THE WHOLE village was astir next morning before the sunlight - already visible on the harandra - had penetrated the forest. By the light of the cooking fires Ransom saw an incessant activity of hrossa. The females were pouring out steaming food from clumsy pots; Hnohra was directing the transportation of piles of spears to the boats; Hyoi, in the midst of a group of the most experienced hunters, was talking too rapidly and too technically for Ransom to follow; parties were arriving from the neighbouring villages; and the cubs, squealing with excitement, were running hither and thither among their elders.
He found that his own share in the hunt had been taken for granted. He was to be in Hyoi's boat, with Hyoi and Whin. The two hrossa would take it in turns to paddle, while Ransom and the disengaged hross would be in the bows. He understood the hrossa well enough to know that they were making him the noblest offer in their power, and that Hyoi and Whin were each tormented by the fear lest he should be paddling when the hnakra appeared. A short time ago, in England, nothing would have seemed more impossible to Ransom than to accept the post of honour and danger in an attack upon an unknown but certainly deadly aquatic monster. Even more recently, when he had first fled from the sorns or when he had lain pitying himself in the forest by night, it would hardly have been in his power to do what he was intending to do today. For his intention was clear. Whatever happened, he must show that the human species also were hnau. He was only too well aware that such resolutions might look very different when the moment came, but he felt an unwonted assurance that somehow or other he would be able to go through with it. It was necessary, and the necessary was always possible. Perhaps, too, there was something in the air he now breathed, or in the society of the hrossa, which had begun to work a change in him.
The lake was just giving back the first rays of the sun when he found himself kneeling side by side with Whin, as he had been told to, in the bows of Hyoi's ship, with a little pile of throwing-spears between his knees and one in his right hand, stiffening his body against the motion as Hyoi paddled them out into their place. At least a hundred boats were taking part in the hunt. They were in three parties. The central, and far the smallest, was to work its way up the current by which Hyoi and Ransom had descended after their first meeting. Longer ships than he had yet seen, eight-paddled ships, were used for this. The habit of the hnakra was to float down the current whenever he could; meeting the ships, he would presumably dart out of it into the still water to left or fight. Hence while the central party slowly beat up the current, the light ships, paddling far faster, would cruise at will up and down either side of it to receive the quarry as soon as he broke what might be called his 'cover.' In this game numbers and intelligence were on the side of the hrossa; the hnakra had speed on his side, and also invisibility, for he could swim under water. He was nearly invulnerable except through his open mouth. If the two hunters in the bows of the boat he made for muffed their shots, this was usually the last of them and of their boat.
In the light skirmishing parties there were two things a brave hunter could aim at. He could keep well back and close to the long ships where the hnakra was most likely to break out, or he could get as far forward as possible in the hope of meeting the hnakra going at its full speed and yet untroubled by the hunt, and of inducing it, by a well-aimed spear, to leave the current then and there. One could thus anticipate the beaters and kill the beast - if that was how the matter ended - on one's own. This was the desire of Hyoi and Whin; and almost - so strongly they infected him - of Ransom. Hence, hardly had the heavy craft of the beaters begun their slow progress up-current amid a wall of foam when he found his own ship speeding northward as fast as Hyoi could drive her, already passing boat after boat and making for the freest water. The speed was exhilarating. In the cold morning the warmth of the blue expanse they were clearing was not unpleasant. Behind them arose, re-echoed from the remote rock pinnacles on either side of the valley, the bell-like, deep-mouthed voices of more than two hundred hrossa, more musical than a cry of hounds but closely akin to it in quality as in purport. Something long sleeping in the blood awoke in Ransom. It did not seem impossible at this moment that even he might be the hnakra-slayer; that the fame of Hman hnakrapunt might be handed down to posterity in this world that knew no other man. But he had had such dreams before, and knew how they ended. Imposing humility on the newly risen riot of his feelings, he turned his eyes to the troubled water of the current which they were skirting, without entering, and watched intently.
For a long time nothing happened. He became conscious of the stiffness of his attitude and deliberately relaxed his muscles. Presently Whin reluctantly went aft to paddle, and Hyoi came forward to take his place. Ahnost as soon as the change had been effected, Hyoi spoke softly to him and said, without taking his eyes off the current:
"There is an eldil coming to us over the water."
Ransom could see nothing - or nothing that he could distinguish from imagination and the dance of sunlight on the lake. A moment later Hyoi spoke again, but not to him.
"What is it, sky-born?"
What happened next was the most uncanny experience Ransom had yet had on Malacandra. He heard the voice. It seemed to come out of the air, about a yard above his head, and it was almost an octave higher than the hross's - higher even than his own. He realized that a very little difference in his ear would have made the eldil as inaudible to him as it was invisible.
"It is the Man with you, Hyoi," said the voice. "He ought not to be there. He ought to be going to Oyarsa. Bent hnau of his own kind from Thulcandra are following him; he should go to Oyarsa. If they fid him anywhere else there will be evil."
"He hears you, sky-born," said Hyoi. "And have you no message for my wife? You know what she wishes to be told."
"I have a message for Hleri," said the eldil. "But you will not be able to take it. I go to her now myself. All that is well. Only - let the Man go to Oyarsa."
There was a moment's silence.
"He is gone," said Whin. "And we have lost our share in the hunt."
"Yes," said Hyoi with a sigh. "We must put Hman ashore and teach him the way to Meldilorn."
Ransom was not so sure of his courage but that one part of him felt an instant relief at the idea of any diversion from their present business. But the other part of him urged him to hold on to his new-found manhood; now or never - with such companions or with none - he must leave a deed on his memory instead of one more broken dream. It was in obedience to something like conscience that he exclaimed:
"No, no. There is time for that after the hunt. We must kill the hnakra first."
"Once an eldil has spoken," began Hyoi, when suddenly Whin gave a great cry (a 'bark' Ransom would have called it three weeks ago) and pointed. There, not a furlong away, was the torpedo-like track of foam; and now, visible through a wall of foam, they caught the metallic glint of the monster's sides. Whin was paddling furiously. Hyoi threw and missed. As his first spear smote the water his second was already in the air. This time it must have touched the hnakra. He wheeled right out of the current. Ransom saw the great black pit of his mouth twice open and twice shut with its snap of shark-like teeth. He himself had thrown now -hurriedly, excitedly, with unpractised hand.
"Back," shouted Hyoi to Whin who was already backing water with every pound of his vast strength. Then all became confused. He heard Whin shout "Shore!" There came a shock that flung him forward almost into the hnakra's jaws and he found himself at the same moment up to his waist in water. It was at him the teeth were snapping. Then as he flung shaft after shaft into the great cavern of the gaping brute he saw Hyoi perched incredibly on its back - on its nose - bending forward and hurling from there. Almost at once the hross was dislodged and fell with a wide splash nearly ten yards away. But the hnakra was killed. It was wallowing on its side, bubbling out its black life. The water around him was dark and stank.
When he recollected himself they were all on shore, wet, steaming, trembling with exertion and embracing one another. It did not now seem strange to him to be clasped to a breast of wet fur. The breath of the hrossa, which, though sweet, was not human breath, did not offend him. He was one with them. That difficulty which they, accustomed to more than one rational species, had perhaps never felt, was now overcome. They were all hnau. They had stood shoulder to shoulder in the face of an enemy, and the shapes of their heads no longer mattered. And he, even Ransom, had come through it and not been disgraced. He had grown up.
They were on a little promontory free of forest, on which they had run aground in the confusion of the fight. The wreckage of the boat and the corpse of the monster lay confused together in the water beside them. No sound from the rest of the hunting party was audible; they had been almost a mile ahead when they met the hnakra. All three sat down to recover their breath.
"So," said Hyoi, "we are hnakrapunti. This is what I have wanted all my life."
At that moment Ransom was deafened by a loud sound - a perfectly familiar sound which was the last thing he expected to hear. It was a terrestrial, human and civilized sound; it was even European. It was the crack of an English rifle; and Hyoi, at his feet, was struggling to rise and gasping. There was blood on the white weed where he struggled. Ransom dropped on his knees beside him. The huge body of the hross was too heavy for him to turn round. Whin helped him.