Back | Next

Chapter Two

The caravan was still strung out along the road when they arrived in Vonones' mud-spattered carriage. There were thirty carts, mostly loaded with only a single cage to avoid fights between the bars. Despite wind, rain and jostling, the beasts seemed less restive than in the compound. Perhaps there was a reason. The third cage from the end stood open.

Lycon stepped between a pair of carts—then ducked quickly as a taloned paw ripped through the bars at him. Disappointed, the huge tiger snarled as he hunched back in his cage.

The hunter glanced to be certain his arm was still in place. "There's one to watch out for," he cautioned Vonones. "That one was a man-killer when we captured him—and out of preference, not just because he was lame or too old to take other prey. When they turn him loose in the arena, he'll take on anything in sight."

"Maybe," muttered Vonones. "But he'd like to start with that lizard-ape. I never saw anything drive every animal around it to a killing rage the way it does. Maybe it's its scent, but at times I could swear it was somehow taunting them."

Lycon grunted noncommittally.

"Suppose I should let the rest of the caravan go on?" Vonones suggested. "They're just causing comment stopped here like this."

Lycon considered. "Why not get them off the road as much as you can and spread out. Don't let them get too far away though, because I'll need some men for this. Say, there aren't any hunting dogs here, are there?"

Vonones shook his balding head. "No, I don't often handle dogs. There's a small pack in Ostia for the local arena though. I know the trainer, and I think I can have them here by noon."

"Better do it, then," Lycon advised. "It's going to be easiest just to run the lizard-ape down and let the dogs have it. If we can pull them off in time, maybe there'll be enough left for your buyer in Rome."

"Forget the sale," Vonones urged him. "Just get that damned thing!"

But Lycon was studying the lock of the cage. It clearly had not been forced. There were only a few fine scratches on the wards.

"Any of your men mess with this?"

"Are you serious? They don't like it any better than the animals do."

"Vonones, I think it had to have opened the lock with its claws."

The merchant looked sick.

Twenty feet from the cart were the first footprints of the lizard-ape, sunk deeply into the mud of the wheat field beside the road. In the black earth their stamp was as ambiguous as the beast itself. More lizard than bird-like, Lycon decided. Long toes leading a narrow, arched foot, but with a thick, sharp-spurred heel.

"First I knew anything was wrong," explained the arm-waving driver of the next cart back, "was when this thing all of a sudden swings out of its cage and jumps into the field. Why, it could just as easy have jumped back on me—and then where would I have been, I ask you?"

Lycon did not bother to tell him. "Vonones, you've got a couple of archers in your caravan, haven't you?"

"Yes, but they weren't of any use—it was too sudden. The one in the rear of the column aimed where he could see the wheat waving, but he didn't really have a target. If only the thing had turned back on the rest of the caravan, instead of diving through the hedges! My archers would have skewered it for sure then, and I wouldn't be in this fix. Lycon, this creature is a killer! If it gets away . . ."

"All right, steady," the beastcatcher growled. "Going to pieces isn't going to help." He rose from where he knelt in the wheat.

"You won't be so self-assured once you've seen the farmer," Vonones warned.

* * *

The tenant's hut was a windowless beehive of wattle and daub, stuck up on the edge of his holdings. Huddled in the doorway, three of his children watched the strangers apathetically, numbed by the cold drizzle and their father's death.

The farmer lay about thirty yards into the field. A scythe, its rough iron blade unstained, had fallen near the body. Blank amazement still showed in his glazed eyes. A sudden, tearing thrust of the creature's taloned hands had eviscerated the man—totally, violently. He lay on his back in a welter of gore and entrails, naked ribs jagged through his ripped-open chest cavity.

Lycon studied the fragments of flesh strewn over the furrows. "What did you feed it in the compound?"

"The same as the other carnivores," Vonones replied shakily. "Scrap beef and parts of any animals that happened to die. It was always hungry, and it wasn't fussy."

"Well, if you manage to get it back alive, you'll know what it really likes," Lycon said grimly. "Do you see any sign of his lungs?"

Vonones swallowed and stared at the corpse in dread. The archers held arrows to their bows and looked about nervously.

Lycon, who had been following the tracks with his eye as they crossed the gullied field, suddenly frowned. "How's your bow strung?" he asked sharply of the nearest archer.

"With gut," he answered, blinking.

Lycon swore in disgust. "In this rain a gut string is going to stretch like a judge's honor! Vonones, we've got to have spears and bows strung with waxed horsehair before we do anything. I don't want to be found turned inside out with a silly expression like this poor bastard!"

* * *

Lycon chose a dozen of Vonones' men to follow the dogs with him. After that nothing happened for hours, while Vonones fumed and paced beside the wagons. At the prospect of extricating himself from his dilemma, the Armenian's frantic fear gave way to impatience.

About mid-afternoon a battered farm cart creaked into view behind a pair of spavined mules. The driver was a stocky North Italian, whose short whip and leather armlets proclaimed him the trainer of the six huge dogs that almost filled the wagon bed. Following was a much sharper carriage packed with hunting equipment, nets as well as bows and spears.

"What took you so long, Galerius!" Vonones demanded. "I sent for you hours ago—told you to spare no expense in hiring a wagon! Damn it, man—the whole business could have been taken care of by now if you hadn't come in this wreck!"

"Thought you'd be glad I saved you the money," Galerius explained with dull puzzlement. "My father-in-law lets me use this rig at a special rate."

"It doesn't matter." Lycon headed off the quarrel. "We had to wait for the weapons anyway. How about the dogs? Can they track in this drizzle?"

"Sure, they're real hunting dogs—genuine Molossians," the trainer asserted proudly. "They weren't bred for the arena. I bought them from an old boy who used to run deer on his estate, before he offended Domitian."

Vonones began to chew his ragged nails.

At least the pack looked fully capable of holding up its end of things, Lycon thought approvingly. The huge, brindle-coated dogs milled about the wagon bed, stiff-legged and hackles lifted at the babble of sounds and scents from Vonones' caravan. Their flanks were lean and scarred, and their massive shoulders bespoke driving strength. Their trainer might be a slovenly yokel himself, but his hounds were excellent hunting stock and well cared for. With professional interest, Lycon wondered whether he could talk Galerius into selling the pack.

"Don't you have horses?" the trainer asked. "Going to be tough keeping up with these on foot."

"We'll have to do it," Lycon snorted. The trainer's idea of hunting was probably limited to the arena. Well, this wasn't just some confused animal at bay in the center of an open arena. "Look at the terrain. Horses'd be worse than useless!"

Beneath grey clouds, the land about them was broken with rocky gullies, shadowy ravines, and stunted groves of trees. Gateless hedgerows divided the tenant plots at short intervals, forming dark, thorny barriers in maze-like patterns throughout the estate. There were a few low sections where a good horse might hurdle the hedge, but the rain had turned plowed fields into quagmires, and the furrows were treacherous footing.

Lycon frowned at the sky. The rain was now only a dismal mist, but the overcast was thick and the sun well down on the horizon. Objects at a hundred yards blurred indistinctly into the haze.

"We've got one, maybe two hours left if we're going to catch the lizard-ape today," he judged. "Well, let's see what they can do."

Galerius threw open the back gate of the wagon, and the pack bounded onto the road. They milled and snarled uncertainly while their trainer whipped them into line and led them past the remaining wagons. As soon as they neared the open cage, the hounds began to show intense excitement. One of the bitches gave a throaty bay and swung off into the wheat field. The other five poured after her, and no more need be done.

They hate it too, mused Lycon, as the excited pack bounded across the field in full cry. "Come on!" he shouted. "And keep your eyes open!"

Taking a boar spear, the hunter plunged after the baying pack. Vonones' men strung out behind him, while the dogs raced far ahead in the wheat. Too out of condition for a long run, Vonones held back with the others on the road. Fingering a bow nervously, he stood atop a wagon and watched the hunt disappear into the mist. He looked jumpy enough to loose arrow at the first thing to come out of the woods, and Lycon reminded himself to shout when they returned to the road. Vonones was a better than fair archer.

Already the dogs had vanished in the wheat, so that the men heard only their distant cries. Trailing them was no problem—the huge hounds had torn through the grainfield like a chariot's rush—but keeping up with them was impossible. The soft earth pulled at the men's legs, and sandals were constantly mired with clay and straw.

"Can't you slow them up?" Lycon demanded of the trainer, who panted at his side.

"Not on a scent like this!" Galerius gasped back. "They're wild, plain wild! No way we can keep up without horses!"

Lycon grunted and lengthened his stride. The trainer fell quickly back, and when Lycon glanced over his shoulder, he saw that the other had paused to clean his sandals. Of the others he saw only vague forms farther behind still. Lycon wasted a breath to curse them and ran on.

The dogs had plunged through a narrow gap in the first hedge. Lycon followed, pushing his boar spear ahead of him. Had the gap been there, or had their quarry broken it through in passing? Clearly the lizard-ape was powerful beyond proportion to its slight bulk.

The new field was already harvested, and stubble spiked up out of the cold mud to jab Lycon's toes. His side began to ache. Herakles, he thought, the beast could be clear to Tarantum by now, if it wanted to be. If it did get away, there was no help for Vonones. Lycon himself might find it expedient to spend a few years beyond the limits of the empire. That's what happens when you get involved in things that really aren't your business.

Another farmhouse squatted near the next hedgerow. "Hoi!" the beastcatcher shouted. "Did a pack of dogs cross your hedge?"

There was no sound within. Lycon stopped in sudden concern and peered through the open doorway.

A half-kneaded cake of bread was turning black on the fire in the center of the hut. The rest of the hut was mottled throughout with russet splashes of blood that dried in the westering sun. There were at least six bodies scattered about the tiny room. The sauropithecus had taken its time here.

Lycon turned away, shaken for the first time in long years. He looked back the way he had come. None of the others had crawled through the last hedgerow yet. This time he felt thankful for their flabby uselessness.

He used a stick of kindling to scatter coals into the straw bedding, and tossed the flaming brand after. With luck no one would ever know what had happened here. As Vonones had said, there was a limit. They had better finish the lizard-ape fast.

The pack began to bay fiercely not far away. From the savage eagerness of their voices, Lycon knew they had overtaken the lizard-ape. Whatever the thing was, its string had run out, Lycon thought with relief.

Recklessly he ducked into the hedge and wormed through, not pausing to look for an opening. Thorns shredded his tunic and gouged his limbs as he pulled himself clear and began running toward the sounds.

No chance of recapturing the beast alive now. Any one of the six Molossians was nearly the size of the blue creature, and the arena would have taught the pack to kill rather than to hold. By the time Vonones' men arrived with the nets, it would be finished. Lycon half regretted that—the lizard-ape fascinated him. But quite obviously the thing was too murderously powerful to be loose and far too clever to be safely caged. It was luck the beast had kept close to its kill instead of running farther. The pack was just beyond the next hedgerow now.

With an enormous bawl of pain, one of the hounds suddenly arched into view, flailing in the air above the hedge. A terrified clamor broke through the ferocious baying of the pack. Beyond the hedge a fight was raging—and by the sound of it, the pack was in trouble.

Lycon swore and made for the far hedge, ignoring the cramp in his side. His knuckles clamped white on the boar spear.

He could see three of the dogs ahead of him, snarling and milling uncertainly on the near side of the hedge. The other three were not to be seen. They were beyond the hedge, Lycon surmised—and from their silence, dead. The lizard-ape was cunning; it had lain in wait for the pack as the dogs squirmed through the hedge. But surely it was no match for three huge Molossians.

Lycon was less than a hundred yards from the hedge when the blue-scaled lizard-ape vaulted over the thorny barrier with an acrobat's grace. It writhed through the air, and one needle-clawed hand slashed out—tearing the throat from the nearest Molossian before the dog was fully aware of its presence. The lizard-ape bounced to the earth like a cat, as the last two snarling hounds sprang for it together. Spinning and slashing as it ducked under and away, the thing was literally a blur of motion. Deadly motion. Neither hound completed its leap, as lethal talons tore and gutted—slew with nightmarish precision.

Lycon skidded to a stop on the muddy field. He did not need to glance behind him to know he was alone with the beast. Its eyes glowed in the sunset as it turned from the butchered dogs and stared at its pursuer.

Lycon advanced his spear, making no attempt to throw it. As fast as the sauropithecus moved, it would easily dodge his cast. And Lycon knew that if the beast leaped, he was dead—dead as Pentheus after his sisters rent him in their fury. His only chance was that he might drive his spear home, might take his slayer with him—and he thought the beast recognized that.

It crouched like a wrestler advancing upon a foe, its lips drawn in a savage grin—and then it vaulted back over the hedge again.

Lycon tried to make his dry mouth shape a prayer of thanks. Eyes intent on the hedge, he held his spear at ready. Then he heard feet splatting at a clumsy run behind him.

Galerius puffed toward him, accompanied by several of the archers in a straggling clot. "That hut back there caught fire!" he blurted. "Didn't you see it? Just a ball of flame by the time we could get to it. Don't know if anyone was there, or if they got out or . . ."

He caught sight of the torn bodies of the hounds, and his puffing excitement trailed off. His voice drawled in wonder: "What happened here?"

Lycon finally let his breath out. "Well, I found the lizard-ape we were supposed to be hunting—while you fools were back there gawking at your fire! Now I think Vonones owes you for a pack of dogs."

* * *

Lycon waited long enough to make certain the lizard-ape no longer lay in wait beyond the hedge. After seeing the hounds, no one had wanted to be first to wriggle through to the other side. Thinking of those murderous claws, the beastcatcher had no intention of doing so either. There was a gap in the hedge some distance away, and he sent half the men to circle around. There was no sign of the beast other than three more mutilated hounds. In disgust Lycon hiked back to the caravan, letting the others follow as they would.

As he reached the road a shrill voice demanded, "Who's there!"

Lycon swore and yelled before nervous fingers released an arrow. "Don't loose, damn you! Fortune, that's all it would take!"

Vonones thumped heavily onto the roadbed from his perch on the wagon. His face was anxious. "How did it go? Did you get the sauropithecus? Where are the others?"

"Dragging-ass back," Lycon grunted wearily. "Vonones, there isn't one of your men I'd trust to walk a dog."

"They're wagon drivers, not hunters," the dealer protested. "But what about the lizard-ape?"

"We didn't get it."

And while the others slowly drifted back, Lycon told the dealer what had happened. The damp stillness of the dusk settled around the wagons as he finished. Vonones slumped in stunned silence.

Lycon's weathered face was thoughtful. "You got ahold of something from an arena, Vonones. I don't know whose arena or where it came from—maybe the Numidians raided it from some kingdom in the interior of Africa. But the way it moves, the way its claws are groomed—the way it kills for pleasure. . . . Somebody lost a fighting cock, and you bought it!"

Vonones stared at him without comprehension. Licking his lips, Lycon continued. "I can't say who could have owned it, or what sort of beast it is—but I know the arena, and I tell you that thing is a superbly trained killer. The way it ambushed the dogs, slaughtered them without a wasted motion! And that thing moves fast! I'm fast enough that I've jumped back from a pit trap I didn't know was there until my feet started to go through. I knew a gladiator in Rome who moved faster than any man I've seen. He'd let archers shoot at him from sixty yards, then dodge the arrow, and I never could believe I really saw it happen. But that thing out there in the fields is so much faster there's no comparison!"

"How did the Numidians capture it, then?" Vonones demanded.

"Capture? Maybe they took its surrender! A band of mounted archers on a thousand miles of empty plains—they could have run it down and killed it easily, and that damned thing knew it! Then they welded it into an iron cage, and strong as it is, the lizard-ape can't snap iron bars."

"But it can pick locks," Vonones finished his thought.


The dealer took a deep breath, shrugging all over and seeming to fill his garments even more fully. "How do we recapture it, then?"

"I don't know."

Lycon chewed his lips, looking at the ground rather than at Vonones. "If the lizard-ape sleeps, maybe we could sneak up and use our bows. Maybe with a thousand men we could spread out through the hedgerows and gullies, encircle it somehow."

"We don't have a thousand men," Vonones stated implacably.

"I know."

Smoky clouds were sliding past the full moon. With dusk the drizzle at last had lifted; the overcast was clearing. A few stars began to spike through the cobwebby sky. Across the twilit fields, shadows crept out from hedgerows and trees, flowed over the rocky gullies.

"I can lay my hands on a certain amount of money at short notice," Vonones thought aloud. "There will be ships leaving Portus in the morning."

But Lycon was staring at the nearest cage.

"Vonones," the hunter asked pensively. "Have you ever seen a tiger track a man down?"

"What? No, but I've heard plenty of grisly reports about man-killers who will."

"No, I don't mean hunt down as prey. I mean track down for, well, revenge."

"No, it doesn't happen," Vonones replied. "A wolf maybe, but not one of the big cats. They don't go out of their way for anything, not even revenge. That's a human trait you're talking about."

"I saw it happen once," Lycon said. "It was a female, and one of my men had cleaned out her litter while she was off hunting. We figured later she must have followed him fifty miles before she caught up to him."

"She followed her cubs, not the man."

The beastcatcher shook his head. "He'd given me the cubs. The man was three villages away when she got him. Her left forepaw had an extra toe; there was no mistake."

"So what?"

"Vonones, I'm going to let that tiger out."

The dealer choked in disbelief. "Lycon, are you mad? This isn't the same at all! You can't . . ."

"Have you got a better idea? You know how all the animals hate this thing—that tiger even broke a tooth trying to chew his way to get at the lizard-ape. Well, I'm going to give him his chance."

"I can't let you turn yet another savage killer loose here!"

"Look, we can't get that blue-scaled thing any other way. Once it runs wild through a few more tenant holdings, Domitian isn't going to do any worse to you if you turn the whole damn caravan loose!"

"So the tiger kills the lizard-ape. Then I'm responsible for turning a tiger loose on his estate! Lycon . . ."

"I caught this tiger once. I know about tigers. This thing, Vonones . . ."

The dealer's hand shook as he turned the key over to Lycon.

* * *

Muttering, the drivers made an armed cluster in the middle of the road, watching Lycon as he unlocked the cage and vaulted to the roof as the door swung down. The tiger bounded onto the road almost before the door touched gravel. Tail lashing, he paused in a half-crouch to growl at the nervous onlookers. Several bows arched tautly.

Lady Fortune, breathed Lycon, let him scent that lizard-ape and follow it.

Turning from the men, the cat moved toward the other cage. He rumbled a challenge into the empty interior, then swung toward where the tracks stabbed into the damp earth. Without a backward glance, the tiger headed off across the field.

Lycon jumped down, boar spear in hand, and stepped across the ditch.

"Where are you going?" Vonones called after him.

"I want to see this," he shouted back, and loped off along the track he earlier had followed with the hounds.

"Lycon, you're crazy!" Vonones shouted into the night.

Even after the earlier run, Lycon had no trouble keeping up with the tiger. Cats have speed but are not pacers like dogs, like men. The tiger was moving at a graceless quick-step, midway between his normal arrogant saunter and the awesome rush that launched him to his kill. Loose skin behind his neck wobbled awkwardly as his shoulder blades pumped up and down. Moonlight washed all the orange from between the black stripes, and it seemed to be a ghost cat that jolted through the swaying wheat. He ignored Lycon, ignored even the blood-soaked earth where the first victim's corpse had lain—intent only on the strange, hated scent of its blue-scaled enemy.

Following at a cautious distance, Lycon marveled that his desperate stratagem had worked. It seemed impossible that the great cat was actually stalking the other killer. It was pure hatred, the same unnatural fury that had maddened the dogs, that had turned the compound into a raging chaos as long as the sauropithecus had been among them.

And the men? None of the men had liked the lizard-ape either. Uncertain fear had made Vonones' crew useless in the hunt. And Vonones had unloaded the thing for a trivial sum, because neither he nor the buyer from Rome had wanted the beast around. Why then did he himself feel such fascination for the creature?

The tiger changed stride to clear the first hedgerow. Lycon warily climbed through after him, trotting toward the pall of reeking smoke that still hovered over the ruined hut. Vonones would see to things here, the hunter thought, praying that there would be no more such charnel scenes across the maze-like estate.

A dozen men passing and repassing had hacked a fair gap through the second hedge, and Lycon was glad he did not have to worm blindly through again. The tiger leaped it effortlessly and was speeding across the empty field at a swifter pace by the time he stepped through. Lycon lengthened his stride to stay within fifty yards.

More stars broke coldly through the clearing sky. The cat looked as deadly as Nemesis rippling through the moonlight. Lycon grimly recalled that he had thought much the same about the pack of Molossians. The tiger was every bit as deadly as the blue-scaled killer, and probably five times its weight. Speed and cunning could only count for so much.

The third hedge had not been trampled, and Lycon's belly tightened painfully as he dived through the gore-splashed gap where the killer had awaited the dogs. But the tiger had already leaped over the brushy wall, and Lycon disdained to lose time by detouring to the opening farther down. He pushed his way free and stood warily in the field beyond.

Here the soil was too sparse and rocky for regular sowing. Left fallow, small trees and weedy scrub grew disconsolately between bare rocks and shadowed gullies. The wasteland was a sharp study of hard blacks and whites, etched by the pale moon.

The tiger had halted just ahead, his belly flattened to the rocky soil. He sniffed the air, coughing a low rumble like distant thunder. Then his challenging roar burst from his throat—moonlight glowing on awesome fangs. Far away an ox bawled in fear, and Lycon felt the hair on his neck tingle.

A bit of gravel rattled from the brush-filled gully just beyond. Lycon watched the cat's haunches rise, quivering with restrained tension. A man-sized shadow stood erect from the shadows of the gully, and the tiger leaped.

Thirty yards separated the cat from his prey. He took two short hops toward the lizard-ape, then lunged for the kill. The scaled creature was moving the instant the tiger left the ground for his final leap. A blur of energy, it darted beneath the lunge—needle-clawed fingers thrusting toward the cat's belly. The tiger squalled and hunched in mid-leap, slashing at its enemy in a deadly riposte that nearly succeeded.

Gravel and mud sprayed as the cat struck the ground and whirled. The sauropithecus was already upon him, its claws ripping at the tiger's neck. With speed almost as blinding, the cat twisted about, left forepaw flashing a bone-snapping blow against the creature's ribs—hurling it against a knot of brush.

The cat paused, trying to lick the stream of blood that spurted from its neck. Recoiling from its fall, the blue-scaled killer gave a high-pitched cry—the first sound Lycon had heard from it—and leaped onto the cat's back.

By misjudgment or sudden weakness, it landed too far back, straddling the tiger's belly instead of withers. The cat writhed backward and rolled, taloned forepaws slashing, hind legs pumping. Stripped from its hold, the lizard-ape burrowed into the razor-edged fury of thrashing limbs.

It was too fast to follow. Both animals flung themselves half-erect, spinning, snarling in a crimson spray. A dozen savage blows ripped back and forth in the space of a heartbeat as they tore against each other in suicidal frenzy.

With no apparent transition, the tiger slumped into the mud. His huge head hung loose, and bare bone gleamed for an instant. Blood spouted in a great torrent, then ebbed abruptly to a dark smear. The tiger arched his back convulsively in death, as his killer staggered away.

Lycon stared in disbelief as the blue-scaled killer took a careful step toward him. Blood bathed its bright scales like a glistening imperial cloak. The tiger's blood or the lizard-ape's? Its scaled hide had to be unnaturally tough—else it would be gutted like a fish.

Murder gleamed joyously in its eyes. Lycon readied his spear. He knew he was fast enough to drive home one good thrust, and after that. . . .

Another step and the lizard-ape stumbled, bracing itself on the ground with one deadly hand. The other arm hung useless—its shoulder certainly broken by the tiger's mauling. The sauropithecus jerked erect and grinned at the hunter, its demon's face a reflection of death. It started to lunge for him, but there was no strength to its legs. Instead it skidded drunkenly on the gravelly soil, again groping for balance. It must have suffered massive internal injuries, but it staggered upright once again.

Lycon knew a stir of hope and dared take a step forward, advancing his boar spear. His own legs felt none too steady, but there had to be an end made of this night.

The lizard-ape spun about gracelessly, suddenly making for the farther hedge. Despite its stumbling gait, it easily pulled away from the pursuing hunter—Lycon afterward wondered if he might not have run faster—and gained the distant hedge. Too weakened to rip through the interlaced branches as before—or to vault the barrier—it darted headlong into the base of the hedge, wriggling snakelike between the rocks and roots.

Lycon hesitated, realizing his chances but not willing to abandon the hunt. From beyond the thorny barrier he heard a quick splash, then silence. Gritting his teeth, Lycon dropped to his belly and crawled after the lizard-ape, following the bloodtrail through the hedge.

Nothing lay beyond the hedge but the steep-banked Tiber, and the bloodtrail slid down the muddy slope and into the oblivion of black rushing current.

The moon glared down, drowning the stars with chill splendor, and casting light over the river's unbroken surface. Lycon shivered, and after a while he walked back to the road.

He felt old that night.



Back | Next