There is in all things that are mortal a beginning and an end, but things eternal have no beginning, nor do they have an end. The works of God are without beginning and they have no end. This is the eternal round of God. We are eternal creatures dreaming of mortality, and like all dreams there is a beginning and an end. - The Book of the Prophets of God, the words of Tyan.

   

   A herd of shunails moved silently through the edge of the forest. They were small fat slugs with a bulbous segmented turtle-like shell on their backs and a long blunted spike as a tail. A little smaller than a cow, but serving much the same purpose for the hard-shells, as the People of the Trees called them. Moving forward on rippling stomach muscles eating everything in their path, they were blissfully unaware that they were being watched from high in the trees.

   Safe in the arms of a great tree that rose 400 meters above the ground, a young tree dweller watched as the herd made its way through the forest. His name was, He Who Seeks Knowledge in the Tops of Trees and in Far Off Places, Tangoral for short. He was young, about 15 cycles of the sun. Hair ran down his back from his head to the tip of his tail and across his shoulders. That his hair had not filled out into the large thick mane of adulthood was evidence of his youth, but youth is such a relative term. Adult eyes looked out of a small body and down on the scene below.

   Following the herd was a young hard-shell. More often than not, it was an adult hard-shell that watched over the herds. Shunails out of control could swarm up one of the great trees in a few heartbeats. It would take many hard-shells more than a seven-day to get them down again and the great tree would be left nearly leafless in the process if the herd were large enough. These were well-fed Shunails. Tangoral knew this; he had been watching this hard-shell home for many cycles of the three moons. This young hard-shell was a fine example of his tribe; a kind of crab with two great claws and eight legs. His four eyes, two retractable and two on slender poles, were constantly in motion. His hands if you could call them that were tucked in near his mouth. Tangoral knew this was a young hard-shell because he was small, about a half a man’s height wide and half that in height, and his shell was still black not yet having taken on the color of his clan.

   Tangoral came to observe the hard-shells often. Many members of his tribe had fallen to the weapons of the hard-shells. Other tribes had lost many men as well. Then there were stories of whole tribes being destroyed. Tangoral’s tribe reacted by moving deeper into the forest and higher up in the great trees. From time to time, a few hard-shells fell into the hands of his tribe and there was a great feast that lasted many days on those occasions. Still, Tangoral came to study the ways of the hard-shells to fill a need deep inside of himself, and to benefit his tribe. He watched many other hard-shell homes before he settled on the one he was watching now. The young hard-shell seemed like an old friend; he had watched this tribe of hard-shells for a very long time. He knew where the other members of the tribe would be at any moment. The young hard-shell had taken his herd too far into the forest. Tangoral knew he should turn back now.

   The movement caught his eyes even as he heard the sound of a long neck, a snake like creature about 25 paces long for an adult of the People, or in the crab’s terms about 10 lengths (20 meters) long with large black lifeless eyes and a mouth full of long sharp teeth. The spines that ran the length of the body of the long neck were folded back against its body. Tangoral started down through the trees at a rapid rate. He did not wish to see this small hard-shell killed as he stood by and watched. The long neck struck the herd first and killed two shunails right off; the poison in its saliva worked quickly. Tangoral heard the popping sound of the hard-shell’s small stone thrower. A stone thrower could kill a tree dweller, but it only infuriated the long neck. Tangoral was above the long neck now, but it was a long drop. Knives out, he propelled himself straight down. If he missed now he would be just as dead as the hard-shell.

   The knives buried deep into the eyes sockets of the long neck as Tangoral impacted with the head of the creature. His legs and tail wrapped around the neck to give him a better hold so he could drive his knives a little further into the long neck’s skull. The creature’s tail lashed out at the small hard-shell even as the long neck lost its sight. Even a glancing blow was enough to send the little hard-shell crashing into the trunk of one the great trees a good distance away. Tangoral jumped clear as the long neck fell to the ground never to rise again. Hard-shells are harder to kill than tree dwellers, but Tangoral was relieved to see the small hard-shell move. Tangoral righted the hard-shell but moving him was out of the question. Three out of eight legs were broken. The hard-shell watched Tangoral with his two retractable eyes; his two rigid eye poles broke off when he hit the tree and now they just dangled from the remaining eye poles. Tangoral’s eyes meet the hard-shell’s; he was worried and he could feel the fear from the hard-shell reflected in its eyes. Tangoral raced up into the trees in search of help.

   

   A large hard-shell was working on a new storage room. The storage room looked like a large hollowed out bubble of sand. It was attached to still larger bubbles that made up the clan’s dwelling. The hard-shell had already worked the sand of the outer walls, and they were drying nicely. The deep blue of his top shell marked him as an adult. His yellowing soft side parts marked him as an elder in the clan. In fact, he was the clan leader of this dwelling and was a leader with standing within the clan as his dwelling always produced more than other clan dwellings in the past. That he expected to do even better this cycle could explain why you could find him staring at the walls of a new storeroom with all four eyes in quite contemplation. He was startled out of his shell when something hit the back of his shell. Even more startling was the tree dweller standing just outside the storage room.

   Zothor stepped out of the storage room cautiously, all four eyes swept the area for danger; he was alone in this part of the dwelling. The tree dweller made a beckoning gesture, and began to back away slowly. Zothor thought to rush upon this creature and kill it, but in the back of his mind he had always wanted to take one alive to see if tree dwellers could be tamed. Now, here was one trying to get Zothor to follow him. He had reports that the tree dwellers were watching his dwelling. This tree dweller was not even a full adult, but he seemed to be beckoning Zothor with a sense of urgency. It was then that he noticed the blood that covered the tree dweller.

   Even as hard-shell began to pick up speed Tangoral turned and began to run at a speed that would allow the hard-shell to keep up or so he thought. It was a straight course that Tangoral set, and he covered almost two thirds of the distance when he felt the huge claw of the hard-shell close about his small body and lifted him from the ground. The hard-shell did not slow down but picked up more speed. The hard-shell would face him toward an eye from time to time and Tangoral would point along the route they were going. The hard-shell was now moving faster than Tangoral could believe it was possible for a hard-shell to travel.

   Could it be that something had happened to his youngest son who he let watch the herd in the pasture they were now racing for? A million things race through the mind of a parent in times like this, hard-shells, tree dwellers, or human beings it is all the same. This blood soaked tree dweller conjured all sorts of images and raised even more questions than Zothor could answer or even think about at that time. His mind was racing so far ahead that he almost stumbled over a half a dozen dead shunails and the body of the long neck. Seeing his son lying against a tree he set the tree dweller down none too gently and rushed to his side. His son still lived.

   Tangoral watched as the large hard-shell gently poked and prodded the small hard-shell. He then pulled a large wicked looking knife from a case glued to the bottom shell and before Tangoral could move he cut off the three broken legs where the legs meet the body. This was followed by two clean cuts, one at the broken end of each eye pole. Replacing the knife the large hard-shell turned and really began to take note of what had happened there at the edge of the forest.

   Zothor read the scene as if he had been there in person as a silent witness. Somehow, a small child tree dweller had killed a good size long neck by hand before going for help, Zothor was amazed. It would have taken an incredible shot with a high powered weapon for an adult clan member to do the same. Yet, here was the testimony of his own eyes of a thing no single clan member alone could do done by a tree dweller, and a child at that. He owed a great debt and clan honor would demand he adopt as his own son the one who saved his son’s life. However, this was not another clan member, it was a tree dweller. He gently picked his son up in his claws, and then turned back to face the tree dweller, but he was gone.

   Tangoral scampered up the tree the moment the hard-shell looked away. He did not wish to press his luck any further. Anyway, it was time that he returned home. He had been gone a long time and had grown a little homesick. He stayed high in the trees to avoid the stalkers that lived along the edge of the Great Swamp. He watched them once from high in the trees, great beasts with six arms and two legs. From the stalkers he learned the secret of killing a long neck. He had watched a small band stalk and kill a long neck. Stalkers and long necks were mortal enemies, before eating them the stalkers took great pleasure in tormenting long necks and other creatures as well. It was fast becoming night and it was not safe to be abroad in the forest a night. Tangoral headed higher still, only when he could see the night lights would he be safe for the night. Finding a three fork branching in the treetop he curled up and went to sleep.

   

   Zothor carried his son back to the dwelling thinking about the strange events of the day. His son would grow his legs and eyes back in time. In times past, before the Game, arguments were settled in combat. A time when legs and claws were ripped off in fierce battles that often left the combatants crippled for life. The clans rose above those savage times with the institution of the Game. The Game had become the central point around which clan life revolved. His dwelling boasted a modest sized court carved inside one of the great trees around which his dwelling was built. Smaller dwellings might have an outdoor court, but you could lose more than a few balls that way. A good court could improve one’s standing in the clan’s hierarchy. It would be some time before his son could play again.

   There was clan members not of his dwelling standing about when he returned. Judging by the weapons that hung under their shells they were hunters stopping by for refreshment. “Greetings brothers,” Zothor said by way of the traditional greeting. “I must tend to my son, but please come in and refresh yourselves.”

   “Many thanks brother for your warm welcome. May I inquire what happen?” one of the hunters replied.

   “An encounter with a long neck, my son lived. The long neck was not so lucky. I will be but a moment.” Zothor carried his son to the medical center and laid him on a bed, a small box of soft sand in the corner. “Sleep well my son, may you heal quickly,” he said softly stroking his shell gently with his claw. “I’ll be back shortly,” he told the medical technician. Returning to his guests, he found one of his clan serving foodstuffs and water to the hunters.

   “It must have been an incredible shot. You must be glad you were there to stop such a tragedy,” said another of the hunters.

   “I was not with in sight. The shot was my son’s. The greatest of luck and good fortune smiled on my son today.” Strange will be the telling of the story of this day, Zothor thought.

   “It must have been a small well fed one.”

   “No, it was very hungry, it killed six shunails, and was over ten lengths (20 meters, 2 meters equals 1 shell length measured from side to side). Like I said good fortune smiles on this dwelling today; we shall rejoice when the clan is gathered and the story told,” Zothor said feeling a bit annoyed with the hunter.

   The leader of the hunting party must have sensed Zothor’s annoyance. “We should take our leave; we have yet to see any game of worth. Many thanks for your kindness to strangers not of this dwelling,” he said.

   “What do you hunt?” Zothor casually asked.

   “A long neck would be great, but mostly tree dwellers,” was the reply. He would next ask permission to hunt on the dwelling’s land; it was a thing expected. Zothor’s reply was unexpected and bordered on being hostile.

   “You may hunt long necks or any other creature, but no tree dweller is to be hunted within the boundary of this dwelling. Is that clear?” The clan member that was serving the food was as startled as the hunters were by the clan leader’s reply. Tree dwellers were thought to be worse that rothars (a rat like creature). Always they raided the herds and plundered the crops. Tree dwellers were a thorn in the side of all the clans of the Brachyura as the hard-shells called themselves.

   “Why?” asked one of the hunters.

   “It is a debt repaid. The story will be told to the clan of this dwelling for the debt is binding on them as well. You should leave now it will be dark soon.” It was a polite way of saying I do not intend to put you up for the night.

    Grizzon, the clan member who served refreshment saw the hunters on their way. “Zothor have you lost your senses?” he asked on his return.

   “Perhaps I have my brother. Still, it is a matter of honor. Call the clan together, the story shall be told in its fullness, and the clan shall help me find the best course to repay the debt.”

   

   Fires were burning bright in the great hall. The dinner in celebration of Zothor’s son’s life being spared was being cleared and clan members began to arrange themselves to hear the story. Already they had heard what Zothor said to the hunting party earlier that day. Some were more than just a little disturbed by it. Still, Zothor proved to be more than just a good leader. All the clan profited by his leadership.

   Part of his greatness as a leader was his willingness to listen to the other clan members. Now, here he stood before the clan to tell the story and ask their advice on the best way to proceed in a matter of honor that was binding on the clan as well as Zothor personally.

   “My brothers and sisters of the clan, I have called you here to share in my joy and to tell you the story of that joy, but also you have been called together to help me find the best course of action to redeem my honor and the honor of the clan. We have eaten well and now the story must be told,” Zothor said.

   “My son Cantor was watching over a small herd in the west pasture. He was set upon by a long neck when he strayed too near the forest. Six shunails were killed; my son should have died with them. A tree dweller saved my son’s life by killing the long neck. The tree dweller then came to me and beckoned me to follow him. I must admit that I thought to kill the foul creature, but the strangeness of seeing a tree dweller so close to the dwelling stayed my claws from rending it into small bite sized pieces. Cautiously, I followed until I found the dead shunails and the body of the long neck lying near my son. I thought I would find my son dead, but to my joy, he was unconscious but still alive. Three of his legs were badly broken, and the tops of his eye poles were broken off as well. I could not thank this tree dweller for his kindness as he vanished back into the great trees of the forest. The herd was scattered and some may yet be recovered.”

   “If the tree dweller was of the clans I would have adopted him as my son, and as a member of this clan,” he continued. “However, he is not clan, but there is still the question of honor. The tree dweller’s act of kindness was in itself a great selfless act of honor. Not to acknowledge that honorable act would be to acknowledge that the tree dwellers have a greater sense of honor than we do. If we do nothing other clans will not find fault with us, but how could we look at ourselves in still water if we did nothing to redeem our honor. Your burden of honor is small, but mine weighs me down like walking in shell high mud. So I ask for your advice my friends.” This was more draining than Zothor thought it would be.

   “Do we know for certain that this tree dweller did what is said of him?” a clan member asked. This was disturbing to all the clan as they whispered among themselves.

   “Yes, we do,” replied Grizzon. “A party was sent out to recover the herd. A few were recovered, but we will be eating long neck for some time as the recovery party brought the long neck back with them. The long neck was 11 lengths, and it was kill by driving the blades of two knifes through each eye and into the brain. Death was almost instantaneous. There is a debt of honor here, but how do we repay an enemy for an act of honor? If he were a friend and clan there would be no question of payment.”

   “Perhaps the tree dwellers are not real enemies.” Everyone stopped their whispering and all eyes turned toward the speaker. Tangalen was old, no he was older than old, he seldom spoke but when he did the clan listened. He had been heard in the councils of the clans of the Brachyura, and Zothor often sought his guidance in business and other small matters. To Tangalen there were no small matters. “If you treat a friend like an enemy, he will react like an enemy. So I ask, how do we know that the tree dwellers could not be our friends if we will not stop treating them as our most hated enemy? What is the cost of peace, a few shunails and some fruit? What can be gained? We have not progressed as a race for more than a thousand cycles of the sun. New friends mean new knowledge. The debt must be paid in full. If we do not, then it is truly as Zothor said. The tree dwellers have greater honor than all the clans of the Brachyura put together. How long before a friend so poorly treated becomes a real enemy? We know so little of these creatures, but the tree dweller knew that Zothor was Cantor’s father and he knew right where to find him, or did you miss the fact that at least one tree dweller is watching us very closely?” That last bit was something that Zothor had not considered, and he wondered just how dangerous that small tree dweller child would be if he grew up an enemy to the clan?

   “I have listened as you talked among yourselves,” Zothor began after several moments of quite consideration. “And, I have heard the wisdom born of many cycles of the sun. I shall follow custom and adopt the tree dweller as my son and as a member of my family and this clan. Further, no tree dweller will be hunted on the lands held by our clan until it is proved that they are truly our enemy.” Zothor had spoken, now it was law and binding on the clan. It should be noted that many of the clan honored that commitment with their lives. Nor can it be said that there was a more honorable clan than the clan of Zothor, for they valued honor above life.

   

~~~

   

   Tangoral woke before the sun. He had met a hard-shell face to face and lived to tell the tale. What a story this will make for the telling, he thought stretching. He ran through the high terraces of the great trees. The great branches laced together to form different layers. The lower one got the greater the ease of movement from tree to tree. The lowest branches had a diameter greater than several hard-shells side by side. The high terraces had their dangers, but lower down the dangers were much greater. To walk on the ground was to invite death. It was midday before he neared the great tree his tribe called home.

   Tree dwellers built great platforms around a single tree starting at mid-terrace and could go up twenty levels or more to the high terraces. Each platform was a latticework of wood on top of which was a layer of leaves. Tree sap was then poured on top of the leaves and allowed to dry. When polished the floor had the look of amber with leaves suspended in it. Tangoral’s tribe was small and the great tree only held seven platform layers around it. As Tangoral got closer to the tribe’s tree he began to smell smoke.

   He quickened his pace, something was terribly wrong. Fire was carefully guarded and placed on fired bricks to prevent what he feared had happened; the great tree where he lived was on fire. The fire had run its course by the time he reached the tree. Half the platforms on one side were gone. The charred remains still smoldered. Tangoral could hear the screams of women mingled with the shouts of men. He could see the bodies of both men and women lying in their own blood on the lower platforms. There was only one thought in his mind, hard-shells! He headed for the high platform.

   The remains of the tribe had gathered on the topmost platform. He circled the tree looking for the hard-shells, but they were long gone. Tangoral dropped to the branch that held the top platform and walked slowly toward the few people of his tribe that remain clustered around the trunk of the great tree. “It’s Tangoral,” Sogarlac called out when he spotted a child walking towards him out of the smoke. The man’s eyes told Tangoral the thing he feared. “Many died when the hard-shells attacked,” he said quietly.

   “My father?” Tangoral asked. Sogarlac shook his head no. “My mother?” Sogarlac just looked down at the branch not wanting to look Tangoral in the eye. “Ashorah?” She was a girl Tangoral liked. Still a child, he was not supposed to think of such things.

   “She lives,” Sogarlac replied.

   “How did this happen Sogarlac?”

   “The hard-shells surrounded us at night and then started the fire at first light. They killed anything that moved. How can you fight such creatures that can throw small stones from so far away with such great force as to make a hole in a man’s chest big enough to put your fist in?”

   “What will we do now?” Tangoral asked.

   “I don’t know. For the first time in memory we are with out a leader. Many of the elders were killed as well. Where can we go that would be safe from the hard-shells,” Sogarlac replied. Here was a man beaten and with out hope.

   “Which way did they go?”

   Sogarlac pointed back the way Tangoral had just come. “They went that way.”

   “Sogarlac see to it that our dead are buried properly, and when I return I will lead us to a place where the hard-shells cannot go.” Many of the adults had come to treat Tangoral as an adult. Young in cycles of the sun but old in wisdom his father would say. When he spoke the adults more often than not listened. Now, he would avenge the death of his family, and the dead of the tribe would sleep soundly knowing their killers would not escape justice. Tangoral turned and started back the way he came.

   “Tangoral where are you going?” Sogarlac asked.

   “I go to make sure that the hard-shells never leave the comfort of the trees,” he replied grimly.

   Sogarlac did not under estimate Tangoral. He had been with him when a lone stalker attacked them. Sogarlac still carried the scares of that encounter on his chest, but he was alive, and the stalker was probably still running for his life thanks to Tangoral’s quick thinking. He smiled as he watched Tangoral vanish into the trees. The hard-shells will never reach their home, he thought rubbing the scares on his chest.

   

   Tangoral dropped down to the lower terraces. He could see where the hard-shells returned to the ground. Their tracks and the path they beat were easy to follow from high in the trees, and follow it he did. It was midday when he caught up with the hunting party, eight hard-shells. He could hear their chatter and see the bodies that were taken as trophies. Tangoral followed them with the stealth of a gentle wind at their back. As he followed a plan formed in his head. A band of stalkers lived up ahead in the direction they were heading. If I wait for the hard-shells to stop for the night and if the stalkers will follow me… Even as the light faded, and as the hunting party began to set up camp, Tangoral raced through the forest in search of the band of stalkers that lived at the base of a tree not far from where the hard-shells had stopped for the night. Hungry stalkers would hunt at night, and a band of them would most likely be hungry. Tangoral hoped they were very hungry.

   High in the mid-terraces Tangoral watched the stalkers. Massive creatures as wide as two men standing side by side with six arms and two legs, all claws and teeth. Most were taller than he was with his arms up and standing on his toes, but not by much. He knew this band well and remained well out of reach until he was certain he could account for all of them. It would not do to become dinner. He only wanted to lead them to a really good evening meal. In one arm Tangoral held several pieces of rotten fruit he had picked up on the way. He dropped toward the stalkers, and landed silently on a branch just above their camp. He let fly the fruit striking several stalkers in the face. “Now that I have your attention, would you please follow me to dinner,” Tangoral shouted. A band of twenty enraged stalkers took after what they thought would be an easy meal.

   It had just turned dark when Tangoral returned to the hard-shell camp. The stalkers still followed, he could hear them moving through the trees and along the ground. They were spread out behind him. There are two ways to lose stalkers; one was to go higher into the trees. It was almost too late for that; the stalkers were already above him. The other way was to show them another meal.

   Fires of the camp burned brightly when Tangoral ran through the hard-shell’s camp. The hunters were startled to see a tree dweller in their camp. A few of them managed to get off a couple wild shots missing Tangoral completely. Tangoral stopped after reaching the other side of the camp and the safety of the forest. Turning back he yelled, “Welcome to your dinner my brothers of the forest.” This drew the attention of the hard-shells as they emptied their guns in the direction of Tangoral. Huge chunks flew from the tree behind which Tangoral had taken cover. The exploding projectiles the hard-shell used in their guns sought a new victim. So intent on Tangoral the hard-shells never saw the stalkers that came up silently behind them.

   Tangoral watched from high in the trees. The stalkers dropped on the hard-shells from the trees crushing them to the ground with their great bodies. Eye poles and legs were ripped from the bodies of the hard-shell as the stalkers began to dance about tormenting their new prey. A stalker would leap on a hard-shell’s back, rip another leg off and jump off avoiding the claws in a kind of primitive dance that left the hard-shells legless in a matter of moments. Once the hard-shells no longer had legs to stand on the dance slowed and the stalkers then began to break the claws off slowly. Morning would find some of the hard-shells still alive, legless, clawless, and if they were lucky, blind. Morning would also find Tangoral long gone.

   

   All the people that remained gathered together to decide what would be done. The men sat in the inner circle and the women sat in the outer circle. Tangoral sat in the council of men and waited as the men discussed what they would do. Togatan favored moving deeper into the forest. Dontowla wanted to find a grandfather tree. Sogarlac embraced Tangoral’s plan, but Tangoral’s plan was filled with known and unknown dangers. Tangoral had suggested that they move into the Great Swamp.

   “We should find a grandfather tree,” Dontowla began. “We could carve out the inside, and once inside we would be invisible to the hard-shells.”

   “Yes, we would be invisible, but we would also be more easily trapped and killed,” Tangoral replied. “You know what a fire in a grandfather tree would do. If the hard-shells set fire to the tree we would all die from the smoke.”

   “If we moved deeper into the forest the hard-shells wouldn’t find us,” Togatan said trying to press his point.

   “That was the hope when we moved here,” Sogarlac said quietly.

   “Where is there a place that hard-shells will not follow in time?” asked Tangoral. “By moving into the Great Swamp we move to a place where the hard-shells don’t like go and are afraid go.”

   “With good reason,” Togatan replied. “The dangers of the swamp are well known.”

   “We need not go deep into the Great Swamp. We will just go far enough to be beyond the reach of the hard-shells.”

   “And well within the reach of the long necks,” Dontowla added.

   “Long necks are good food and easily killed,” Tangoral replied. “The tree I am thinking of is a lot like a grandfather tree. The trunk split into five pieces at mid-level and rises as tall as any grandfather tree.”

   “I should like to see you easily kill a long neck,” Togatan said.

   “You missed your chance Togatan; I killed one five days ago. If you watched how a stalker kills a long neck you would know how easy it is.”

   “Long necks are not the only dangers in the Great Swamp child,” Togatan replied reminding Tangoral of his standing in the circle of men.

   “I know the dangers better than you Togatan. I’ve traveled deeper into the Great Swamp than any of the People would dare. I’ve seen creatures that long necks run from in mortal fear. I know well the dangers, but with the hard-shells weapons we should have little to fear.”

   “How do you plan to get the hard-shell weapons?” asked Dontowla.

   “I know of eight hard-shells that have no use for their weapons right now,” Tangoral replied smiling a toothy smile.

   “We have no leader and the tribe is broken,” Sogarlac began. “A man must do what he thinks is right for himself and his family. Myself and what remains of my family will follow Tangoral. He may be a child on the verge of manhood, but he possesses great knowledge and wisdom for his age.”

   “Then you are a fool Sogarlac. What man would follow a child into danger,” spat Togatan. Togatan had never liked Tangoral. He always felt a bit intimidated by a child that was more intelligent and cleaver than he was or thought himself to be. “If we follow Tangoral we will follow him to our deaths. I can understand your willingness to follow him Sogarlac. You owe him your life, but the rest of us do not need a child to tell us how to die.”

   “Yes, I owe Tangoral my life. If he had not disturbed the nest of the small floaters that sting we would both be a stalker’s dinner. I know Tangoral well. He is quick in thought and slow to speak words in haste. I would rather follow a child possessed of great knowledge and wisdom than an elder of the people who had none,” Sogarlac retorted with a touch of anger at the veiled insult he had been given and replied with an insult of his own.

   “Togatan do what you must. I cannot tell another what he should do. Any that wish to follow you can do so, but understand that the hard-shells are everywhere and take care. We will go three days along the edge of the Great Swamp and a half a day straight into it,” Tangoral said as he got up and walked away.

   Sogarlac got up and followed him. A few moments later Dontowla got to his feet and followed after Tangoral and Sogarlac. Many others arose and followed Tangoral and Sogarlac. Tangoral glanced at Ashorah and as their eyes met she smiled. Tangoral’s heart raced as he quickly looked away. Ashorah smiled even more when her father got up and followed Tangoral signifying whom he would follow. In the end only a few men and their families remained with Togatan.

   

   Tangoral sent Sogarlac ahead with the main body of their tribe. He was to wait at the edge of the Great Swamp for Tangoral to catch up. Tangoral took ten men with him to collect the weapons of the dead hard-shells. When they looked down on the remains of the hunter’s camp late in the day, stalkers were still about. Though there was still much food remaining the stalkers would return to their camp at night. You could share a meal with a stalker if you waited until nightfall to steal his food. Tangoral waited longer than needed, but it was best to be on the side of caution. The moons’ light that filters down through the trees is little or nothing, but the creatures of the forest were well adapted. The tree dwellers could see almost as well at night as they could in the daylight.

   Legs and claws of the hard-shells littered the ground. A few hard-shells were still alive and some of the men wanted to roast them right there. Tangoral reminded them that revenge was best served by the stalkers who would slowly eat them alive. Quickly Tangoral and the men with him flipped the hard-shells that had not already been turn over by the stalkers. Cutting through the cement that held the guns to the bottom shell was not as easy as Tangoral imagined. Most of the night was spent by the time they had freed the last gun and collected the remaining ammo and other things from the hard-shells’ pouches glued to their bottom shell. Tangoral was thankful that the night was uneventful as they all climbed back up into the trees.

   

   Sogarlac waited at the edge of the Great Swamp for Tangoral. Many long necks passed beneath the spot where Tangoral told him to wait with the tribe. So far they had been lucky that the long necks had not caught their scent, but luck had just run out. A large long neck was slowly coming up the tree. It was not very hungry or it would be coming up the tree much faster than its present leisurely rate. The men of the tribe were readying their long spears; there was nowhere to run with so many people. Sogarlac wondered how many would be killed as he gripped his long spear a little tighter. Slowly the long neck wound its way up the tree, branch by branch until it was just a few branches below them. “Get ready,” Sogarlac yelled. Long spears became a brisling wall on which the long neck must impale itself. The next moments would live in Sorgarlac’s mind forever.

   The long neck probed the tribe’s defense getting stuck with a spear a time or two for its efforts. It began to move out and around the obstacle. The men changed their position to match its moves. As the long neck changed branches well out or reach of the spears a creature fell on its head and seem to hold onto the head for dear life. It was then that Sogarlac realized that the creature was Tangoral. Tangoral drove his knifes deep into the eye sockets and then jumped for the nearest branch. The only thing that prevented the then dead long neck from falling to the ground was its coils around lower branches. Just how easily the deed was accomplished amazed everyone and Sogarlac felt that his faith in Tangoral was vindicated.

   “Just in time for dinner,” Tangoral said coming toward Sogarlac walking along the branch on which he stood.

   “Not a moment too soon either,” Sogarlac replied. The women of the tribe began to climb down to skin and otherwise prepare the long neck to be added to the stores of food; replacing that which was lost in the fire. “We shall eat well for many nights to come.”

   “Just one of the bounties of the swamp if you know how to harvest it,” Tangoral said. “We need to leave as soon as possible. We have to reach the tree before nightfall.”

   “We should stay and reap your harvest.”

   “The creatures that eat the flesh of the dead are more numerous in the swamp, and they are far braver than the same creatures in the forest. Most of them come out only at night.”

   “Oh,” was all Sogarlac could say.

   “We can rejoice for this small victory later tonight, but there is much work to be done and it needs to be done quickly if we are to live in safety where no others would go,” Tangoral said.

   “Take only what you can carry and be quick,” Sogarlac yelled down to the women. “Tangoral says we must reach the tree before the sun sets.”

   “It’s a shame to waste all this good food,” one of the women yelled back.

   “Tangoral can kill another long neck later,” Sogarlac yelled back. He smiled at Tangoral. “Am I lying?”

   “No, but I think the next time you can have the honor of the kill,” Tangoral smiled back.

   “Where are the others?”

   “Not far behind me. I came ahead when I heard the commotion. We’d have been here sooner but the hard-shells did not give up their secrets easily and they had many things that we brought with us. That more than anything slowed us,” replied Tangoral.

   The women peeled the skin from the long neck and cut it into large sections for all to carry. They wrapped the meat they cut out in each section. It was a well-laden group that set out to go where none of the People or hard-shells would dare go. Tangoral led the way searching for the tree he saw only once a long time ago. Sogarlac stayed with the tribe urging them on and trying to keep their mind off where they were. The stories told of the Great Swamp were to frighten small children, but stories told long enough could become facts in the minds of adults. Some of those facts had their base in reality.

   It was late in the afternoon when the tribe reached the tree. The trunk was larger than anyone had ever seen before. Seven of the largest long necks end to end could not cross it in a straight line. It broke into five pieces about mid-terrace; each a great tree in itself. To say this was not a normal tree would be understating the obvious. This was and was not a grandfather tree. No tree like this had ever been seen by any of the members of the tribe except Tangoral. “We will build inside its arms. Arms that will wrap around us and protect us from both the dangers of the swamp and the hard-shells,” Tangoral said aloud to himself but all the tribe heard his words in the silence of the moment.

   

   Later in the night as the fires of the tribe burned bright Tangoral spoke to Sogarlac and the council of men. “We shall not build as we have done before. On the outer edges of each platform, we will build walls strong enough to keep out a large long neck. Where the great arms of the tree meet we will place a small platform and mount five of the hard-shells’ weapons on it. The remaining three weapons will be placed on the top platform. An opening with a ladder will be made through the center of all the platforms except the bottom platform. This will help to keep our people from becoming trapped on any given level. Other openings should be made between platforms as well.”

   “Sogarlac shall be our leader. It is not right that you should be led by one who is not yet a man. Nor do I wish to be your leader. He will listen to your counsel and decide the best path. I would advise that you go out and study the Great Swamp that you may be prepared to face the dangers here. There are many creatures as dangerous as any long neck. There are great floaters on the wind that can carry you off in the night or during the day for that matter. There are many more dangers that you should discover before they discover you.”

   “Why should Sogarlac get to be our leader? It should be decided by the council of men?” asked Dontowla. Deep inside he desired to be the leader.

   “Because he does not wish to be the leader. Any who desire to lead should follow. Anyone who desires to lead does not have the best interest of the tribe in his heart, but his own welfare will come first. A true leader will take charge reluctantly and will stand fast in times of trouble,” Tangoral replied. The other men nodded their heads in agreement.

   “You sound as though you are not going to stay with us Tangoral,” Sogarlac said.

   “No, I’m not…” There was a general murmuring of surprise among the men that sat in the council.

   “Why?” asked Sogarlac.

   “I am going to go and study the hard-shells until I know everything about them. I will study them until I can speak their language and sing their songs. I will study them until I learn all their hidden secrets and how to make their weapons, and when I am done with studying, I will destroy all of them with their own knowledge,” Tangoral replied grimly.

   

~~~

   

   Zothor was not pleased as he watched another group of hunters approach the clan dwelling. As they got closer he could tell this was not a hunting party as such. The double guns under their shells spoke more of war than a group of hunters. If they were of another clan he might have been concerned, but they were of the clan, but not of the dwelling. Best to offer refreshments outside, he thought.

   “Greetings my brothers. Come be refreshed,” Zothor greeted them as they stopped before him. Others of the dwelling had already set out refreshments on a table.

   “We thank our brothers for your warm welcome,” replied the leader of the band. He signaled the other members of the band to take refreshment.

   “What brings you so far from your dwelling all arrayed for war? Are we at war with another clan?”

   “Be at peace my brother. We are not at war. A hunting party that came this way has not returned to their dwelling. We go in search of them. If you could aid us in our search it would be most helpful.”

   This was not good. “I will guide you myself,” Zothor said. He looked over at Grizzon. “Get three of our best soldiers. Tell them to arm for war and bring me two heavy guns as well,” he whispered.

   “We are most grateful for your warm welcome and your help,” the leader of the band of would be rescuers replied.

   

   The track was easily followed. The hunters Zothor now tracked were very clumsy. They made a path any fool could follow even though many days had past. It was a day and a half before they found the burned out tree dwellers’ hive. It was a quick climb up to the hive. Zothor saw dried blood all over the floor of the hive. It was one thing to hunt for food or sport, but the senseless killing of all the tree dwellers that must have died in this hive was very upsetting to Zothor. He could tell his soldiers were upset as well. This was a thing with out honor. Zothor could see that Tangalen was right. Because it was safer than being on the ground they made their camp in what remained of the hive for the night. Zothor and his soldiers sat apart from the others that night. They sat in silence to honor the dead that died needlessly. The others of their group chattered on unaware of the eyes that watched them.

   It took a little time before they found where the hunters regrouped after their attack on the hive. By midday they came across the remains of the hunting party. Zothor almost lost what little he had eaten for breakfast. All the color had drained from his soldiers and they looked as pale as he felt. Some of the others must have been city dwellers. They lost not only their color but their breakfast as well. Legs and claws broken open littered the ground. Shells of the main bodies were hollow cases.

   “Tree dwellers,” someone said.

   “No, stalkers,” replied Zothor. “Tree dwellers would not leave this kind of a mess, nor are there any fires. Tree dwellers like their food cooked. They also would not break open the legs like this. Our brothers were killed and eaten by stalkers of that there is no doubt.”

   “Where are the guns and the personal effects?” the leader of the band asked.

   “Those were taken by tree dwellers most likely,” Zothor replied. “I’ve seen a few footprints of tree dwellers, but most of the footprints belong to the stalkers.”

   “Why take the guns,” Zothor heard someone ask.

   “Tree dwellers are metal poor. Any metal must be of great worth to them,” he replied.

   “It was a great risk to take them before the stalkers were finished with their meal,” one of Zothor’s soldiers said.

   

   Tangoral watched the hard-shells with Sogarlac and another hunter that accompanied him. He recognized Zothor and his soldiers. The others were unknown to him. He had no love for the hard-shells but he was a little fond of Zothor and those at his home. Also, his plan revolved around Zothor being alive. Stalkers were coming, in another few moments Zothor and all the other hard-shells would suffer the same fate as the hunters. Tangoral broke off a branch and threw it as hard as he could.

   

   Something hard bounced off Zothor’s shell. Startled he spun around looking for what he did not quite know. This is not a place for jokes, he thought as he looked all around. “Oh, no,” he said to himself and looked up. On a branch high up he saw two adult tree dwellers and a child, teenager really. The child simply pointed into the forest. “We leave now,” he yelled.

   “What?” someone asked.

   One word was all he would spare, “Stalkers!” Zothor turned and fled into the forest and away from the direction that the tree dweller had pointed. His soldiers followed in his wake. He knew his guns could kill a stalker, but it would take a while before a stalker would realize he was supposed to be dead. By then you could be just as dead as well. He had not gone far when he began to hear the sounds of rapid gunfire. Zothor turned and faced the sound readying his guns. One of the soldiers, Doesen, stopped with him. The other two soldiers, Tragal and Candean, rushed past them but they did not go far before they too turned. Once they were set Zothor and Doesen turned and ran. They ran past Tragal and Candean a little ways before they stopped and readied themselves to give cover fire for the two soldiers now running towards them.

   Even as Tragal and Candean ran past another clan brother appeared from behind a tree root with a stalker on his back. Zothor fired both his guns hitting the stalker in the head. Its head exploded but the stalker still did not give up its grip on the clan brother. The guns behind him began to spit out their small messengers of death at the stalkers coming through the trees. Zothor turned and began to run again. It was a running battle made worse by the clan brother with the dead stalker still clinging to his shell. They were obliged to help him and that slowed their progress. Zothor was very tired and he was trying hard not to think what was happening to the others. Their guns were silenced long ago. Even as he thought the stalkers had given up he began to fire again at several of the great green beasts moving along the ground and through the trees. It can’t get much worse, he thought.

   “Clan Leader, I’m running low on ammo,” Doesen said. Zothor counted his remaining ammo quickly. He too was low on ammo, lower than he thought. Zothor prayed and then looked up. Above him were the tree dwellers. Zothor waived his right claw and then pointed toward the stalkers. The young tree dweller held up two fingers and pointed in two directions and then pointed to the ground.

   “Two more stalkers are coming along the ground,” Zothor said. “Hold your fire until you have a clear target.” Zothor turned in the direction he was shown and waited. He did not have to wait long. The stalkers came out from behind a couple nearby tree roots and rushed straight for them. Zothor began shooting. Great gapping holes appeared in the stalkers’ chest and still they kept coming. Other guns began firing as Zothor began to backup still firing the twin guns that hung below his shell. The stalkers died within reach of his claws; it was a good thing too. He was out of ammo. “Let’s get a count on our ammo. I’m out,” he said.

   

   “Why do you help the hard-shells Tangoral?” asked Sogarlac. He came with Tangoral to see that he got where he was going safely, and too, perhaps talk him out of this foolish quest he was going on.

   “That hard-shell is the leader of the hard-shell home where I am going,” Tangoral replied pointing at one of the hard-shells. “I must be able to get closer to the hard-shells than I have ever gotten. To learn their language I must be able to go among them. That hard-shell has a good heart I think, and saving him will help me get close to them.”

   Sogarlac could see how Tangoral’s plan might work, if the hard-shells were honorable. Sogarlac had little respect for hard-shell honor. He had lost a son in the raid on their home. The hard-shells were looking around and chattering to each other. If he did not know better he would swear the hard-shells were lost and said so. “Tangoral, I think they’re lost.”

   “You know, I think your right,” Tangoral said after a moment of observation.

   “Now, I suppose you’ll want to go take them by the claw and lead them home,” Sogarlac said snidely.

   “Yeah, well, now I suppose I am,” Tangoral laughed and then he started down the tree.

   “Tangoral wait, I was just kidding,” Sogarlac yelled. He did not wish to see his young friend killed before his eyes. Still, the better part of valor dictated that he stay right where he was.

   

   There were not a dozen rounds of ammo between the five of them. That was the bad news. The good news was that they finally managed to remove the dead stalker from their clan brother’s back. He was hurt but not badly. The only thing that made things worse was that they were lost. “We will never get out of here alive,” said the clan brother. “We are hopelessly lost.”

   “Brother…”

   “Kobeta.”

   “Brother Kobeta, we are alive, and I intend that we stay that way,” Zothor said

   “We’re not really lost either,” Doesen added. “We just don’t know where we are right now.”

   “I wonder what happened to the others.” Candean said.

   “They’re all dead. Just like the hunters we came in search of,” replied Kobeta. “They were on us only moments after Zothor shouted his warning. We waited too long trying to sense what Zothor had sensed. I was closest to you and followed you when the stalkers attacked. We tried to get some shots off but that didn’t even slow them down. It was horrible, so horrible… They ripped legs off some of the other brothers. It was horrible, I ran, I didn’t want to die… It was so horrible… I just left them there, but… it was just so horrible…”

   “Take deep breaths brother. You’re starting to go into shock,” Tragal said.

   “Brother Kobeta, we all ran from death this day. I had only a little warning and I was the first to run,” Zothor said to try and comfort Kobeta. “Sometimes when certain death is coming it is everyone for himself.”

   “But you helped me,” Kobeta said.

   “Only because we could, if you were beyond help I would not have wasted the ammo,” Zothor replied.

   “So now do we wander about until we find where we are?” Tragal asked.

   “One direction as good as another I say we keep going the way we are,” Doesen said.

   “Then go that way,” Candean said pointing back the way they came with his claw. “I’ll be right behind you dear brother.”

   “Clan Leader, which way do we go?” asked Tragal.

   “Nowhere, we will wait for help to come,” said Zothor.

   “Wait for help! We would starve long before then,” said Kobeta very disturbed.

   “We would not starve brother and help is closer than you could imagine,” replied Zothor.

   “Help is at least two days away Clan Leader. It will be four days before they send out search parties,” Doesen said.

   “Clan Leader, don’t move. There is a small tree dweller behind you,” Tragal said a bit alarmed. All eyes suddenly came around to stare at the tree dweller.

   “I know,” Zothor said simply.

   “You know?” Tragal said with some surprise.

   “We can go home now.” Zothor turned and faced the young tree dweller and pointed in different directions with his right claw. The tree dweller turned and pointed along the direction that they were going and a little to the right. “We go that way,” he said.

   “You’re not going to follow this tree dweller are you?” Kobeta asked a bit concerned.

   “Yes, I am.”

   “More likely were on our way to dinner,” quipped Candean.

   “As the main course too I bet,” Doesen added.

   “Take care of the words you speak of your brother. You all already owe him your life this day. It was his warning that saved us. I am a good tracker, but not so good this day. I should have realized that the stalkers could still be near the area of so recent a kill. We would all still be alive right now if I had remembered that,” Zothor said sternly.

   “A tree dweller, our brother,” Kobeta said in disbelief. “He’s not my brother, not unless I’m related to a rothar.”

   “He is your brother if you are honorable, or does the tree dweller that saved our lives and now leads us home have more honor than you?” Zothor asked. Kobeta did not know how to reply. He had not looked at it as a matter of honor.

   “How do you pay a debt of honor to an enemy?” Kobeta asked after a few moments of silence.

   “How do you know he is an enemy?” Zothor responded. Kobeta now how more to ponder than he desired. Two simple questions kicked the bottom out of his perception of the world.

   “Sogarlac,” Tangoral yelled.

   “Yes,” came the response from high in the trees.

   “Get a group of men and get the dead hard-shells’ things.”

   “Tangoral, where do you want the guns set up,” Sogarlac yelled down.

   “On the top platform and anywhere else you see fit,” Tangoral replied. Tangoral turned and waved at Zothor to follow him and started off at a trot.

   “We’re going now,” Zothor said.

   “He’s in a hurry, isn’t he,” Doesen noted.

   “Fast enough to suit me, I can’t get out of this part of the forest fast enough,” Tragal said as he started to follow after Zothor. Kobeta just looked at Doesen as he stepped in behind Tragal.

   “Hey, don’t look at me Doesen. I’d like to see him go a little faster, but if you want to take your time you can bring up the rear,” Candean said as he jumped in front of Doesen.

   Tangoral kept up his pace for a half day before slowing. He could have kept going at the same rate all day, but the hard-shells were tiring, especially the wounded one. Zothor came up and walked along side Tangoral. The others were too deep in their own thoughts to talk and too tired to do more than set one leg next to the other. Zothor was wondering if the tree dweller could be taught to talk. So he pointed at a bush with his claw and said, “Bush.” Tangoral looked at Zothor like he was crazy. Zothor pointed again at a similar bush and said, “Bush.”

   Tangoral understood what Zothor was trying to do. Tangoral pointed at another bush. “Bush,” he said and then he tried to make the sounds that he heard Zothor make. Zothor was elated, the tree dweller totally mispronounced the word but it was close. He was a father with children and none of his children got the words right the fist time they spoke either.

   Zothor pointed at another bush and slowly said, “Bush.” Then he tried to repeat the word the tree dweller used. Tangoral was so pleased to find the hard-shell such a willing teacher. He repeated the word several time before he thought he had it right.

   “Tree,” Tangoral said pointing at a tree.

   “Tree,” Zothor said and then he tried the tree dweller’s word. Back and forth, this went on like a child’s game.

   Both were enjoying the moment when Tangoral raised his hand. “Stop,” he said.

   Zothor repeated the word, “stop.” Tangoral laughed and pointed at one of the great trees whose roots had lifted out of the ground. Then he pointed at the sun which was almost down. “We’re stopping for the night,” Zothor announced. The roots formed a cage that would protect them through the night.

   “I was beginning to think he would never stop,” complained Tragal as he collapsed where he stood.

   “Hey, you’re the one that wanted to go faster,” Doesen said settling to the ground slowly.

   “No, I’m not. Candean is the one that wanted to go faster,” Tragal replied. They both looked at Candean. He was still standing but his legs looked a little wobbly.

   “Candean lay down before you fall down,” Doesen shouted. If looks could kill Doesen would have died right there.

   Kobeta brought up the rear. He had been trailing the group most of the day. Hurt, tired, and a little depressed as he was watching a crack grow on one of his front leg shell casings. He wondered when it might give out. This was no place to have a broken leg. Slowly he settled to the ground taking care not to put any pressure on his leg.

   “Look at the dwelling clan leader. He looks like all he’s done is take a stroll in a park. How does he do it?” Doesen asked. Zothor was not a young Brachyura anymore, but he wasn’t really old either.

   “I suspect it’s one of those things that come with being a dwelling clan leader. They make us look like shunail dribble by making hard things look easy,” Candean said as he dropped to the ground next to Doesen and Tragal.

   “I think it’s a little more than just being dwelling clan leader. I think it’s the dwelling clan leader’s outlook on life. If we had a dozen dwelling clan leaders here, Zothor would still be walking around looking like he just got out of bed; while the other dwelling clan leaders would be lying here next to us gasping for air,” Tragal reflected.

   “This is one of the reasons why Zothor is our dwelling clan leader. He inspires us even in our defeats,” Doesen said. Tragal and Candean agreed with Doesen. Their respect for Zothor was elevated and in their hearts they knew they would lay down their lives gladly for their dwelling clan leader.

   “Tragal, Doesen, Candean, you’re on fire wood detail. We need enough to last the night,” Zothor said authoritatively. “Kobeta, brother, how are you holding up?” Zothor was concerned Kobeta did not look well. Zothor regretted he could not save the others. Part of him wanted to stay and fight, but to stand and fight an unknown number of stalkers was certain death. It would take a small canon to stop a stalker. There were tales of Brachyura who stood in the face of certain death and conquered. Then there were tales of those that died gloriously. Right now, Zothor did not feel their equal.

   “I have seen better days Clan Leader,” Kobeta replied. “I fear one of my legs may be about to break.” This was not good news.

   Zothor moved closer to get a better look for himself. It was as Kobeta said. The leg would probably break sometime the next day. “I could cut it off now or we could help you along, but in the end I fear you’re right. It will break sometime tomorrow. I’m sorry,” was all Zothor could find to say.

   Tangoral watched Zothor talk to the wounded hard-shell. It was some concern about a leg was all he could make out from the conversation. He walked over for a closer look. The crack was on the second leg from the front on the right side. It ran down the upper leg shell casing, and started to wrap around the leg about two hand spans from the base of the leg. There was another crack in the back right leg as well. Tangoral knew this hard-shell would not make the trek the next day. Tangoral pointed at the rear leg. Zothor walked around to get a better look at what Tangoral was pointing at. “Kobeta you have a crack in a rear leg as well,” he said.

   “Clan Leader, you should leave me,” Kobeta said as he began to have visions of his own death.

   “We will not leave you. I could send the tree dweller and one of my soldiers for help. The rest of us would stay with you.”

   “I thank you for your kindness but it would place those that stayed in added danger.”

   “We are all going home together or not at all,” Zothor said firmly.

   About that time Tragal returned with a load of wood. Tangoral saw the wood and wondered if what works on his own people would work on hard-shells. It will take more wood and it will need to be wrapped tighter, but it should work, he thought. Tangoral pushed Zothor back out of the way so he could get a better look at Kobeta’s front leg.

   “What does the tree dweller think he’s doing?” Kobeta asked. Movement was out of the question.

   “I have no idea,” Zothor replied. He was wondering the same thing.

   Tangoral walked over to the woodpile and selected a dozen small pieces about two fingers thick and a little longer than his arm. He walked back and dropped the wood in front of Kobeta and went back to the tree and began to climb up. Tangoral was gone for only a few moments. By the time he returned it was almost dark. Candean and Doesen had just returned with their respective loads of wood. Tangoral had brought back some vines and large leaves with him. By this time Tragal, Candean, and Doesen were apprised of the situation.

   “Looks like he’s going to cook him,” Doesen said.

   “Don’t be ridiculous. There’s not enough wood to make a good fire,” said Candean. Zothor shot them both a look that said you’re not helping the situation.

   Kobeta watched the tree dweller with a certain amount apprehension. Tangoral first wrapped the front leg with some of the leaves and small vines he had brought down from the trees. Next, he placed eight of the sticks he had selected around and against the leg and tied them on. The sticks were as long as Kobeta’s upper leg, and spanned beyond the cracks in his leg. When Tangoral finished with the front leg he started on the rear leg doing the same thing as he did to the front leg except he did not use as much wood. When he was done he walked over to Zothor and got him to turn towards the tree. Tangoral patted the protruding gun barrel and then walked over and patted a spot on the tree. Zothor was not quite sure what Tangoral wanted. He thought the tree dweller just asked him to shoot the tree, but he might be wrong. Tangoral walked back to stand next to Zothor. Zothor just stood there not sure what to do. Tangoral stood there for just a few moments and then reached under Zothor’s shell and pulled the trigger so fast Zothor did not have time to react. Everybody jumped at the sound of the blast from the gun and the explosion as the projectile struck the tree.

   The tree was already bleeding by the time Tangoral reached the hole that the gun made in the tree. The great trees pumped a lot of sap through its many branches high in the air. Tangoral knew he would have to work quickly. The sap dried quickly on contact with the air. First he dipped the remaining leaves in the sap and then rush back over to Kobeta and wrapped the two broken legs with the sap-covered leaves. Next, he ran back and dipped one of the vines he cut in the sap starting to pool at the base of the tree. Rushing back, he began to wrap the front leg. Working rapidly, Tangoral wrapped the broken section of the leg solid with the vine. The back leg was not as bad as the front leg so he did not think it needed the added reinforcement. Tangoral stood back admiring his handiwork peeling the drying sap from his hands. The sap wrap alone was enough to repair most minor broken bones that any of his tribe might acquire. The sap would be rock hard by morning. The tree had almost sealed itself already, so he did not need to heal the tree.

   Zothor was amazed. This support for the leg would not only help support the leg but would allow it to heal as well. All the legs we’ve cut off needlessly, he thought. This was a thing never before seen in the history of the Brachyura. With reinforcing sand-spit might work just as well. This offered his dwelling great status if it worked. New technology was always worth much. This was just one small example of what could come of tree dwellers and the Brachyura working together. Zothor had vision of what the future could hold in store for both races and it forever set him on the path he would take for the rest of his life.

   “It looks a little weird but I think it will work,” Kobeta said. He too was changed by the moment. “I still find it hard to call the tree dweller brother, but I shall forever call him friend.”

   Tragal walked over and poked at the cast gently with his claw. “It will get as hard as any shell,” he said.

   “I would still take it easy on those legs tomorrow. We will go slowly, I hope,” Doesen added.

   “Yesterday, I would have said tree dwellers were without honor living in trees as other animals. Today, I am proved wrong and face a debt of honor I may never repay,” Candean said. “I shall be honored to call him brother.”

   Fires burned bright throughout the night. Each of the Brachyura took his turn at watch giving each of them a chance to ponder the day’s events alone. Thoughts filled the night transforming the thinkers into new creatures. Morning brought a renewal of the previous day’s trek. The going was hard, but the effort was rewarded late in the day. Only Zothor and Tangoral seemed unaffected by the day’s march engrossed as they were in teaching the other the language of their race. The others were an exhausted battered looking group that stepped out of the forest and into one of the outer pastures of the dwelling and clan of Zothor.

   “I thought for sure I’d never see our dwelling again,” Doesen said, the relief in his voice quite apparent.

   “I never had a doubt,” Tragal said. “Our dwelling clan leader was with us, and he has never failed us. We snatched victory from our defeat with guidance from our dwelling clan leader. May it ever be so.” A prayer of thanksgiving rendered.

   “May it ever be so,” Candean fervently agreed.

   “Indeed, may it ever be so,” seconded Kobeta.

   “So it shall it ever be,” Doesen added to finish the round of amen, giving thanks that was the custom of the Brachyura.

   

   Sogarlac watched with interest the hard-shells that Tangoral led through the forest floor. How one could become lost was beyond him, but then he had lived his whole life in the trees. Tangoral waived good-by to him as did the hard-shells. Sogarlac watched as Tangoral walked away with the hard-shells and then he turned towards home. He wondered if he would ever see Tangoral again. Sogarlac smiled, probably, he answered himself. There was much to do. He would follow Tangoral’s instructions the best he could.

   

   There was much joy with Zothor’s return and much talk. Zothor and his soldiers had returned with a tree dweller. A simple dinner was quickly planned to celebrate their safe return, but such times of great joy a thanksgiving dinner was rarely simple. The story would be told and thanks given for the safe return of their brothers. Such is the joy of finding that which is lost among the Brachyura. That Zothor was telling the story was of great relief to many of the clan. The telling would be quick and to the point. Doesen on the other claw would take note of every blade of grass that passed under his shell, that is to say he was long winded. One of the greatest interests was the casts on Kobeta’s legs. Crude though they were, he displayed them with pride. This and the tree dweller were of the most interest to the clan and to Tangalen in particular.

   Zothor once again stood in the center of the great hall. The clan gathered about him to hear the story of his safe return. The thanksgiving prayer would follow and that would be followed by the presentation of a newly adopted member of the clan. “My brothers and sisters of the clan,” Zothor began. “We are gathered to give thanks for the safe return of myself, Doesen, Tragal, Candean, and Kobeta. We give thanks to the Creator of this world on which we live for sparing our lives. Except for the intervention of providence, we too would now lie with our fallen brethren. We went in search of lost brethren and became lost ourselves. This is the story of our defeat and our salvation.”

   “A group of seven brothers of the clan came in search of a hunting party that passed through our lands and did not return to their dwelling. I thought it best to guide them in their search. Brother Kobeta was one of the group of seven. I followed the tracks of the hunters. The path they made was plain to see even though many days had passed. We followed them to an empty hive that once belonged to a tribe of tree dwellers a few days earlier. The hunters burned the hive and must have killed many tree dwellers as they fled the fire. Again, we followed the path they made. It led close to the edge of the Great Swamp where we found our lost brothers. They were killed and eaten by stalkers just a few days before.”

   “I was looking about when something struck my shell. I realized my error and looked up in fear. I was relieved to see the young tree dweller that saved my son with two other tree dwellers standing next to him high in the trees. The tree dweller simply pointed in the direction of the swamp. I shouted a warning, turned and ran for my life. Tragal, Doesen, and Candean followed me, the others did not. Stalkers overwhelmed the others of which only Brother Kobeta escaped with a stalker still clinging to his shell. I killed the stalker on his back but it did not let go. We retreated back into the forest and away from the Great Swamp. Most of the day we ran from pursuing stalkers, shooting at them as we ran deeper into the forest. At that time I looked up to see if the tree dwellers followed us, they had. The young tree dweller signaled me that only two stalkers continued to follow us and from what direction. I stopped and waited. I did not have to wait long. The stalkers charged us and we killed them but not before we used up most of our ammo. We were then able to remove the dead stalker from Kobeta’s shell.”

   “We ran so far and so fast we did not take note of the direction in which we ran,” Zothor continued. “Looking around we found that we were lost. It was the young tree dweller that led us home. He also fixed Brother Kobeta’s legs when it was discovered that his legs were badly fractured and would have broken before long. The debt of honor that I owe this young tree dweller is growing and is beyond my ability to pay,” Zothor finished.

   The prayer of thanksgiving fell to Tangalen being the oldest of the clan, the patriarch and the Church’s representative among the clan. “Almighty Father of all creation,” he began. “We gather together to give thanks for the rescue and safe return of our brothers. We acknowledge Your hand in keeping our brothers safe and guiding them home through great perils. Indeed, we acknowledge Your hand, oh Great Father of us all, in all things. We give thanks for the bounties that You give to us daily. We give thanks that we have enough and more that we can share with our brothers. We give thanks for the leader You have given us. We are grateful for the wisdom and kindness with which he leads us. Guide him as he guides us. Lead us in the path of honor and right and help us to not find fault with our brothers and sisters. Fill us with love that we may be quick to forgive and slow to anger. Be ever close to us, oh Great Father, and envelop us with Your great love. May it ever be so.”

   “May it ever be so,” repeated all the brothers and sisters of the clan as one great voice rising to Heaven.

   “So it shall ever be,” Tangalen finished. Tangalen stepped back into the circle of the clan and Zothor stepped forward.

   “I now fulfill my oath of honor,” Zothor said. Surrounded by Tragal, Doesen, and Candean, Tangoral was escorted to the center of the great hall to stand next to Zothor. “I present to you my new son; adopted into my family so that I may redeem my honor for his saving the life of my son. As he is my son, he is also a brother of our clan. Who will be the first to welcome him?”

   “I welcome him as my brother,” Candean was the first to reply. “I call him brother and acknowledge a debt of honor I too owe him.”

   “I welcome my brother,” Doesen said. “I too owe a debt that I may never be able to repay to my brother.”

   Tragal spoke last. “I too call him brother and I owe the same debt as the others. I welcome him not as a new brother but as a brother long lost to us.”

   Tangalen stepped forward and stopped right in front of Tangoral. All four eyes stared intently into Tangoral’s two eyes. It seemed to Tangoral that this old hard-shell could see into his soul and he wondered what was passing through the old hard-shell’s mind. “I too see what Tragal sees,” Tangalen began. “I see a brother that was long lost to us and we to him, but there is more. I see anger and courage. I see why he has come among us, and why he will leave us. I see the time he will be lost to us wandering the forest alone. I see the time he will return to us shedding great tears of joy with us as we rejoice in his return. I see the change that will come about in his heart and then he will truly be a brother of the clan. After great trials and the Great Father of us all has purified him. I see him standing before all the Brachyura declaring his brotherhood and we with him. He shall do many mighty deeds and shall bring together all the children of the Great and Almighty Father. This is the blessing of the Father of All upon his head. May it ever be so. So it shall ever be.” Tangalen turned and faced the clan. “I too welcome our new brother.”

   The clan was stunned, never before had a blessing been given before the whole clan. Tangalen was the patriarch of the clan and he had blessed many of the clan, but always in private or in the presence of family, never before the whole clan. Even the blessing given to Zothor when he became leader was done with only a few present.

   Tangalen was suddenly struck by oddity of what he had done. Never had he done such a thing. He was so moved by the Spirit that the words just came out, they had to come out. The vision was like waves upon the sand, impossible to stop. The clan and this tree dweller were forever tied together. This tree dweller will bear watching very closely, Tangalen thought.

   


The Game of God Chapter 1     —    FOREWORD Library Index