I looked at the red sun in the sky, and then at the two barely visible small moons hanging low above the horizon. They brought a lump to my throat, and I swallowed hard. It felt good to be home again.
The first twenty years of my life I had spent traveling across the surface of Redsky or Shantra, as the natives called this planet. Number five of the twelve circling a Red Giant, 320 light years away from Homeworld.
Leaving the spaceport behind me, I walked toward Old Town, wondering if anyone would be happy to see me.
Ten years was a long time to be away. Time enough for people to forget, for wounds to heal.
Without conscious thought my hand went up to my face, touched the long, thin line running along the left side of my jaw. Some wounds never heal. Outside maybe, but not inside.
A sudden gust of wind swept along the dirt road, swirling up the yellow dust. I walked slowly; there was no need to hurry.
Above, a Yac-bird circled, looking for prey. I heard its sharp, piercing cry, and it brought back long forgotten memories. Squinting against the fiery red sun, I tried to make out the ridge of the Golgat-mountains in the hazy distance, where I had hunted the fierce Gaar. So long ago, and yet--it seemed like only yesterday.
I had walked for nearly an hour when I heard the drumming of hoofs coming from the forest to my left, and I was not surprised to see the small band bursting into the open. They reached me quickly. Their riding animals reared high as they formed a circle around me.
Back at the spaceport I had been warned. Things have changed a lot here, Griffin. There have been clashes between the settlers and the natives, and once you leave the gates you are on your own.
The guard at the gate had shrugged his shoulders when I showed him my badge. “It’s your funeral, Major. I wouldn’t go out there by myself. And certainly not on foot. Besides, it‘s a ten hour walk.”
But they could not hold me. They had no jurisdiction over me.
There were only six of them. Short, stocky males, with long, narrow, arrogant faces. Their horns were painted red; this meant they had all made their first kill.
“Terra-man,” mocked the first one, contemptuously pointing his Ginsa-staff into the sky.
The others laughed with a gurgling, frightening sound.
“Brave Terra-man,” said one.
“Or very stupid Terra-man,” said another.
I felt the hot, fetid breath of one of the animals in my neck, as its rider tried to crowd me; but I didn’t move--not yet.
“We shall eat well tonight,” laughed the first one. “He’s big. Much meat.”
“Maybe tough meat.”
They spoke the harsh dialect of the mountain tribes, but I had no trouble understanding them. Once I had spent a year among one of the tribes, when I was still a boy, and I had learned much of their ways.
They prodded me with the blunt end of their Ginsa-staffs, their yellow eyes watching my reaction, waiting for the moment when I would try to defend myself.
“Are the Sons of the Mountains so weak that they need six Stallions to spill the blood of one Terra-man?” I said mildly, keeping my hands low.
There was surprise in their leathery faces.
“The Hornless-one speaks the tongue.” He pronounced it in a way that meant less-than-a man but more-than-a-woman. A certain respect flickered in their eyes and all but one pulled their steeds back.
“Who are you, Terra-man?” he asked, drawing the three fingers of his left hand across his hairy chest. I had to suppress a smile; this fellow was superstitious. He had probably never met a Terran who spoke his language so fluently, since only a few gifted linguists could master the guttural sounds of some of the dialects.
“Beware of the Night-demon who walks fearlessly in the guise of a Sky-man,” one of them murmured, touching the tips of his horns.
“I am exactly what you see,” I said. “A man from Terra.” I made the sign that meant equal to you.
“Where did you learn to speak our tongue?” he demanded, leveling the barbed end of his staff into my direction.
Realizing it was time for some truth, I touched my lips and my forehead, careful not to make any threatening moves. “Twenty summers ago I lived with the Stag-clan of the Golgat-mountains. I was brother to Threehorn.”
One of the others exhaled sharply. “Threehorn!” he exclaimed. “I know of him. He was killed ten, no eleven summers ago. I was very young still, not a man yet. They say he was killed by a Terra-man. Nobody really knows.”
I winced as memory flooded up, like bile.
He looked at me, his yellow eyes glaring. “Even though you made the truth sign, I say you lie, Hornless-one. No Terra-man would be brother to Threehorn.” Looking defiantly at the others, he said: “I say we kill him--now!” With that he brought down his Ginsa-staff, aiming for my unprotected head.
Anticipating his attack, I had moved toward him, at the same I was reaching for his staff. I knew now these men didn’t belong to any clan; they were renegades, outcasts. Each of them wore a clan-ring in his right ear, but they were of different designs.
Earth science and those two years on the double-gravity planet in the Antares-system served me well. They had made me faster and stronger than an ordinary man. These poor devils had no chance against me.
Without effort I pulled my attacker off his mount, breaking his neck as I did so. Before the others realized what had happened I was in the saddle of the suddenly abandoned riding-animal and swinging the heavy Ginsa-staff. I drove it through the chest of one of them, at the same time cracking the skull of another with my left fist.
Seeing three of their companions dead in a matter of moments, the others hesitated.
One of them cried out: “He is the Night-demon himself, the Dark Hornless-one. We are lost.”
He turned and sped away, the bristles on his back stiff with fright.
The other two looked after him and spat. “Coward!”
I had given them time to think, not wishing to kill all of them, but they left me no choice. Parrying the first one’s thrust, I kicked him in the head with the blunt end of my staff. He fell backward, right into the point of his companion’s barbed weapon; but he was already dead, his face split open by the force of my thrust.
The last one looked at me, his yellow eyes mad with anger and fright. He dropped his Ginsa-staff and reached into his pouch for his blade. “Now I kill you, Sky-demon,” he screamed hoarsely and whipped his hand back for the throw.
I burned his head off with my blaster. His headless body tumbled off his steed and fell to the ground, without spilling a drop of blood, the wound cauterized by the searing heat. Sheathing the gun, I sighed. What I had done was not exactly legal, since the use of atomic weapons was quite restricted. Forbidden on Redsky.
But then--why take chances. There were no witnesses, anyway. Besides, I didn’t have to answer to anybody.
Up in the sky the first vultures were already gathering, eager to get on with the grisly feast. I gave the dead bodies one more glance, then I turned my mount toward Old Town. Without looking back I kicked my heels into the animal’s soft flanks.
“Welcome home,” I said to myself. “Nothing has changed.”