The herdsman was not as agile as his companions, but his great size gave a number of the invaders pause. It took several moments for them to realize he was no monkey, and in that time he wounded one aggressor and ran his spear through another. It fell to earth, tumbling over and over as it clutched at itself, mortally injured.
Then, just like that, it was over. The slelves withdrew back across the river, hissing and chattering among themselves, leaving the troop to count its losses. These consisted of the infant Ehomba had seen abducted and one old female who had been unable to free herself from the clutches of a pair of assailants.
An exhausted Gomo rejoined his human friend. “Two lost. Without you, my friend, it might have been much worse.” He slumped heavily on the branch. “It will be worse. They will come again tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you just leave this place?” Ehomba asked him. “Move to another part of the river?”
The troop leader favored him with a jaundiced eye. “Don’t you think we’ve tried that? The slelves track us, following our progress. To free ourselves from them completely would mean abandoning the entire length of the Aurisbub. It is a difficult choice. This is a good place, full of food. And there are no other troops here to compete with.”
Ehomba nodded slowly. “I can understand your position.”
“Yes. The living here is good. The water is clean and we have plenty to eat. It would be a paradise for us if not for the slelves.”
Folding his arms over his chest, the herdsman leaned back against the trunk of the tree. “I admire anyone willing to stand up and fight for their chosen home. Tell me, Gomo, were the slelves here before you?”
The troop leader looked up sharply. “Whose side are you on here, man?”
“The side of those who do not steal children from their mothers.” At this, Gomo relaxed. “But I have lived long enough to know that in such conflicts the truth is rarely as obvious and straightforward as either of the combatants would like others to believe.”
“We offered you our assistance in return for your help in fighting the slelves. Slurs I can get for free.”
“Don’t be so sensitive, Gomo.” Ehomba jabbed playfully at him with the butt end of his spear. “I have taken your side. But since I was very young I was taught always to examine both sides of a rock before picking it up. One never knows when there might be a scorpion on the other side.” He straightened. “Now, let us see what these slelves of yours look like close up.”
Instantly Gomo put aside his irritation with the tall human. “You have some ideas?”
“Perhaps,” Ehomba replied noncommittally. “First I need to make sure of what I am dealing with.”
The slelve he had speared lay where it had landed, sprawled on the grassy ground, one wing crumpled beneath it. With a total wingspan of more than six feet, it was an impressive creature. Covered in fine gray and beige fur, the humanoid body was slim and no bigger than a juvenile monkey. Two six-inch-long antennae protruded from the fuzzy forehead. The nostrils were wide and large, the ears pointed and batlike, and the great oversized eyes closed. A spear fashioned from sharpened wood lay nearby where the slelve had dropped it. Ehomba picked it up. Suitable for carrying by a flying creature with limited lift capability, it was made of a much lighter wood than the monkeys favored. But the tip was as sharp as a sewing needle.
Reaching down, he picked up the dead body in one hand. It weighed surprisingly little, much less than a monkey of comparable size. Much slimmer build, he saw, and bones that might be partially hollow. But the mouth was filled with needlelike teeth that were as sharp as the tip of the wooden spear, and the pointed nails on hands and feet hooked downward for grabbing and holding on.
“What do you think?” Behind Gomo, a clutch of males crowded close to listen. Several were bleeding from nasty bites and scratches. One had a heavy bark bandage on his upper arm where a spear had penetrated the lean flesh.
Ehomba found himself staring across the river in the direction of the trees where the invaders had disappeared. Tilting back his head slightly, he studied the sky. Even though they had no idea what he was doing, the assembled males copied his every move. Perhaps they thought imitation would bring understanding. Monkey see, monkey comprehend, he mused.
“You must have some relief from these depredations or you would have been forced to leave this country by now. Do the slelves only attack when the moon is sleeping?”
Gomo nodded slowly. “Mostly, though, they will sometimes come when there is as little as a sliver showing. It depends”—he choked back emotion—“on how greedy they are feeling.”
“Needy and greedy,” added another member of the troop. Around him, his companions gave voice to their fury and frustration.
“I see.” The man in their midst turned from the river to gaze down at them. “Then they will come again tomorrow night.”
“In all probability.” Gomo unloaded a vicious kick on the limp body of the dead slelve. “It is the time of the month that suits them.”
“Then we must make ready. We will need some things.”
“You do have an idea.” The troop leader’s eyes shone with eagerness.
Ehomba nodded. “I think so. It cannot hurt to try it. If nothing else, it will surprise them.”
Gomo put a long-fingered hand on the herdsman’s arm. “Tell us what to do.”
AFTER SEEING TO THE SETTING OF A NIGHT WATCH, GOMO AND the other members of the troop retired to an uneasy sleep, leaving Ehomba to contemplate his plan in silence. If it worked, it might well free the troop from the depredations of the slelves forever. If not, he would try something else. Though he was dismayed at the delay in his journey, he had given his word that he would try to help. And he had told Gomo the truth in one other matter.
He didn’t much care for a people who stole the children of others.
The following morning the monkeys responded to his directions with an alacrity that bordered on the hyperkinetic, rushing to and fro in response to instructions almost before he could finish explaining what he wanted them to do. As the intent behind his directives became clear, Gomo began to smile more and more frequently.
“I think I understand what you have in mind, man. You intend to make the slelves easier to see. So that we can make better use of our bows and arrows?”
“No.” As he spoke, Ehomba watched the monkeys rushing to carry out his instructions. “That is not my idea at all.”
The troop leader, who thought he had figured it all out, looked momentarily crestfallen. “Then I have to confess that I don’t understand.”
“You will.” Ehomba raised his voice to a pair of peripatetic young males. “No, not there! Higher up! Yes, that’s better.” He returned his attention to Gomo. “That is, you will if it works.”
His refusal to explain further left the troop leader pensive, but willing to wait.
Although it hardly seemed possible, the new night brought a darkness even deeper than that of the one that had preceded it. In the dead tree they had chosen for their frontline outpost, Gomo crouched next to Ehomba. Together they surveyed the line of trees that rose like a leafy stockade on the far side of the Aurisbub.
“A perfect night for the slelves,” the troop leader whispered. “I would be surprised if they chose not to make another foray.” His voice fell. “Especially after their success last night.”
“If this works, that will be their last success.” Ehomba was quietly confident.
“I pray that it is so. I am deathly tired of having to console mothers made vacant by the slelves.”
“We will know soon if you will have to do so again.” Ehomba raised an arm and pointed.
The dark mass came boiling out of the far treetops, forming an ominous smudge against the night sky that blotted out the stars. To the intently focused Ehomba it seemed bigger than the one the night before. His suspicion was confirmed by Gomo.
“There are more of them tonight. In addition to the one you killed, we slew several yesterday. They are not used to multiple losses. I think we made them angry.” He concluded with a quietly triumphant gesture that was a recognizable obscenity to any primate.
“Probably you did,” Ehomba agreed. “In addition, they know that I am here.”
Gomo looked up at the human squatting stolidly on the branch alongside him. “You are not worried, or afraid?”
“Of course I am worried. I am always worried when I know that something is coming to try and kill me. But I am not afraid. The first time a little boy is guarding cattle at night and hears a distant dragon roar, he either loses his fear or is never sent to guard the herd again.” In the darkness, he smiled at the monkey. “I am a good herdsman.”