor panthan.

Kujiro's face was as unmoving as the rank and file on the great hall's floor; his movements as awkward as animated rock. Perspiration ran down forehead and nose, beading into droplets which mingled with the sea water in his sodden tunic. The Aaanthorian woman disappeared from his view, wisely retreating from the menace of Zhuo. He wanted to exhort Yeruja to great speed, but again his tongue failed him.

An electricity tingled his frame, not yet unpleasant, but growing in strength. He felt the psychic power emanating from the statue before him greedily draining his will. Zhuo would suck him dry as he might suck a yellow fruit until only a bitter rind remained, and when she was done, the world would again have reason to fear the Witch of Xanator. The Malagor panthan's vision darkened as the malevolent will worked upon his spirit. His time had come, he was certain, yet a part was glad the Aaanthorian had escaped.

"No!" Yeruja shrieked and leapt forward to strike Zhuo with the scepter. Bright sparks flew, nearly blinding the woman.

"No!" the sailor maid cried again, shielding her eyes with one hand as she struck the statue repeatedly.

Kujiro screamed with agony. Zhuo's anger lashed out both physically and mentally. His skin felt afire as the stone-imprisoned witch retaliated.

Yeruja staggered under the impact of Zhuo's mental force, nearly dropping the nimbus-shrouded scepter; yet, the Aaanthorian woman maintained her balance and redoubled her effort. "No!" she cried, raising the scepter over head and bashing it full upon Zhuo's crown.

A burst of light filled every corner, seemingly as brilliant as the noonday sun. A wailing screech echoed in the hall at the same moment a violent spasm racked the mercenary's body.

Yeruja drew back, staring at the stub she held in one hand, which was painfully blistered from heat and magic. The statue moved now, almost wildly, as currents of power surged through it. It was no longer whole, fully half the skull was sheered away.

Kujiro's body was abruptly his again, though pain and weakness made him nearly helpless. Yeruja cast aside the ruined scepter and ran to the Malagor, slipping an arm about his waist and a shoulder under his.

"Run!" she ordered. "Run, damn you!"

At the man's best stumbling place they fled the hall, dodging shards of stone and plaster falling from the roof. The walls, the very floor, trembled as the unleashed forces expanded from the dias.

"Move!" Yeruja pleaded after they entered the plaza. The cold rain had shocked Kujiro into renewed effort.

He did not remember much after that, only the terrible feeling the world had moved, that the land had become as liquid as the storm-tossed waters which had taken the Aaanthorian ship. But he did remember it was Yeruja who brought him out of Xanator before the final death of Zhuo turned it to ruins.

* * * * * * * *

The weathered creases above the lean man's dark eyes deepened. He had been mute and helpless under Zhuo's spell-lure, but not the Aaanthorian maid, who had consequently fought HuSihn's nemesis and ultimately defeated the bane of Xanator.

Kujiro snorted unhappily. It was galling to have one's life saved by a woman. Worse, to have her prove wrong one's own beliefs—a fear of all women, especially witches—was almost too much to bear.

Kujiro shook those disturbing thoughts from his mind. He glanced about the small cave which had sheltered them since the Wind-Sith foundered and Yeruja's victory over Zhou. Woven reed mats, produced by the clever skill of the Aaanthorian's strong, agile, sun-browned fingers were neatly stacked until needed for bedding. Baskets held fruits plucked from the untended orchards and nuts from the wind-twisted trees on the high slopes. Hollowed sorapus knots held handfuls of grain early ripened before the majority of the wild field plantings.

The cave, warmed by the afternoon sun, was high on the headland above the twisted remains of Xanator, which spread to the left and outward to the sea; a desolation of recently-fractured rock and earth—and all that remained of the ancient city of legend. Kujiro instinctively avoided gazing at that jumbled terrain, though he truly knew no danger now lurked in that ruined land.

The Aaanthorian woman had departed the cave while Kujiro slept and it aggravated the Malagor panthan to succumb to such weakness. The mercenary knelt to tend the small, smokeless fire, hating the enforced idleness while his arm healed. He abruptly felt confined by the cave's narrow interior and stepped onto the ledge.

Scanning the foreboding cliffs which stretched from east to west, the Malagor panthan searched for Yeruja. The cries of nesting birds in crevices accessible only by air drew his gaze, but nothing else moved on the highlands. It was obvious she was not harvesting the unkempt orchards of Xanator which still bore fruit. Perhaps Yeruja was down at the small pebble-strewn beach. The Aaanthorian usually cast her net in the afternoons.

A thin, high screech reached Kujiro's ears, distorted by the continual thermal embracing the cliffs. Kujiro shaded his eyes seeking the tiny spot of brown riding the atmospheric currents. The man sent a request to his Brother-in-Feathers though that special sense they shared. "Where—?"

The Malagor panthan added his thought picture of Yeruja to reinforce the sending. The Aaanthorian was tall for a woman, nearly his own height. Her bright blonde hair framed piercing green eyes so unlike his own. Yeruja's bronze skin was supple and healthy compared to his, which could not seem to adapt to constant exposure to the sun.

Since he was a boy Kujiro had always worn mail, leggings, boots, and helm. Only his hands, and occasionally his face, were ever bared to the elements. When the storm tossed the Wind-Sith on the jagged rocks Kujiro had lost that which had was his outward Malagor panthan identity; however, if he had been wearing both armor and weapons he surely would have perished with the rest.

The beach—

The image-reply from the Brother-in-Feathers made Kujiro turn gray eyes to the east. At the base of the cliff was the only stretch of pebble-strewn beach for unknown miles. Kujiro made sure the fire was well-fueled and banked in the hollow which served as hearth inside the cave. Satisfied the fire would hold until he returned, Kujiro went to the cliff rim and lowered himself over the edge.

The weight of his hard body made the stiff muscles in his arm complain, but the bone was well-knit and in need of use. Kujiro's boots, sore used by the harsh rock of the cliffs, finally touched the great, level ledge above the ocean where Xanator lay. He no longer sensed evil from the tumbled stone—that had disappeared with Zhou's failure to escape HuSihn's trapping spell. The hundreds who had also been trapped with HuSihn when he thwarted Zhou's evil ambitions were gone now. Nothing remained of Xanator-that-was—nothing but the dark memories of Malagor panthans everywhere. Memories which he and Yeruja both knew to be no longer valid.

In the ages after the Malagor panthans fled Xanator and Zhou's terrifying ambitions, his ancestors had roved the lands of Golesi, Zurbaran, and Asokele before settling in the mountains between Zurbaran and her eternal enemy, Golesi. A great Aerie was established where boys became men, versed in the grim business of war and the care and training of fierce Malagors, the hunting birds of Xanator. Because of Zhuo's treachery Malagor panthans avoided women. The female was endured; kept in villages of Nameless Ones to bear children, but no man ever placed trust in the opposite sex. The male children resulting from duty-driven conjugations were removed from female care as soon as they were weaned. They were raised with other boys, none knowing who their father might be, each taught that females were inferiors, useful only for breeding. Kujiro had gone to the village of Nameless Ones when duty selected his services. He had warily fulfilled his obligations by bedding several women then hastily left the village, never looking back.

Why did he remember this now? Kujiro had long since pushed all memory of the Aerie from his head for there was now no home at all for Malagor panthans. The hags of Zurbaran walked the very mountains to end their war with Golesi and in the process destroyed the Malagor panthans' home.

Why did he think of this now? Was it because his aversion to women was based on an ancient fear handed down through the ages, a fear which had been exposed and broken by a woman?

Kujiro deliberately cleared his thoughts of the unalterable past. He gazed, instead, upon the orchards and fields on vast ledge and the unending expanse of ocean beyond. He thought of the open forests of the table land above and knew that Xanator was a fair land despite the dark legends taught by grim Aerie masters.

There were dangers, of course, though they were those a man, well-prepared and alert, could face without fear. There were no magics or spell places riddling Xanator, nor any shape-changers or demons which walked the north lands seeking sources of dark power recently awakened by the Witches of Zurbaran. Most certainly this land was neither hag-ridden or war-weary as were those across the ocean.

Kujiro strode to the steep declivity formed by the back-lash of other world force when Yeruja turned Zhou's spell-casting against the hag. Where no easy access to the beach from the ledge had existed at the time of the Wind-Sith's wreck, there was now a split-rock chimney which could be negotiated without too much difficulty.

Kujiro looked down at the white-foamed waters of the reef-edged lagoon. He saw Yeruja's arm shoot forward to cast a net into the pounding surf. Beside her, on the beach that was more rock than sand, lay the gleanings of earlier castings. A half dozen silvery forms feebly writhed in the afternoon light, far more than they could eat at a single sitting. The Aaanthorian had a manner of smoking and preserving the sea-flesh for times when the sea was not as generous. As Kujiro watched something took Yeruja's net with a jerk that brought the woman to her knees. Without further glance Kujiro plunged down the crack in the cliff. Nets were difficult to make and one dared not loose one without hunger peering over their shoulders.

Yeruja cursed—half-in, half-out of the water—in a voice that showed the strain she endured. She struggled with the current, the catch, and the unsure footing of the shoreline; wrists popped audibly as she gripped the strand anchoring the net.

Yeruja glanced toward Kujiro when he laid hand to the rope, near hers, and added his strength. The Aaanthorian said nothing. Her full concentration was on the net, though she did offer a nod of recognition. In this much they had come to accept one another and their joint effort slowly won their prize from the water.

Prize?

Yeruja shuddered. She turned away, retching. With a blush of shame on her cheeks, the Aaanthorian returned to hauling the net from the water until both bloated corpses were free of the sea-suck.

Kujiro the mercenary was more accustomed to the sight of human death than Yeruja. He knelt to disentangle the water-logged bodies from the net. One was Aaanthorian, if the blonde hair scarcely hanging to the fish-chewed skull was an indication. The other was of a race Kujiro had never seen. That one's skin was much darker than Yeruja's bronze complexion. His hair was straight and black, similar to Kujiro's, but beyond that mutual texture and coloring, there was nothing more in common with the Malagor panthan. Unlike Kujiro, this stranger was thick of waist and limb; more than a head shorter if erect.

Both bodies were bound together by ship's cordage; stout and of some great length judging the amount tangled about them. There was the promise of more still in the water beyond, not all had come in with the net.

The sea had not killed these men. Each was scored with deep, gaping wounds from sharp-edged steel. One bore a needle-pointed dart buried in his shoulder. Some Aaanthorian ship, presumably not too far from this coast, had been met by a pirate boat—those outlaws of the seas—and come to this end.

"No more than two, three days—" Yeruja quietly observed above the wash of the surf. "The fishes would have made more of a feast..."

Kujiro looked into the woman's steady green eyes. Yeruja had overcome her first shock and that pleased him somehow, though he could still see the revulsion in her eyes.

"I'll free the net," he said. "You take the fish up to the cave."

"I can help—" Yeruja glared at the panthan, her lips set with determination.

There was a touch of grim humor in Kujiro's voice. "Is there a need? They are in no hurry..."

The woman looked down then away from the bodies at the water's edge. She silently bent to catch up the fish and walked to the declivity. Kujiro watched for a moment before resuming his task to untangle net and cordage from the unwholesome catch.

Kujiro stripped the bodies, common sense and practicality guiding him his selections: Two knives, free of rust (welcome indeed!), a broad leather belt which could be of some use when dried and oiled, and the Aaanthorian's tunic to replace Kujiro's tattered covering. There was little else.

The thick-limbed stranger wore some sort of armor which was not steel or leather, but was heavy enough to sink the corpse into the surf when Kujiro kicked it free of the ropes. The corruption-buoyant body of the Aaanthorian presented a different problem, however. The sea cast the body back on the shore. Kujiro found a stone of suitable weight and, cutting a length of rope, bound the rock to the body. Kujiro carefully waded out to the edge of the coastal drop-off where the on-shore current ran in undertow. He released the body, watched it sink and vanish out toward the reef.

The lean panthan's arm ached terribly when he was done and he smelled most odiously from handling the bodies. Kujiro quickly stripped and washed his torn and frayed clothing and scrubbed at his skin with handfuls of rock and sand until the last of his ghastly work was rinsed away.

The sun was barely above the horizon when Kujiro finished rolling the net into a bundle for the climb to the cave. He then began to coil the rope which had dragged both men from—what ship? There seemed to be no end to the length. His shoulders grew weary drawing in the cordage. Kujiro's attention was so firmly fixed on raising the last of the water-heavy rope from the sea that he was startled when Yeruja spoke.

"I will help..."

Kujiro was privately embarrassed that he, a trained warrior, was so preoccupied to be unaware of Yeruja's approach. What bemused him further was the complete absence of warning from the preening Malagor which had settled on the crest of a large boulder nearby.

The woman sensed the panthan's agitation and, though curious, said nothing. The silence lengthened between them, as the did the rope they hauled from the sea.

Kujiro remarked, "Are all ship ropes this long, Aaanthor?"

"Some," was her equally terse reply. "This must have been a large ship, Kujiro. A large ship indeed."

"So large as to scare off the pirates, eh?"

"One would think so..."

They finally brought in the end of the line, nearly one-thousand feet of well-made cordage almost three-quarters of an inch thick. There was nothing entangled at the end, though Kujiro had come to think there might be another ugly surprise attached. They stared at the glistening loops amassed at their feet. Yeruja squatted and laid hand to the line, her head nodding with approval.

"Stout. A proud ship this was—"

"'Was', Yeruja? 'Was?'"

The woman looked up sharply, then laughed without amusement. "That I do not know, do I, Kujiro? Still—good rope."

They strained under the weight of both net and rope as they climbed back to the cave. Kujiro brought up the rear, with most of the weight on his peeling, sun-blistered shoulders. Yeruja helped negotiate the more difficult sections of the path, assisting the panthan straining under the sea-soaked cordage with her own not inconsiderable strength. At the top they marched in single-file to the less strenuous path leading up to their cave where roasting fish on green wood stakes made Kujiro aware of his hunger. They exchanged no words during the meal. Later, Kujiro caught the woman staring at the rope.

"Though you have no clan-family, or kin-tie, you miss them—"

Yeruja jerked her head about and fixed the Malagor panthan with a level gaze. "Do you not miss the company of your fellows?" she retorted. "I know you do not miss your women..." As soon voiced, Yeruja regretted both words and the harshness of her tone. She wished the words unsaid but it was too late. The Aaanthorian chewed at her lip.

Kujiro's reply was without rancor. "In part—I miss them all."

The Malagor panthan was determined to take no offense—Yeruja had only spoken as had many others who did not understand the Malagor panthans' beliefs toward women. Yet it had been woman, Kujiro realized, who had proved the fallacy of those beliefs. Kujiro wisely turned his thoughts in another direction by questioning the woman about the ship which had been attacked.

"Could they have beaten back the pirate? How close to this coast will they sail?"

"You're right!" Yeruja's eyes lit with a spark of hope which she carefully kept from her voice. "The ship may be near. Yet—" she let that hang. Kujiro finished for her.

"They do not know we are here." Kujiro peeled a sliver of firm flesh from his fish and fed it to the Malagor perched beside him. The bird's talons held the fish while the cruelly-curved beak tore at the morsel.

"Perhaps a signal—" he suggested.

"And bring the pirate down on us?" Yeruja shook her head.

"Do we have anything the pirate would want—besides the taking of our lives?" Kujiro's somber laughter filled the cave. His Malagor echoed the man's grim humor with an expansion of body feathers and flapping of wings.

She chuckled, anticipating his words. "What have we to lose? Perhaps I more than you, but the end would be the same." Her spirit brightened; a thought of action after these long weeks of bare existence was better than nothing. "In the morning," her voice approved, "we shall see—"

Yeruja turned the fish yet cooking by the fire before settling down on her bed of woven mats. Kujiro looked across the tiny, leaping yellow flames to the curve of her back, the swell of her hips, the mass of blonde hair.

So unlike our Nameless Ones. Kujiro frowned at the unexpected comparison of Yeruja with the breeding wenches of the Aerie. He was still wondering at the turn of his thoughts when his Brother-in-Feathers settled at the mouth of the cave—a better sentry than either human could hope to emulate.

He was fatigued. Sleep dragged at his eyes as Kujiro burrowed into his bed. His mind might desperately desire a resumption of the active life, but his body reminded him that one needs build slowly from injury and convalescence.

* * * * * * * *

At dawn a shriek from the Malagor brought the survivors to instant alertness. They would not, after all, have need to build the signal they'd discussed. There were two ships lying off the fangs of the reef, sheltered in the lee of the cliffs which curved to the north. Two long boats pulled past the jagged-toothed entrance into the semi-sheltered cove. Flying scout above the lagoon the Malagor's keen eyes sent a vivid impression to Kujiro: the boats were filled with more of the swarthy breed which had been tied to the Aaanthorian corpse.

"Issus!" Yeruja cried. "I've never seen a pirate boat that size!"

Kujiro was unworried that the woman's exclamation might be heard, the long boats were still well out and the crash of surf lay between, but his eyes, aided by those of the Malagor, noted other things which puzzled him.

"Nor probably one," he added with a pointing finger, "with that method of propulsion."

Yeruja gasped with astonishment. There were no sails, no masts, and no oars marring that low silhouette lying to one side of the tangled rigging of the captured Aaanthorian ship. "Yubizama!" she shivered, instinctively drawing closer to the man. What family Yeruja could claim died in Aaanthor the day the aliens invaded with their army of dead-possessed. Jeddak Zakopan deliberately destroyed the seakeep at Aaanthor and all within rather than allow the stronghold to fall into the hands of the Yubizama invaders. To Yeruja's way of thinking a Malagor panthan—with all his known prejudices against women—was preferable to the inhuman coldness of the alien invaders from the Gate.

Kujiro sensed the woman's consuming fear. He almost reached out to her, but stilled the unbidden and uncharacteristic impulse. He spoke earnestly. "There are no more Yubizama. Brenden and his witch put an end to them. That ship is Yubizama, but it is only a machine..."

"Do you," Yeruja's eyes blazed with indignation, "deem me unable to understand that?" There was a heat in the sailor's voice which pricked the man.

"Have I said that, Aaanthor?"

Yeruja blushed in response. She lowered her eyes to the floor of the cave. "What can we do in the face of Yubizama magic?"

"Yubizama knew no magic, Yeruja, only science. They were men—different from our breed—but only men nonetheless. What one man has done, another can learn. It seems the pirates have made a Yubizama submarine their own."

"Will we be possessed?" Yeruja shuddered at the thought. Kujiro's spine tingled in agreement.

"I doubt that," he replied, though he was not as certain as he tried to sound. One thing he'd learned while riding the borders of Zurbaran and Golesi was that anything could happen to the unwary and unprepared. All he and the young Aaanthorian woman had were their wits, two good knives, a net, a rope, and—the Malagor.

The brother-in-feathers had returned. Kujiro touched the crest of the bird and conversed with it, using the curious blending of mind-speech and throat-jarring tones which mimicked the voices of Malagors. Go—See—Report—

Stone dust rose from the ledge as powerful wings bit the air. The Malagor soared out and away from the cave. Yeruja watched the man, her eyes intent while his seemed faraway. She was startled when he spoke.

"Men only—"

The boats grounded on the beach. A dozen men leapt down to the shore and headed to the cliffs, looking for a way up. Six stayed with the boats. The Malagor, soaring high, kept Kujiro and Yeruja, through the panthan, informed of the pirates' progress.

"Come—" Kujiro tapped the woman on the shoulder, catching up his knife and two-thirds of the rope. "They are below the cliff now and cannot see us." He added, as the woman draped the remainder of the coils about her and picked up the net, "I hope there are no sharp eyes on the ships..."

Yeruja and Kujiro settled on a ledge as high above their cave shelter as that cave was above the level of the ruined city before the first pirate came into view. Yeruja edged closer to the rim, her shoulder rubbing the Malagor panthan's. "What do they seek here?"

"Food—water—"

Yeruja nodded. "This coast is far from all other ports. They could well need provisions to journey back across the ocean."

The howls of delight from the pirates as they prowled the orchard proved the accuracy of the suppositions. The pirates greedily drank water from the stream which fell from the immense table land above Kujiro and Yeruja. A runner was sent back to the long boats which, in turn, pulled for the ships.

Over the next few hours more than a dozen trips were made by the small boats. More pirates came ashore but the watchers on the heights were surprised to note the majority were sullen captives. Many of the captives were Aaanthorian, but there were others of a breed that bore close kinship with Kujiro's dark coloring and straight black hair. These strangers and the Aaanthorian sailors were set to work under the sharp eyes of guards armed with dart guns and steel. The captives were separated; some stripping fruits from the orchard, others staggering under newly-filled kegs of sweet water. The kegs and baskets of fruit were passed down the cliff face to the waiting boats which took the plunder of the land out to the ships.

Each returning boat brought more prisoners ashore. The numbers of pirate guards also increased as the new-arrived captives were given assignments. In time, the whole of the great ledge below Kujiro and Yeruja was a flurry of furious activity.

The only time the pirates allowed their silent, grim-faced prisoners rest was during a brief and all too meager lunch they had to glean from the plundered orchards themselves. After that short respite the pirate longboats began bringing women and children ashore. Yeruja gripped the Malagor panthan's arm with anger and sorrow. "I know the clan—see the tabard of the women? They once called Aaanthor home before Zakopan destroyed the keep and the invaders. Delo Niel runs a tight ship. These pirates must be powerful indeed to have taken the Wave-Rider—"

"You did not know the ship ere now?" the Malagor panthan frowned. "I thought you Aaanthor knew all ships..."

Yeruja hissed with instant spite. "I would have, were it not for the damage to the rigging! Would you find it easy to recognize your birds if their plumage were plucked?"

Kujiro bit back his anger. How was it that this girl—just barely a woman— could so easily arouse his emotions? With a shake of his head he asked. "What will they do, these pirates, when they have what they came for?"

"Kill them."

Yeruja's short answer coincided with Kujiro's thoughts. He had sailed on Aaanthorian ships long enough to learn that few taken by pirates ever carried their tales back to the ports of civilized men.

"We must help them—" Yeruja's voice was filled with determination—and frustration. She was consumed by a desire to aid her people, yet frustrated by her ability to do so. Yeruja looked to the panthan for an answer.

"Two knives, a length of rope, and a net," Kujiro did not speak in jest as he tallied their resources. Nor did he refute her unspoken demand for freeing the captives. "Let me think on this," he said, wiping sweat from his brow; the sun was merciless on the unsheltered position. "Those below are safe enough until the pirates have what they want..."

The pair on the heights watched the captors herd Aaanthorian and dark-skinned strangers, and women and children of both races, into the huge cave on the great ledge of Xanator. A cadre of coarse guards lounged outside the entrance, ever watchful against escape. The rest of the pirates spurred greater effort from of the laboring male captives by offering vicious and obscene threats regarding the innocent hostages in the gigantic cave.

"Such confidence—" Kujiro observed, smiling, his eyes unwaveringly focused on the movements below.

"What mean you, warrior?" Yeruja asked when no further words were uttered by the silent warrior.

"To watch them, one might suppose the pirates believe this a deserted land. Not once have they scanned the heights..." Kujiro pulled back from the edge and lifted the coiled rope, placing it over his bare, painfully sunburned shoulders. Kujiro welcomed the pain, it cleared his thoughts. Mountain-bred, he turned questioning eyes on the curious Aaanthorian woman. "Can you keep to cover? We go back to our cave."

"I can follow where you lead, panthan." Yeruja's green eyes suddenly narrowed with bold challenge. "Can you keep to cover?"

Kujiro's faint smile was all the answer he gave the young woman. He slipped over the edge of the shelf and vanished from sight. Yeruja quickly followed. The descent was much easier than the ascent as evaporation had reduced the rope's weight. The panthan grudgingly admired Yeruja's ability to trace his path which took advantage of every concealment. She was as silent as he, their gasping breath the only sound—and that whipped away by the on-shore wind. When they reached the cave Kujiro took the rope from Yeruja's trembling shoulder. "Sleep," he suggested to the tired woman. "We can do nothing until dark."

"I'll eat first," Yeruja's rebellion was instant, and as quickly subdued. "So should you."

The woman prepared a cold meal from the fish they'd left behind in their haste. The fire was out, but they had no need of warmth: the sun had baked the rock to a fever pitch. The water in the quick-cured hide was rancid, but it eased their thirst. Only then did the Aaanthorian maid lay down to sleep.

Two hours later Kujiro woke her and took his own rest. His mind still mulling the nebulous plan he'd formed while watching the pirates. When he awoke it was to a cautioning from his winged Malagor. Slowly, Kujiro slit his eyes and saw the Aaanthorian bent over, her back to him.

"What are you doing?" he whispered. A pricking at the edge of his conscious warned Kujiro to keep his voice soft. Yeruja's voice was equally low when she turned her head.

"She's hurt," Yeruja said, shifting slightly to let Kujiro see. Nimble brown fingers tended the extended leg of a she-Malagor. The bird's eyes were dulled with pain, touching his for a moment before going back to the tender ministration of the Aaanthorian. Yeruja gently wrapping the burned leg with a poultice of herbs and a strip of cloth torn from the woman's tunic.

Kujiro's Malagor was perched on the cave's rim. Occasionally the male's high crest turned to watch the woman before returning to the movements below the ledge.

"There was a fire," Yeruja breathed, eyes wide, "which burned her leg. Her Brother-in-Flesh is dead."

"You heard her?" Kujiro frowned, sitting up.

Yeruja's face was a study of confusion. "I do not understand," she chewed at her lower lip, a nervous gesture the woman was unaware of making, "but I know she told me!" There was defiance in Yeruja's tones. Without thinking she was more forceful in binding the bird's injury than intended. The bird reminded the Aaanthorian by fastening beak to forefinger, though the skin was not broken.

Kujiro almost laughed, but did not. The woman had cared for a Malagor almost as well as he might. "Her name is Wind Sister," Kujiro told Yeruja.

"How do you know that?" Yeruja looked at the man, her hand smoothing the ruffled crest of the bird in her lap until the beak opened and let her finger free.

"High Soaring told me," Kujiro nodded to his feathered companion. "Wind Sister came from the ship out there—Wave-Rider was it?"

"Wave-Rider," Yeruja affirmed, her attention back on the bird attempting to mount her forearm. The talons were gentle, but sharp just the same.

"Here," Kujiro offered the leather belt taken from the dead fished from the sea. "Wrap that around your arm..."

Yeruja gently pushed the softly protesting bird to one side as she quickly followed the Malagor panthan's advice. She then offered her arm to the injured Wind Sister who eagerly clamped her talons on the thick leather with a chirrup of satisfaction.

"She's hungry," Yeruja said. "I can feel it. What do I do?"

"There's more fish," Kujiro pointed out. "Offer it to her talons, not her beak," he added with amused warning.

"Will she bite?"

"What woman does not?" Kujiro made the traditional answer without thinking. His chuckle subsided under Yeruja's tight-lipped glare. He sought to smooth the moment. "The bird is distraught. It is not easy to lose a close friend—gentleness and patience will be needed."

Yeruja's heat cooled under his apologetic tones and she did as he told. She flaked flesh from the smoked fish, gathering a sense that the bird was not fond of long dead meat, but hungry enough to eat what was offered. Kujiro watched with his own eyes, and through the approving eyes of High Soaring.

High Soaring's easy acceptance of a woman handling a Malagor disturbed Kujiro. It was well known that women could not be trusted with the training of children, much less the more demanding rigors of birds. It—

Yet, Wind Sister patiently waited for each morsel of fish, complaining of the taste, but willing to take nourishment. Kujiro moved closer to inspect the binding of the injury and that provoked a warning scream from the Malagor on Yeruja's arm. The woman gasped as the talons tightened unmercifully on the leather. There was a defiance in the Malagor's eyes which finally made Kujiro draw back and leave the two to themselves.

The panthan edged forward to raise the black of his wind-whipped hair and his narrowed eyes over the rim of the ledge. He watched the pirates prodding their reluctant workers into hurried activity as the sun neared the horizon. His Brother-in-Feathers, curious, hopped across the sun-warmed granite, stopping near Kujiro's head.

"It is not natural," Kujiro crooned to the bird in a voice too soft to be overheard. "Women do not—" Kujiro stopped, turning to look into the glass-bright eyes of the proud bird next to him. He received the abrupt impression that High Soaring denied his thoughts. But before Kujiro could attempt a more direct communication, the Malagor took wing; rising to ride the thermals ghosting upward from the sun-heated stone face.

Kujiro sent his thoughts after the bird, questioning. His reply was a mixture of High Soaring and Wind Sister: Kind hands—strong—Sister.

Kujiro blinked his confusion and terminated the connection. He pulled back from the edge and sat, legs pulled up, arms wrapped about knees. He watched Yeruja cajoling the injured bird to accept another piece of smoked fish.

* * * * * * * *

Every two feet Kujiro threw another overhand loop in the rope. "If this works, I hope your Aaanthorian ladies can climb as well as you—"

Yeruja chose not to take the compliment. "They can do better, panthan!"

"It'll be dark soon. We best have this finished. Will Wind Sister speak to you?"

"Does High Soaring speak to you?" Yeruja challenged.

Kujiro sighed with exasperation. Since Wind Sister's arrival at the cave, every conversation with Yeruja had been questions for answers to questions, all unanswered. He sighed, unwilling to argue. "Let the rope down too early and none of us will come out alive. Yeruja, I have no quarrel with you..."

The sailor stopped her knotting and stroked the feathers of the bird perched beside her, balanced on one sharp-taloned foot. Ruefully, she glanced to Kujiro's face, featureless in the deepening darkness of the cave. She shivered, though the rock was still warm from the afternoon heat.

"Wind Sister will tell me when you are down and ready. Will High Soaring talk to her?"

There was that in her voice that made Kujiro pause in his work. "Yes, damn it! The birds always talk!"

"Even if they are female?" Yeruja's voice held a touch of amusement, as if she knew Kujiro's thought: Is there a difference between men and women if the Malagors will accept either?

Kujiro did not choose to answer. He returned to his work and Yeruja's strong fingers echoed his action. By the time the sun set completely the cordage was carried to the lip of the cave and the ends of the three strands firmly anchored to rocky outcrops.

Below them, at some distance from the captive's cave, the main body of pirates gathered about bright, well-fueled camp fires. They passed a keg of strong beverage amongst themselves. While the rough men laughed harshly, commenting on the day's haul in loud voices which carried easily to Kujiro and Yeruja's deep-shadowed ledge, the Malagor panthan prepared to launch a precarious rescue of the Wave-Rider's victims.

Kujiro lowered himself over the lip of stone. Before his feet could find purchase, Yeruja's strong fingers on his cheek stopped him.

"Come back safe—" her soft whisper startled the panthan.

"If I do not," he chuckled, as much for her as himself, "it will not be for lack of trying."

Yeruja's fingers tightened on his shoulder, just once, before dropping away. Kujiro found a hand hold and let the left foot, then the right, seek secure placement on the erosion-pitted rock as he worked his way down the cliff.

Yeruja may be female, he thought, but she's a good war-trail companion.

The muscles of Kujiro's new-healed arm cramped uncomfortably; too many demands had been placed upon it in too short a time. The Malagor panthan did not complain, rather, he forced the limb to perform and his descent of the rock face was swift and sure. When he reached the bottom Kujiro was well-hidden from the trio of pirates guarding the entrance to the captive's cave.

Two of the pirates at guard talked together; the third off to one side looking out towards the sea. That lone man was nearest Kujiro. Calling up stealth learned from long years scouting the border mountains out of Zurbaran, the mercenary inched his way forward until he was an arm's length from the oblivious guard. There was little light this side of the cave entrance—the single torch hard-blown by the on-shore wind was opposite from where Kujiro lay in wait.

The unsuspecting guard died silently, his throat gaping a new red-lipped mouth. Kujiro pulled the pirate's husky body behind the rocks which had concealed the panthan's approach. Before the dead man's companions noticed his absence, the pirate's distinctive helm was drawn over Kujiro's dark hair and the mercenary had assumed the guard's post. Heart pounding with battle-excitement and the ever-present fear of discovery, the panthan edged closer to the cave entrance, hoping his movement would appear casual to the two laughing guards near the torch.

Within the cave three sullen-faced men watched Kujiro with unwavering gaze. One was a lean, dark-haired stranger who seemed kin-blood to Kujiro's race; the others were Aaanthorian, big-boned men with blonde hair. The tallest Aaanthorian seemed desperately anxious for the incautious "pirate" to come close enough for huge, hard-boned hands to encircle a throat. Kujiro wondered how he could make the man aware of his desire to help before he was attacked as one of the outlaws. The Malagor panthan's palms greased with sweat as he came nearer, unable to explain in a voice loud enough to communicate at safe distance, for that would alert the other guards. What was he to do?

It was the hurried whisper of the stranger who held the angered Aaanthorian in check. "I know not who he may be," the stranger's voice had an odd twist to his words, but the meaning was clear, "but I just saw him kill the pirate. Hold, Dwar Delo Niel!"

The stranger who spoke, being the man nearest to Kujiro, quickly accepted the knife the panthan thrust hilt-first in his direction. Kujiro offered the pirate's sword to the tall captain of the Wave-Rider. Both immediately understood his hand signal as Kujiro hissed in a guttural voice meant to carry: "Get back, you!"

Kujiro's command brought the other pirates to his side. "Trouble with these?" one outlaw asked. Those were his last words in the world of men. The Aaanthorian's huge fist closed about the pirate's throat while Kujiro's quick blade efficiently silenced the other.

"Take their helms—not you, Aaanthor. You're too obvious." Kujiro grinned at the dwar who had snatched the head covering from the dead man at his feet. The captain grimly nodded and turned to call someone from the cave.

Another of the strangers came forward. He was slightly taller than Kujiro, but much broader in the shoulders and thighs. It did not take him long to understand what was needed.

"I have little time to explain," Kujiro kept his voice low as he spoke to the Aaanthorian and the two strangers. "There are too many pirates on the ledge and they are too well armed. See how many you can take out this way..."

Kujiro jerked his thumb to the top of the cliff, eyes following his gesture. Kujiro had sent his thought to High Soaring and that Brother-in-Feathers had spoken with Wind Sister. A length of rope came down, followed by a second, then the third. The Aaanthorian and strangers glanced back to Kujiro as if he had conjured the thick strands from the very air.

"There's help above," Kujiro turned his back, gesturing for the disguised men to follow him back into the torch light. "Get as many out as you can, Delo Niel—"

Kujiro and the strangers backed away from the cave, standing well away from the cliff in plain view of the outlaws at the fires. Kujiro faced the pirates while the strangers faced him.

The pirates talked loudly with much laughter. Kujiro felt sweat beading his brow as the minutes lengthened. How long before they were discovered?

At least sixty people were packed into the cave, possibly more. Kujiro wondered how many would escape to the heights before the pirates became suspicious, or changed the guard. The ones who reached the upper level would have little to fear from the pirates. The drunken pirates would probably refuse to expend the effort to recapture them. It was the fate of those who failed to escape that concerned Kujiro.

The strangers (were strangers no longer—they shared a common danger which made them friends) played their part well. They stood and talked quietly, affecting the same insolent, confident manner as those they replaced. Kujiro finally dared to look over his shoulder toward the cave. Two sun-dark, blonde men were on the ropes, moving like ghosts. A third dark-haired stranger carried a baby strapped to his back. Two women waiting their turn calmly tied long skirts above the waist to free their legs for the climb.

"If only there had been more men like you under Jeddak Uric's banner," the man who'd prevented Delo Niel from attacking Kujiro nodded his pirate helm in the panthan's direction. "The Orovars would not have found Torquas such easy pickings—even with their metal monsters."

"Torquas?" Kujiro frowned. "Where—?"

"Across the ocean to the east. The Vales—Torquas. At first I thought you one of our people escaping the war in our homeland until I heard the strangeness in your speech. Are you from the Witches' land?"

"Not by choice," Kujiro's low chuckle was not from amusement. "I have pledged my metal to Aaanthor for the time being."

"What ship?" the man leaned forward, hope glittering in his eyes. "Is it nearby?"

"Much closer than the one which brought you." Kujiro's hollow laughter startled the man. "Wind-Sith lies at the foot of the reef, man of the east, with fishes for crew. I, and one other, survived the wreck."

"Just two and you take the pirates?" There was admiration in the reply.

Kujiro shrugged his lean shoulders, turning his attention to the outlaws. The stranger stepped closer, he, too, observing the pirates.

"If not for the ladies with us," the Dalesman said, "we might have done the same. We learned too late—" Kujiro could not see the man's face in the shadow of the helm, but he could hear the knife-edged scowl in the voice "—what the pirates intend..."

Their words were cut short by a violent argument among the drunken men by the fires. Two of the pirates were on their feet shouting obscenities at each other. Blades were bared as others rushed forward to separate the angry men. Kujiro glanced back over his shoulder, gesturing for the huge Aaanthorian captain to speed his people up the ropes. Escape might not be possible if the argument got out of hand.

Tense moments passed while the three imposter guards watched the pirates' furor without exchanging words. They saw cooler heads pleading with, and eventually separating the quarrelers without bloodshed. A number of the pirates were not pleased with the result. They rose, in unison, to leave. Their drink-staggered path brought them close to the cave where the captives were held. Kujiro carefully checked the number of darts in his gun—fully expecting to fight his last battle here at the edge of ruined Xanator.

But the angry pirates were in no mood to speak to the guards. They reeled past, heading for the cleft and the water below. Those pirates who remained at the fires, about twenty, yelled coarse taunts at those leaving before they settled back to the warmth and tipped the keg once more.

Kujiro kept watch, but the pirates seemed interested only in the wine and food. The panthan took a chance and walked to the edge of the cliff to discover where the other group had gone.

He saw them, on the beach, building a fire of their own. One of their number went to a long boat and returned with a keg. He was greeted with cheers and soon they, too, were back to their cups. The Malagor panthan returned to his 'post' outside the cave.

"A force split—" Kujiro said with a grim smile barely visible beneath the mask of his helm. "One which may soon be unable to fight—and we have no weapons!"

"We shall," the Dalesman's harsh whisper was filled with hard promise, "given the opportunity!"

Kujiro turned to the speaker. "Man of the east—"

"Anthol Gardenos—" the stranger interjected.

Kujiro acknowledged the name, giving his own. "I am Kujiro. Perhaps you think as I? We shall help ourselves to arms later this evening?"

"They are sure to change the guard," Anthol's white teeth were revealed in an equally ferocious smile. "At least three men: three more dart guns and maybe a good length of steel, too..."

"Still," Kujiro's thoughts worked furiously, "six against—twenty."

"You saw Delo Niel. With him we are eight against twenty. I would not wish to be a pirate this night!"

"What about the women?"

"The women of Torquas can fight, sir," Anthol spoke without boast. "Yet, if we can get them to safety..."

"Speak to Delo Niel," Kujiro gestured with his hand. "Tell him what we think." Anthol nodded and moved towards the cave while the panthan and the other Torquasian continued their vigil.

"You are a Malagor panthan—" the youth said. His tone was awed and respectful.

"I am," Kujiro replied. He noted that though the youth was man-sized, he was not far from the date of his hatching..

"I saw warriors such as you on the Wave-Rider! The pirates paid dearly for their prize. Before that," he added in the same wondering tone, "the Orovars felt the bite of their claws and steel as the ship broke out of the harbor at Torquas."

"You speak in past tenses, friend. Are they all dead?"

"All but three who lie wounded on the ship. The pirates did not bring them ashore. They may well be dead by now."

"The birds?"

"Some were caged. The rest—those that were not killed—followed the ship for a time. When we came in sight of land, they headed for the coast. I know not what became of them."

"I know of one," Kujiro grinned as High Soaring relayed Wind Sister's complaint that the cliff ledge was getting crowded. The she-Malagor fretted nervously from the activity and he sensed Yeruja trying to calm the injured bird.

High Soaring sensed something else in the open sky and suddenly his screaming challenge cut through the strong winds. Kujiro, mind-linked with the Malagor, was shaken by the numbing impact of hate which came sharp channeled through his Brother-in-Feathers flying among the enraged Malagors of the Wave-Rider.

"The birds are here!" Kujiro hissed without explanation; the relief guard was approaching on slightly unsteady feet. Taking the Dales youth by the arm, Kujiro led him back to the cave, heads bent together, as if they were talking. He held that hard-muscled arm perhaps more tightly than needed as he struggled with the red haze ripping through his brain as the numbers of circling Malagors increased.

The relief guard petulantly called out as they slipped into the shadows at the base of the cliff. Anthol hurried forward to meet Kujiro and the youth. Kujiro, caught up in the hate flowing into his mind from the Malagors, tensed. His own anger built as he urged High Soaring to keep the Malagors away.

Tell them they will have their feast—but not now!

His vision blurred between the danger of the pirates and the anger of the Malagors. Kujiro swayed distractedly as Anthol stepped past him, the Dalesman appearing to head for the fire of the pirates' shore camp. The young man of Torquas moved to the left and away from Kujiro, his hand tight about the hilt of the knife at his waist. The three guards, angered that they had not been answered, closed upon the wild-eyed Malagor panthan and were caught completely off-guard. The man of Torquas struck the first blow, but his action was so swiftly echoed by Kujiro and the youth that one would be hard tested to say which pirate hit the rocks first. Shadows from the cave swiftly carried the bodies into the interior of the great cavity.

Within moments three more men armed with plundered weapons joined Kujiro and his tense companions. Kujiro leaned against the rock face, his body trembling under the unrestrained force of the Malagors' blind hatred. The giant Aaanthorian stayed out of sight in the shadows, but Delo Niel's huge hand clapped the panthan on the shoulder.

"What's wrong?"

"The birds—" Kujiro grunted. "A moment's time—"

Delo Niel frowned, but held his tongue while Kujiro concentrated his thoughts. He focused his will into a single command which, with High Soaring's aid, he sought to impress on the wheeling, shrieking Malagors. No man is to get back to the ships. Kujiro's dart gun wavered in his violently trembling hand. "Tell them, brother," he whispered.

Kujiro's thoughts were above the ground, in the mind and sight of his bird. The fires appeared like tiny, flickering stars as High Soaring bent and dove through the Malagors gathering above the cliff. The man strove to communicate his thoughts but the rage of the birds was so intense that High Soaring was unable to make them understand. "The beach...they must not leave the beach..."

"What do you mumble, Malagor panthan? Your birds, will they help?"

Kujiro was conscious of the painful grip on his arm. He shook free, wheeling to glare at the captain of the Wave-Rider.

"They hate, dwar! I need more time!"

"Time is what we do not have!" the giant growled, though he moved back, giving the panthan room.

Kujiro's eyes closed as he fought to assert his will over the Malagors circling in the darkness. They could be valuable allies if only they were willing to carry out their part in Kujiro's suddenly conceived plan. If only—

A calming strength seemed to flow into his tiredness. Kujiro felt a touch that was at once familiar, yet unlike any he had ever experienced. Yes, a bird's brain guided the force, but the force was—

Yeruja?

I am here, Kujiro—

The Malagor panthan was not sure if those words were actually heard within his mind, but he welcomed the steady strength that flowed into him. He gathered it, drawing deeply upon that which was given freely. He shaped it, strengthened it, sent it forth through High Soaring. There was a timeless struggle with the feathered ones' rage and vengeance—a struggle which left Kujiro drained by the time agreement had been reached.

You at the cliff, High Soaring relayed affirmation. We at the beach—

Kujiro opened his eyes. His heart pounded in his chest as if he'd run miles at breakneck speed. Anthol Gardenos had his arm about the panthan's sweat-drenched shoulders holding Kujiro erect. Kujiro shook his thoughts free of the battle of wills un-sensed by those about him. The intensity of the Malagors' rage had been re-channelled and directed to their best aid.

"The Malagors will keep the men on the beach occupied until we can come to them..." Kujiro gasped. He shook off the supporting hand and moved towards the pirates.

Five men wearing pirate helms came with him. They quietly picked targets to make their assault maximum damage without wasted shots. They managed to approach much closer than Kujiro had hoped before one of the outlaws pierced their partial disguises.

The man who rose to shout a warning fell with Kujiro's dart quivering in his throat. Sudden chaos marked the scene and the Malagor panthan ran forward. Anthol shouted curses, keeping pace with Kujiro. The Dalesman jerked the pirate helm from his head and hurled it full in the face of a man bringing his dart gun to bear. A second later Anthol's blade gleamed red and the dart gun was jerking in his fist.

Kujiro's gun was empty. He knelt and drew a sword from a dead pirate's harness. Rising, he barely parried a thrust directed at his belly. From that moment on, Kujiro's conscious thoughts were disconnected as he let his war-trained muscles respond to thrust and parry. Kujiro recalled little of the short, but furious fight—other than the clanging of steel and the half-remembered pain of a blade slicing across his ribs.

"Aaanthor! Aaanthor! Aaanthor!"

It started as a low-voiced growl and became a howling din. The Aaanthorian men, freed from the cave, leapt into the fray. They fought with rocks yanked from the ground, or with weapons taken from the dead. Their very ferocity reminded Kujiro of the Golesi devils plundering through the high reaches near Zurbaran before the Witches Turned the mountains with their magics.

"Aaanthor! Aaanthor! Aaanthor!" A hymn of death. A cry of victory.

"To the beach!" Delo Niel roared, brandishing a blood-smeared sword over head. "To the beach!"

Kujiro wheeled about to follow the Wave-Rider's captain. He took one step, a second—then doubled over in intense red pain and agony. Momentary terror seized the Malagor panthan: he could not breathe, his lungs were on fire.

Kujiro fell to his knees, dropping the sword which suddenly become a weight too great to bear. Strong hands gently stretched him to the ground, rolled him over and removed the helm from his sweating forehead. Anthol Gardenos loosed the belt at Kujiro's waist.

"Kujiro!" a woman's voice cried. The Dalesman was rudely thrust aside as Yeruja, weeping, knelt beside him. He started to rise. Her hands pushed against his chest. "What do you think you are doing?" she demanded, breathless from her speedy descent.

"The beach—must secure the beach..."

"Delo Niel is leading the men. You have done enough." There was a catch in her voice—almost an accusation. "You are injured, stay put!"

High Soaring lit on the rock with a scream of rage. Wings half-spread and threatening, the Malagor hopped forward, beak ready to tear at Yeruja. Before the Malagor could attack, it was knocked aside by another screaming bird. Wind Sister raised her wings, facing High Soaring.

"Brother—" Kujiro whispered to High Soaring as Yeruja captured Wind Sister between her strong hands. High Soaring folded his wings and stepped closer.

There was a swirl of skirts and a woman's voice. Yeruja looked up to see a woman of the Vales looking down with concerned eyes. A wide-eyed boy stood at her side. "I know heal craft," the kind voice offered. "If the birds will let me—"

"They will," Yeruja assured her, moving to one side. "Please..."

"I am well enough!" Kujiro declared, his voice filled with impatience. "I must join—"

Yeruja's imperative negative silenced him. "You'll bleed to death before you get to the beach." She slipped her arm under Kujiro's head and held a water flask to his lips. Other hands, gentle and sure, pulled at the torn fragments of his tunic. A woman's calm voice said: "Tear the hem of my skirt, Kisian. I need bandages."

Kujiro turned his eyes towards the boy who did as his mother commanded. He remembered smiling at the breathless lad before darkness clouded his vision.

* * * * * * * *

Kujiro's first waking sensation was warmth at the hollow of his throat and the light smell of his bird nestled between shoulder and head. A tender caressing of his hair suddenly ceased when he opened his eyes.

"Yeruja—" his voice cracked. His tongue as thick as ashes. He felt the aches of his body, the pain in his side.

"Rest, warrior."

He shook his head and regretted the swirling in his brain that was a result. "The others?"

"Waiting the tide. Delo Niel goes to take the Wave-Rider back."

"So—" Kujiro cursed the weakness of his body. High Soaring echoed his thoughts, becoming agitated. A soft cry from another Malagor soothed the bird. Kujiro saw Wind Sister hop awkwardly on one foot until she was side to side with High Soaring.

"Don't try too much, Kujiro," Yeruja cautioned. "This is more serious than a broken arm..."

Kujiro was startled by sudden laughter from his right. He turned his head and saw Anthol Gardenos lying next to his make-shift pallet. The man's leg was bound and splinted.

"At least your wound was in battle," the Torquasian explained with a wry chuckle. "I stupidly lost my footing and fell down the cliff when we went to take the pirates at the beach." The man patted the leg with a shake of his head. "I'll not be running races for a while..."

"Did we—"

"Take them? Yes." Anthol nodded savagely. "There are no more pirates ashore, Kujiro. Now Delo Niel goes to take the Wave-Rider!"

"It seems that more has happened than that," Kujiro nodded to the bundle of rust-brown feathers nestled against Anthol's side. The bird had one wing half-folded over its crest. It appeared to be sleeping.

Anthol frowned. He looked at the creature with grave expression. "Yeruja said we had to calm the birds. They were going to attack the pirates on the ships last night and she said they should not go..."

"Yeruja?" Kujiro slowly turned his head towards the silent Aaanthorian maid.

"Wind Sister helped. She told me to call them, to feed them, to let them make the choice. Anthol Gardenos got one, so did his son. Lady Tershannon, Lady Shuma, Lord Braedon and Master Tuth."

"The rest?"

"Killed, or gone to the pirate boat. None have returned..."

"But how—" Kujiro kept his speech between him and Yeruja, his voice soft, confused.

"Are Malagor panthans made—" Yeruja followed his unspoken thought "—or are they born? I did mot choose Wind Sister, Kujiro, she chose me!"

Yeruja's green eyes dared the Malagor panthan to refute her statement. Part of him was eager to do so, but he could not. Kujiro closed his eyes and remained silent so long that Yeruja's hand touched his forehead. "Kujiro?"

"I am all right, Yeruja." He opened his eyes. At the foot of his pallet he saw the slim, oval-faced Torquasian woman who had tended Kujiro after the battle. She stood behind Yeruja, her eyes narrowed thoughtfully as she looked down.

"He will mend, Yeruja," the woman said after kneeling to check the bandages about Kujiro's chest. "Keep him quiet. He lost much blood—" The woman rose, looking tired and worn as she moved off to examine another of her charges within the great cave.

"Who?" Kujiro asked.

Before Yeruja could reply, Anthol's voice answered.

"Lady Tershannon—my lady, panthan. You'd do well not to interfere with her healing." Anthol would have said more, but the Malagor at his side abruptly leaped to his chest, wings spread in defiance. Its cry was echoed within the cave as High Soaring, Wind Sister and the rest of the birds repeated the distraught Malagor's cry.

"What?" Kujiro levered himself erect, fighting off nausea, dizziness and Yeruja's quick restraint. "Get out of my way, or help me to the ledge!"

For an instant Yeruja seemed obdurate then her strong, sun-browned arm lifted Kujiro to his feet. Kujiro ignored the pain of movement, his brother-in-feathers' uneasiness spurring him on. Yeruja took him to the mouth of the cave and forced the man to sit on an outcrop of rock. "I will take you no further!" Her hands gripped his shoulders and held Kujiro in place.

They looked out to the sea where the ships were at anchor. They saw the flash of blades in the early sunlight—the trail of smoke from the pirate-boat. Faintly heard, the sounds of battle came to them until they were suddenly blinded when the raider's craft vanished in a fireball of flame and thunder!

"What—" Yeruja stuttered.

Frantically seeking a perch on the Aaanthorian's shoulder, Wind Sister's talon-tips drew tiny beads of blood through the thin fabric of Yeruja's tunic. "What happened?" she asked again.

"The power core," Kujiro rubbed his eyes, trying to see through the harsh haze obscuring his vision. "They must have over-loaded the power core!"

Anthol staggered out, his bird squawking at his feet as he leaned on Lady Tershannon's slight form. His stunned voice echoed the misery heard in the wail of women and children, the rage of men who'd been unable to accompany Delo Niel.

"There's nothing left!" he shouted. "Kujiro! Both ships are gone! Gone!" The voice lowered in pitch, the man of Torquas stunned to silence.

"What will we do, father?" Kisian asked.

"Nothing," Anthol replied, his voice breaking.

Though Kujiro could not see with his own eyes, he could see through High Soaring's. Only debris and great bubbles from the capsized Wave-Rider disturbed the waters which slowly calmed after the force of the explosion. Through his Malagor's eyes he saw the streak of tears on Yeruja's face, the set and unmoving expression she chose to wear.

Those who were sighted helped those others who were not. Kujiro and Yeruja spent most of the morning rubbing at smarting eyes and sharing thoughts and visions through High Soaring and Wind Sister. That they did not bemoan their blindness or speak at all made those about them wonder at their rescuers' seeming calmness.

Lady Tershannon and her son Kisian took charge of healing, keeping cool cloths laid over brows, a strong brew of herbs gently forced on the unfortunates. Kujiro listened to High Soaring scratching at the rock beside his head pillowed on a lump of cloth. Yeruja, also blinded, took comfort in holding Kujiro's hand.

Anthol's voice rang out with authority though he was confined to his pallet of grass. Order was restored—an order of sorts—while women sobbed about lost loved ones, not being able to go home; or able to come to safe port.

Kujiro took the cooling cloth from his eyes and blinked several times. He made out shapes moving in a grayish fog that seemed to become less dense even as he strove to focus.

"We're not blinded," he said softly. Yeruja gripped his hand in response.

"I've been seeing movement for the last half hour—"

Kujiro felt a flood of relief at her quiet statement. He changed subjects. "Anthol Gardenos is a good man..."

"So are you, Kujiro."

Her soft response startled the Malagor panthan. Could a woman judge as well as a man? As truthfully? "I did nothing."

"You made it happen. I could not have gone down there in the dark. I could not have freed the captives..."

Before Kujiro knew what he would say, he had said it: "You would have done as well."

"Not so!" the woman replied. "I could not have killed—" the words were cut off. Kujiro caught a motion in his slowly clearing sight which seemed to be Yeruja's hand covering her mouth. For the first time in his life as a mercenary Kujiro felt shame.

"I did only what I had to—"

"Just as I," Yeruja's hand stroked his forehead, "did what I had to when Zhou wished to be free..."

* * * * * * * *

Kujiro stilled the urge to shout his frustration at the healer's confinement as he looked out over the activity from the cave which he and Yeruja had shared since their arrival at Xanator. The Aaanthorian maid had finally been forced to have Kujiro brought to the high cave to keep him abed while the others worked. There was so much to do, and Kujiro wanted to do more than merely lie in bed feeling useless.

Anthol Gardenos was down on the lower ledge propped on a bed of branches shouting orders and encouragement to the survivors of Wave-Rider. Orchards were cleared and men labored to build a front to the main cave using available rock and ingenuity. Children worked in small groups with a man or woman in charge: cutting branches; gathering fruits and nuts, checking clever hunting snares; tending fires for the smoking of fish from the ocean and darseen lizards from the highlands. At the edge of the reef men dove from rafts to the wrecks of the Wind-Sith and Wave-Rider.

High Soaring and Wind Sister had been flying together during the past five days. Occasionally Kujiro "saw" the activity of the great ledge through High Soaring's keen eyes, at others he had a strange shifting of sight as if he looked through Wind Sister's sharp eyes. He felt flushed more frequently from the increasingly aroused instincts of the two birds.

Kujiro felt more than impatience and frustration: he felt true worry. He found himself watching the Aaanthorian woman who still shared the small cave with him. He wondered if she, too, knew the Malagors were ready to fly.

He knit his brows together as High Soaring urged Wind Sister to a break in the cliffs above Xanator-that-was. There was a heat and urgency to the Malagor's demands that Kujiro desperately tried to ignore. He glanced at Yeruja, found her eyes averted, both hands trembling as she tended the fire. She seemed withdrawn and the few times she looked to Kujiro, there was a defiant look in her green eyes.

She knows!

"They fly," Kujiro admitted, his eyes turning from hers. Kujiro slowly sat down, careful not pull the mending edges of his wound. "All Malagors fly at one time or another..."

"Do Malagor panthans fly, Kujiro?" Yeruja's voice was suddenly calm, her trembling stopped.

Kujiro did not answer. He seemed intent on picking the edges of his wound. When Yeruja approached, he turned his back to her.

"Do they?" she asked a second time. Yeruja passed beyond Kujiro to sit on the ledge, her long legs dangling over the drop. Her head was bent forward, watching the activity below.

Kujiro, the Malagors' rising heat flushing his face, fought the flow of emotion from the birds and felt the words jerked from his unwilling lips. "There's no village of Nameless Ones..."

"Do they have to be Nameless?" Yeruja demanded. She turned, crossing her legs. The woman nervously pulled at the cuff of her trousers. Yeruja did not look at the man. "Wind Sister is happy. High Soaring is happy..." Her eyes raised, though her head remained bent. "Are you so angry that Wind Sister chose me? Would it be better that her brother-in-flesh were still alive and that you and he would visit the village you speak of?"

Kujiro felt the blood drain from his face. "Come here," he said harshly.

"Me?" Yeruja's face came up, her eyes narrowed. "I come to no one!"

Kujiro ground his teeth together with his inability to properly communicate. He returned his attention to the crumbling clots of dried blood on his ribs. "I am not demanding," he sighed. "I will come to you..."

"Sit where you are," Yeruja replied, her tones practical, yet, filled with something more. "You should not move about too much." The Aaanthorian woman rose and joined him. She sat near him, arms crossed over her breasts, cool green eyes fixed on Kujiro's. "Yes?"

"The Malagors have always chosen," he said, his voice tight. "They choose their handler. They choose who would go—who would stay behind. Of course, one can control the impulses, the need—" He hoped he would not have to explain that, and the nod from the blonde-haired woman indicated her understanding. "But this time," Kujiro could not meet her steady gaze, "I don't know what—"

"—to do?" Yeruja supplied when he refrained from finishing his thought. "Do nothing you do not wish to do, panthan," she told him.

Kujiro saw no guile, no pretense, no expectation on the intent face so near his. "This is new to me, Yeruja. Very new."

"And to me, milord." She did not shy away nor did she avert her gaze. "Wind Sister is that: my sister. She does not control me anymore than High Soaring controls you, but what she feels, I feel." The last was offered with a subdued voice, a hint of breathy huskiness which struck Kujiro to the bone.

"High Soaring guides me no more than Wind Sister guides you—" Kujiro repeated, his face flushed with a heat greater than the cut healing over his ribs. "But mayhaps they have the right of it?"

"Mayhaps," the woman answered with a rush. Yeruja rose. She walked to the entrance of the cave. Kujiro noted the gentle curves of her body as if for the first time. A pair of Malagors screamed from the heights above the cave, a cry which was not of anger; the hunt, or rage. Yeruja turned to face the Malagor panthan.

"I have a name!" she challenged.

Kujiro nodded. He opened his arms wide. "It's Yeruja."