Chapter Thirteen - Kutnar the Weapon Maker.
IT WAS not many days before Gonch found himself subjected to increased pressure. The grim hetman fretted and chafed incessantly simply because the Lion Man failed to appear. With all his sharpness, Gonch had merely relieved one bad situation by creating another. He was congratulating himself for his shrewdness in diverting Totan's channel of wrath to someone other than himself but now that the Lion Man had become rooted in the hetman's mind, Gonch found himself worse off than ever. Pic did not appear. There were no others worth while to soothe Totan's pugnacious spirit, so he centered the burden of his rancor upon Gonch.
"Time passes and still your Lion Man does not come," he fumed. "I believe you lie when you say he will."
"And I still say so," replied the Muskman although in a less cocksure manner than formerly, for he was beginning to feel grave doubts. "But the lad; does he not please you? Never have we fared so well as since he came here."
Totan gave his henchman a sour look. "Lad? Ugh-h; he does better than all the rest of you put together. But bah! Why speak of him? I want none but his father, the Lion Man, weapon maker or whatever else you choose to call him. I hunger to crush his bones."
Gonch sensed the approaching storm. He grasped desperately at a straw. "Weapon maker?" he whispered looking carefully around him as though he were about to impart some deep-dyed mystery. "You ask for him who makes the fine blades? Psst! He is here."
"The Lion Man?" roared Totan, leaping to his feet and snatching at his club. "Where?"
"Son of the Lion Man you mean," corrected Gonch. "It is my little secret. He makes the fine weapons even better than his father. What a prize; a hunter and flint worker, all in one."
"Agh! the boy again," howled the hetman in a great rage and then his curiosity got the better of him as Gonch hoped and half expected it would. "The boy a flint worker?" he sneered. "This is another of your lies; but you have said it and I will know the truth, even if I have to eat it out of you."
"Try him," said the Muskman much relieved that he had so neatly turned the trend of conversation. "I said and proved that he was the equal to our best hunters. I say and will prove that he is a skilled flint worker. Tomorrow he will begin making the fine blades."
"And a sorry day it will be for you if he fails," snarled the giant, enraged at being so easily diverted from the main idea and yet not having wit enough to stick to it.
And so the storm clouds lifted temporarily, giving Gonch a chance to keep his hide on him and him in it. He sought Kutnar and said, "Those who do nothing, shall eat nothing. You idle too much. Now is the time for you to hammer and finish the fine flint weapons. You know how the work is done. We must have the blades. Make them."
And so more was required of him. Kutnar's eyes glittered as he answered, "But there is no flint here. Blades cannot be made from nothing. Find me flint lumps if you must have the tools."
"Find them yourself," snapped the Muskman, irritated by the boy's reply. "If you fail, I will see that you get no food."
So Kutnar did as he was bidden or tried to at least. It was past mid-day and he would have welcomed a rest after his morning's hunting trip. The blood was surging to his temples but the boy-mind still ruled and so he went down to the river bank to search the gravels for material on which to work. But he found only disappointment, for the waters were ice-bound and even if flint lumps were there, he could not reach them. He returned to Castillo just before nightfall, and of course he returned empty-handed. Gonch scolded him soundly even as he trembled for his own safety at thought of what the morrow might bring when Totan learned of his failure. He jerked the boar hide loose that Kutnar wore about his body and hissed, "No food nor warmth either for him who does nothing. You shall pay by taking a turn at fire watching to-night. Tomorrow will be your last chance. The blades we will and must have." He would have said more but as he looked about him, he saw the giant hetman watching and beckoning him to come that way. Gonch went reluctantly, for he had a fair idea of what was in the chieftain's mind.
"The boy pays small attention to your orders," Totan said grimly when the two were together. "I believe that you have grown careless. He is a flint worker but he works no flints. No doubt you lie when you say he does."
"Blades cannot be made from nothing," was the answer. "The lad cannot find the flint on which to work."
This was in part, repeating Kutnar's own words and the hetman's reply was curiously enough word for word the same as Gonch had given the boy.
"Find them yourself," was his gruff response. "I will have no excuses. The blades must be made or no one knows whom we will be eating next." He leered so affectionately at Gonch that the latter felt cold chills creeping up his spine. He determined for his own health he would accompany Kutnar on the morrow and help him find the flint lumps. He could not hold Totan off forever for the latter was already nearing the limit of his patience. "If Pic would only come, my troubles would be ended," he thought. "These two giants would destroy each other, leaving me master beyond dispute."
But Pic had not yet arrived and there seemed small chance of his doing so in time to improve the situation. "To-morrow I will help the boy find the flint lumps," he assured his chief. "He dare not fail me this time. I will not let him out of my sight until he secures the material and begins to make the blades."
Before curling up in his hide wrapping, he gave Kutnar his parting instructions: "Watch the fire to-night. In the morning, you will join the hunters in search of game. This done, we will go forth together and find the flint lumps. Before sunset you must be at work making blades. Then, if you have done well, another shall have a turn at fire watching and you may rest." With that, he went his way.
Kutnar was piling fresh wood upon the cave hearth fire when Gonch arose next morning. The boy had been awake all night, nevertheless he appeared in good spirits. For some reason or other this angered the Muskman and he curtly ordered Kutnar to make ready for the morning hunt. This in itself was a flagrant violation of the Castilian code. Night fire tenders were always permitted a rest after their labors while others attended to the next morning's food gathering. But this was an exceptional case. Gonch found the hetman's brow-beating too much to bear and so he passed the burden, with his spite added, on to the boy.
And still Kutnar made ready as he was told, but Gonch was keen enough to see that the boy's manner was not quite the same. The change was in the look of his eyes. Gonch recalled that same look in the eyes of a wounded wolf he had once cornered. The beast had sprung upon him and bitten him severely as he approached to club it to death. He would watch the boy and be on his guard, for there was no knowing what Kutnar might do. The main thing to guard against was the sling. "A deadly toy" was Gonch's opinion of it. "I must see that he does not get a chance to use it."
Kutnar took his place as usual in the morning hunt and Gonch accompanied him. No matter where they tramped, through snow drifts and over hill and dale, whenever the boy looked behind him, there was Gonch standing close at his elbow.
It was past mid-day when the party returned to Castillo. Kutnar had no sooner thrown himself down by the fire to rest than Gonch curtly informed him it was time to descend to the bank of the River Pas and search for flint lumps. Without a word, the boy rose obediently to his feet. Gonch again observed the strange hunted look of those eyes; also the jaws were set tightly together. It was in his mind to take several of the cave men along too, for there was greater safety in numbers, but he put this notion scornfully aside. "What a fool I am to fear him and his fling-string," he reflected. "A mere lad who knows better than to pit himself against a man;" but he was careful just the same and kept his ax in readiness to strike down the lad if he made a move to use the sling girt about his loins.
In this manner, they descended to the river bank. Then began the search for flint lumps, but in spite of their diligence, they had no success. With the passing of time, Gonch grew more and more desperate as he thought of the trip back to Castillo where he must face the hetman empty-handed. "Look closer, boy," he snarled. "If you fail there will be neither food nor rest for you tonight when we return."
Kutnar looked furtively about him, not toward the ground but at the distant mountain of Castillo, the snow-covered lowlands and up and down the ice-bound stream. His hands fumbled with the rawhide thong tied about his waist. In an instant the Muskman's ax flashed threateningly above his head.
"And so the little boy would play with his fling-string," sounded Gonch's taunting voice followed by a fierce command: "Quick, give it to me or I will kill you." Kutnar's nostrils swelled and his face reddened but there seemed no help for him. He loosened the sling from his body and cast it at the Muskman's feet. At sight of the youth now completely disarmed and at his mercy, Gonch laughed a loud brutal laugh charged with cruelty and malice. "You hate me," he hissed, "but your hatred is a mere pebble beside yonder mountain compared with what I feel toward you. Do you know why?"
Kutnar made no answer, merely glared at his tormentor with hunted eyes.
"Because you are the whelp of the Mammoth Man," snarled Gonch. "He, your father, I hate even worse than I hate you. You do not know why."
Again no answer; Kutnar only glared.
"Because he has the heart of a woman in his great lion body," Gonch raved on vindictively. "Because he is a friend of beasts and would withold them from the paunches of hungry men; because he would make weaklings of hunters and warriors; and because of the strength in his lion body which prevented my bringing him here a slave."
Kutnar's chest rose and fell with his hard breathing. He bit his lips until the blood came; but still he said nothing.
"I was but a wolf running amuck in his flock," the Muskman sneered. "A rock fell from the cliff and nearly destroyed the Mammoth and Rhinoceros. Who pushed it down? I. A man set upon the Mammoth caught fast in the mire and would have destroyed him, had it not been for the meddling rhinoceros. Who was that man? I. Who stole the Lion Man's cub when all chance of securing the Lion Man himself was gone? I. Do you hear me, whelp? It was I."
The boy's eyes were now blazing like coals of fire. His face had become livid. Gonch noted the effect of his cruel mockery and he gloated over it even as he gloried in the boy's helplessness.
"We were such dear good friends," he scoffed. "I loved you, my comrade, as a hyena loves a bone. We fled to the southland together; you and I. Your father pursued us. He rode upon the Mammoth and soon we were overtaken. I thought it unwise for you to know who was pursuing us, for your father was angry and would have spoiled all. We lay hidden in the bushes. Another moment and you would have learned the truth, had not someone struck you from behind. Not a lion, as I told you, when you regained consciousness and I bound up your wound so tenderly. Who struck that blow? It was . . ."
"You !" screamed Kutnar, and like a flash, he launched himself at his tormentor's throat.
So sudden and unexpected was the attack that Gonch's weapon was stricken from his hand. Over and over they rolled in the snow; first the man, then the boy uppermost, clawing and biting like wildcats and without apparent advantage to either. Gonch was howling with fury but Kutnar fought silently like a weasel and his hands ever worked for a weasel hold on his foeman's throat. Rough and tumble, kick, strike, gouge; they struggled with all the strength and fury of madmen. For an instant they separated and each stood upon his feet. Gonch sprang to recover his ax but Kutnar frustrated his attempt with a quick leap that bore his detested enemy to the ground. The Muskman's guard was open and Kutnar found the opportunity which he had long sought. Both hands clutched the Castilian's throat and clung there like death.
Over and over they rolled again. Gonch's cries were now screams of pain and rapidly losing force, even as his struggles to free his neck from that tearing, strangling clutch, became feebler and feebler. Kutnar felt his foe weakening; he gripped the tighter. Gonch's body jerked convulsively, the blood trickled from his nostrils, then he relaxed and lay still. Kutnar released his hold and stood erect. The Muskman never moved. "Men will soon know of this," the boy muttered; but there was no need of their knowing it too soon, so he seized the body by the shoulders and dragged it out of sight among some neighboring bushes. This done, he recovered his sling, also not forgetting to appropriate the Muskman's fine flint ax for his own use; then he was ready to proceed.
The die was cast and now there could be no turning back. Sooner or later, the man pack would be after him. "To be caught is to be killed and to be killed is to be eaten," he thought and so he made ready to escape with all speed. Which way? There was the broad highway eastward across the windswept snow plain. It was the shortest route back to home and friends. He gazed longingly in that direction, then shook his head. An endless journey in the dead of winter; the attempt would be madness. He could do it after the first spring thaw but not now. There was no help for it; the path pointing to the east meant cold, sickness and death. He turned to the south. There lay the mountains full of hiding places and caves no doubt where he might live protected from the elements. Food? His sling had killed for many; now it could surely kill for one. Yes, he would flee southward and take refuge among the mountains until such time as the return of mild weather would permit the long journey home.
He was making off along the line of the Pas when he thought of Gonch again. Something prompted him to look once more upon the body of his enemy and for the last time. He retraced his steps and entered the bushes. Gonch lay there upon his hack. As Kutnar gazed down at him, he said in a melancholy voice, "The rogue has met his just deserts; and yet - it is hard to forget that I once looked upon him as a friend."
He kneeled over the body and laid one ear against his chest. "Can it be that he is still alive?" he asked himself. "The heart still beats; the flesh is warm." The thought disturbed him. He raised his ax. One blow and all doubts would be removed; then for some reason he hesitated. "He will die anyway," the boy reasoned. "It would be but striking a corpse."
"That may strike back if you do not," something within warned him and he raised his ax once more, only to lose heart when it came to actually dealing the finishing stroke. "He will surely perish of cold if nothing else," he said finally. "The night will soon come and none can find him before morning.'
That settled it. By morning, Kutnar would be well on his way and among the mountains; then he need worry no more about the Muskman, be he dead or alive.
He left his fallen enemy lying among the bushes, took one more longing look at the broad eastern path and then fled rapidly in the southern direction along the line of the River Pas.