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Eventually, Rakki would challenge Jemmo's leadership of the clan, and one or the other of them would prevail. It was inevitable. Rakki considered himself to be the one who saw more and thought more. It had been his idea to place a second war party above the caves, which had contributed greatly to the speedy success on that day, and he had been the one to say that they should spare some of the Oldworlders to learn the secret of their weapons. And although Jemmo's fighting ability was unquestioned, Rakki had accepted the risk of letting himself be taken by the Cavers, which in his estimation made him an equal in valor. To serve indefinitely as Jemmo's lieutenant and inferior in status would be an insufferable affront to his pride. Jemmo knew it too. Rakki could see it in his eyes as he took in Rakki's measure when they talked, unconsciously weighing him up as an opponent, and he sensed it in the way Jemmo's face would harden, setting a margin of distance between them. And Jemmo, for his part, would never feel safe with the menace of a strong and competent potential rival who might move against him at any time. Rakki knew that too. Each was biding time, waiting for an advantageous circumstance. But the moment would come soon.

He stood near the cave entrance, watching Shell Eyes as she sat poring over the remnant of the Oldworlder vest that he had once worn, now torn, bloodstained, and almost coming apart into two pieces. She pulled apart some of the strands that it was made from to see if she could devise a way of saving it. Rakki now wore a shoulder-wrap of skin sewn with sinew, which he had wanted ready for the expedition leaving the next day. With Jemmo's approval, he had set her and several other females the task of investigating the scraps of Oldworld materials that were left, such as the pieces of clothing taken from Bo and Scar-arm, and other oddments used as sleeping covers or for cleaning, to see if they could be duplicated. White Head had told them that such things in the Old World were made from the fibers of certain plants and soft down from the hides of animals. The women had collected samples of various plants and attempted to work them, but without success. Everything was too short and stiff, and could never weave together to form the fine, unbroken order that they found in the old fabrics.

"The plants were a special kind," White Head said, squatting nearby in front of the place where he worked, shaping spear tips from hardstone. "Could be they never grew in these parts."

"What they look like?" Rakki asked him. That could be another thing to look out for on the reconnoitering journey starting tomorrow.

White Head made a helpless gesture. "I cannot tell you. It was not what I knew. I was just a herder of cows."

Rakki frowned. "What is cow?"

"Large animal. Bigger than hairhide."

"You own? . . . Like those." Rakki motioned toward the pens holding the animals that had been inherited from the Cavers.

White Head emitted one of his wheezing laughs. "That few! They are nothing. I work for Great Lord who owns them. More cows mean bigger worth. The land his cows needed to hold them was . . ." White Head waved toward the outside again, "here to the water on far side of swamp lands. More, even. Could be as far as fire mountains."

Rakki couldn't imagine enough animals to fill that amount of land, and took it as just another of the things White Head said that he would never understand. He turned his head again toward Shell Eyes and lifted his chin in an unspoken question. "This, I cannot remake, My Lord," she told him. "I am sorry. I can maybe tie with sinew. It will last a small time longer. I am sorry."

Rakki nodded curtly, suppressing the surge of annoyance that made him want to slap her. It didn't seem worthy of a warrior to beat a female who had committed no fault. He discerned the same disapproval in White Head also when he witnessed it happening with others. It seemed to be part of the Oldworlders' way. Rakki could tell from the way Jemmo looked at her that he resented the way Rakki had claimed her as his female immediately, without deferring to Jemmo's right to choose first. Rakki would be in danger now until the thing between them was settled, one way or another.

Gap Teeth - whose name was Enka, Rakki now knew, but he still stuck to the original that he had coined - and Shingral were nearby as always. Since the day of the ambush, when Rakki had spoken for them to be spared, they had attached themselves to him in the way dogs would to the master who commands them, and appointed themselves the task of watching over his interests and his safety. They saw the rising tension between him and Jemmo, and had made it plain by their actions that if things came to a fight between rival factions to resolve matters, he could count on two henchmen who would be loyal. Although Rakki valued the protection, he considered them mildly foolish. Life could not be lived for the benefit of others. The weak tried to harness the strong to save them, instead of learning to be strong themselves. And if the strong let themselves be harnessed, they themselves would become weak - like the hairhides that allowed men to tie lines around their necks and worked for them.

Maybe it had been the Oldworlders' way. But the Oldworlders no longer possessed the caves.

With the Swamp People's domain now extending up to the caves, it had become important to learn more of the territories that lay beyond. The expedition that Rakki would be leading tomorrow was to be a long-range exploration lasting many days to reconnoiter the more distant terrain and search for signs of other habitation and resources that might be of use. Two others would accompany him in addition to Gap Teeth and Shingral. A small, lightly equipped party would move faster and cover more ground than a large group; and in the event of there being any hostile presence out there, they would be less conspicuous and thus not so likely to draw followers back.

Rakki straightened up and reached for the "gun" that he had propped against the rock wall. It was time he went to check on how the other preparations were going. Jemmo carried a gun as a symbol of rank, and he had thought better of trying to oppose the demand when Rakki claimed the right to one too. Even to be confronted by a refusal would have been unacceptably insulting to Rakki's pride and made an immediate resolution unavoidable, which Jemmo evidently didn't want to precipitate yet.

The number of guns they had obtained from the Cavers was five plus another two - White Head had taught Rakki the words for numbers as far as the fingers on one hand. He said there were more that he would tell later. The remaining five guns were kept under guard until it was decided who would have them. But in truth, their value at present went little farther than being just emblems to instill awe. Sims, one of the other Oldworlders who had been spared in addition to White Head and Yellow Hair, had explained the function of bullets, but there were so few of them that Jemmo had been loathe to expend any on learning. But the dilemma then, as Rakki pointed out, had been that the weapons would never be of use if no one could use them. In the end, they had compromised by going out to some open ground beyond the rampart with Sims, taking five and one bullets. Sims had used two of them to demonstrate the technique for directing the bullet to hit a reed basket placed on a rock half a bowshot away. With the remaining four, Rakki and Jemmo tried two each. On Rakki's first attempt the gun kicked unexpectedly causing him to drop it, and he didn't know where the bullet went. He managed to hold onto the gun for the second, but again missed. Jemmo did no better. So the problem remained unsolved of how to learn to use the guns and be left with enough bullets to ever fight with them. One of the hopes for the reconnaissance tour was that it might locate more of them. Rakki didn't think it very likely, since apart from the things in the caves and a few oddments like his edged metal club - which he had found and reclaimed - he had seen hardly any traces of Oldworld things. But at least, now he had some idea what an ammunition box looked like.

As he lifted the weapon, he couldn't resist running a finger again over its gray metal lines. The precision and form of the pieces and how they fitted together, and they way it opened for the bullets to be inserted, still astounded him. Apart from crude bending or sharpening on a stone, he had never heard of ways of cutting or shaping objects of metal. He remembered White Head's words about gods who once flew above the sky and built shining tower-caves like ant mounds that stood higher than the cliffs. He looked across at where White Head was squatting.

"The birds that the gods flew in. They were made from metal too, like this?"

"Yes. Shells of metal. Like giant eggs with metal wings."

"And all gods carried guns, like this?"

"The god-warriors carried them. Armies bigger in number than the herd of cows that I tended."

Rakki couldn't comprehend how anything could stand before that many guns. He often suspected that White Head exaggerated wildly. He didn't like the thought that White Head might be making a fool of him. "So many not possible." He shook his head pointedly, meaning it as a warning. "You tell me things as they were, Oldworld man. Only truth with Rakki."

White Head cackled and wheezed. "Those, they were nothing!" he said, waving at Rakki's gun. "There were giant-bird weapons that the gods flew in. They sent down giant bullets that burned all the land - like fire mountains. Broke the ground up like the holes that open when the world shakes."

Rakki felt a rush of anger at White Head's ridiculing his newly acquired source of so much pride, but a cautionary instinct made him bite it down. "Attend to your work, old man," he growled. "I have things to do."

 
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