Chapter 15: The Chicken Fiends

Morgo the Mighty by Sean O’Larkin was originally serialized in The Popular Magazine in 1930. Over the next few weeks I’m going to be serializing it again here. Except for correcting the odd typo, I’m reproducing the text as printed in the original publication.

When I took leave of Morgo to spy on conditions in Shamman, he sat talking on the ledge with Nurri Kala. Both of them watched my party become a speck in the distance.

“Would you stay here with me forever, Nurri Kala?” Morgo asked the girl at his side, looking at her shyly.

“Certainly. With you and Derro.”

“With me – alone?”

“But you do not like Derro then?”

She was amazed at Morgo’s suggestion.

“I like him as a brother. He saved my life when Zorimi meant to take it. Now I talk of something else.” He could not go on, could not clarify his train of thought concerning her.

“I do not want to see Derro go away, Morgo. He is a brave man.”

“I am brave, too, Nurri Kala.”

“I know that. You are of the caves, Morgo. You must be brave. It is your life here. But Derro comes from the outer world. There, I remember, men were not like him. He fights as you do and is as clever with his wits.”

“He uses different weapons.”

“Yes, and they save him time – when time means life. Why do you not use his weapons, Morgo? He would let you – and you could hunt and fight more easily. His guns are terrible things.”

The girl spoke with a fascination for the tools of civilization – which she had forgotten in her years under Zorimi’s domination.

“I fight as best I know how,” Morgo replied to her. “I have no feeling for Derro’s weapons. At best, my hands and my arms are my finest weapons.” He hesitated, and catching her eyes, he asked boldly, “Nurri Kala, do you like me?”

“Of course, Morgo – very much.”

“Do you like Derro more?” he added quickly.

She did not reply at once, lowering her eyes to think. “I cannot say, Morgo. I have only known the two of you a few days. But he tells me things that you never tell me.”

“What is that, Nurri Kala?”

“That I am beautiful.”

“That is unnecessary to say. You and I both know you are truly beautiful.”

“Oh,” she pouted, “is that all? You do not think I like to be told I am pretty?”

“I did not know you wanted to be told. In the future, I will remember it.”

“That is not the same as telling me – because you think so, and tell me because you want to.”

Morgo shook his head, bewildered. The art of love was a strange art to him. He had not learned it and instinct does not give it to man. There was much that he could tell Nurri Kala – but he was too shy.

“Derro knows many things that I do not know,” he added sadly. “And there are things that I cannot ask him.”

The white girl smiled, understanding him, and he got up and went into the cave. Letting her hair fall over her shoulders, Nurri Kala combed it with her fingers and longed for the reflecting glass in Zorimi’s caves. It would reveal her beauty to her. She longed to behold it again, to know its pleasure. A primitive child of the caves, she was likewise the woman eternal.

Morgo called out to her that there was food to be prepared. She shook her head and frowned. Derro would not do that. He would have prepared the food and brought it to her. He was like that, she thought. But it was woman’s place in the caves to serve man. She got up to do her duties while Morgo lounged in a corner, making new arrow shafts.

She was conscious that his eyes strayed often from his work to her. This pleased her immensely though she could not say why it did. Whenever their eyes met, he quickly turned away and pretended to be absorbed in his task.

Mannizan flesh was cut and she went about cooking it. The servants helped her clumsily and she ordered them about, chiding them for their stupidity and slovenly methods. Neatness and cleanliness were slogans she introduced into Morgo’s dwelling.

Soon the meal was ready and Nurri Kala heaped Morgo’s dish and set it in front of him. He began to eat, plucking the chunks of food with his fingers and tearing it to smaller bits with his teeth. The girl remembered how Derro used his knife to cut the meats in his dish, how he chewed with his teeth with his mouth shut – not smacking like Morgo’s. She tried to imitate Derro but found that as in Morgo, habit was stronger than intention and that her lips automatically parted and she could hear herself smacking her own lips.

“Come, sit by me, Nurri Kala,” Morgo called to her. “Talk to me.”

The girl brought her dish over to his side and seated herself at his feet. She could think of nothing to say, and abashed by her silence, Morgo ventured not a word. These primitive children did not think in terms of conversation. Speech with them was ever a practical thing, to be used in emergencies rather than for diversion.

Wings beat against the outer wall of the cave.

Morgo looked up. Were Bakketes bringing him news?

Ten Silurians, sinewed giants, dashed into the room, followed by as many Shamman bat men.

Morgo sprang to his feet, spilling his dish on the floor, and drew his knife.

The Silurians kept their distance. Morgo called to his servants to arm themselves and saw them take up knives, too. Then he demanded that the Silurians leave. They informed him they had come to take him and the girl to their master, Zorimi.

Morgo shook his head slowly at them. He felt Nurri Kala draw behind him, accepting his protection. Her touch on his back made him feel he had the courage to take on ten times as many Silurians in combat.

The purple-scale-skinned creatures rushed at him. The bat men beleaguered the servants. The cave was thrown into pandemonium, the bats screeching as knives found their way into their black flesh, the Silurians grunting whenever Morgo’s knife reached its mark through a vulnerable eye. The latter sought but one goal – the black bulging eye.

The fighting mass broke for an instant and Morgo was flung against the wall. His eyes flashed defiantly, fiercely. He was not fighting so much for himself as for Nurri Kala. She caught a glance from him and understood. He signed for her to keep well behind him.

Two Silurians lay dead upon the floor. Morgo’s bowie knife had touched their brains.

They came at him a second time, more wary. Instead of fighting at close quarters, they sought to surround him, to pin his thewed arms to his sides. The first man to touch him received a crashing blow in the face, and went reeling backward, sprawled into the fire, scattering the embers. His screams of pain rang out piercingly in the confines of the room.

Another Silurian leaped upon Morgo. The white man’s knife slid from the scaly body. Morgo felt himself encircled with arms of steel and lifted bodily from the floor. He kicked the man’s knees and legs from under him and they fell hard upon the stones.

Morgo squirmed free of the moist purple body in time to be on his feet and meet the hurled body and grappling fingers of another Silurian. The knife flashed in the air and struck the man’s forearm at the elbow – and Morgo’s might severed the limb while the Silurian, gasping with pain, and inarticulate, collapsed to the floor, reddening the stone with his gore.

The others were puzzled. This mere man defied their strength, their invulnerable bodies. They had but one fear in the past – the ants. Now they feared this white man who fought like ten men – who could hold ten men at bay, armed only with a sharp piece of metal.

They shouted to the bat men. The latter demurred. A Silurian grabbed one of them and wrung its neck, flinging the limp body at Morgo, who staggered under the impact and narrowly averted being knocked from his feet. Again he commanded the Silurians to leave his cave.

They dared not. They were obeying Zorimi’s mandates and their tiny brains were incapable of thinking up excuses with which to deceive the magician – to tell him how Morgo had fled or died. They were capable of doing only two things – getting their quarry or dying.

The five still in the fight exhorted the bat men to aid them, and the latter, fearing the fate of the strangled creature, hurled themselves upon Morgo. They proved a factor with which he could not contend. He found himself in a mass of screeching faces and beating wings – wings that gave blows harder than any man’s. He drove his knife into the heart of one and flung it from him as though it were a stick of wood, but the bat tactics overpowered him. He could not withstand the hammer blows of the heavy, leathery wings.

They beat him unmercifully upon his head and shoulders and flattened him to the floor. He struggled to regain his footing, but they weighed down upon him, flattening him, until a Silurian stepped into their midst and threw his arms around Morgo’s, embracing him from the back, rendering him helpless.

Then the others, elated at their success, broke the dishes, threw down the supplies and tossed their less fortunate mates over the ledge into the forest below, where a herd of marauding Mannizans were passing. They laughed while the rats consumed the dead.

Morgo was held in the arms of his captor while another scale-skinned creature took the girl. The bats prepared to take off, carrying the remaining Silurians between their legs.

Morgo struggled, and though he could not free his arms, he brought the Silurian to the floor, perilously near the edge of the ledge. Still he was helpless. He could not free himself from the arms of iron but he did retrieve his knife and slipped it into his belt.

He offer to compromise. He told his captor that if he could carry Nurri Kala in his arms, he would not put up further resistance. The Silurians debated a moment and, fearing a dangerous struggle with Morgo in the air, they consented to permit this flying arrangement.

The Silurian slipped his arms under Morgo’s and locked his hands over the white man’s chest. Nurri Kala then stepped in front of Morgo and he placed his arms about her waist, holding her fast to him. He told his captor that he was ready and the huge bat assigned them caught the latter between his legs. They swept from the ledge into space and the bat staggered in mid-air under his heavy load.

They flew swiftly toward the south and Morgo whispered into Nurri Kala’s ear: “Be brave. This bat will tire and we will land. If the others fly ahead I can deal with the scaly beast and the bat. Save your breath – we may have to run for it if we can reach the ground.

The girl nodded. “You are very clever, Morgo. And you are as brave as a hundred men!”

She could not see the smile of pleasure that lighted his face. Nor the pain that was written there when she added: “But you might have saved yourself a lot of trouble if you had used Derro’s gun. It could have killed all of them – without harm to you.”

He did not speak after that. They went through the mouth of a cave into a tunnel, and, at length, were sailing over a warmer terrain more gorgeous than Kahli, a forest between whose leaves they saw rainbow colors in flowers and weird vines – colors that were dazzling in light that was white rather than yellow, and very warm. Bird, the first Nurri Kala remembered seeing in the caves, flew through the trees and cried out in terror of the bats. Their colors were gorgeous, crimsons, jade-greens and sea-blues – and the girl confused them with the orchids in the treetops, orchids that waved their long petals in the hot breeze. She had never heard of a bird of paradise. These birds were of that family.

“Where are we, Morgo?” she asked. “This cave is more beautiful than Kahli, and I loved Kahli.”

“This is the land of the Cicernas,” Morgo said. “It is beautiful to look at, but deadly to live in. The Cicernas are fiends. Not even the Mannizan will enter here.”

The bat that carried the three of them sank lower and lower in his flight. Morgo knew that it was weakening, that it could not hold out much longer. Their landing was inevitable. Ahead, he could see the end of the cave and a door to another, their probable destination. He hoped the bat would have the strength to carry them beyond the reach of the avaricious Cicernas.

Nurri Kala cried out and pointed down at large birdlike creatures who peered up a the bats and cackled viciously. The beasts were twice the size of a man. She saw long necks and sharp beaks, and mouths beneath beady eyes. They stood their bulky bodies on two yellow legs ending in claws. When they spread and flapped their short, stubbly wings, which could not lift them from the ground, she saw that they were feathered in browns, corn-yellows and speckled whites. Some of these strange animals had bright-red growths on their heads and under their jaws.

“They are Cicernas,” Morgo told her. “They fight with their beaks and claw feet and a blow from their wings will kill a man.”

Neither Morgo nor Nurri Kala remembered seeing chickens, and the Cicernas which were giants of the chicken and ostrich families, thriving in this warm, fruitful land, evoked no memories in their stricken brains.

The other bats were now far ahead. The door for which they were aiming was still distant. And their carrier bat was growing weaker with every beat of its wings.

Without warning, it dropped like a plummet. Morgo and the girl fell through the air, a treetop breaking their fall. They clung there while the Silurian and the bat crashed with resounding thuds upon the mossy, grassy floor below. They lay there stunned.

Morgo watched the Cicernas approach. Their ill luck in the air had been witnessed by seven of the chicken fiends. The Cicernas ran to where the two stunned bodies lay and attacked them with their beaks. Nurri Kala closed her eyes and shuddered. The Silurian screamed and put up a fight before he died, but his purple, scaly armor was worthless under the rain of beak blows.

When she dared look down again from their safe hold on the uppermost branches of the tree, the bodies had disappeared. The Cicernas were looking up at them, stringy white tongues drooping from their mouths.

“They cannot fly,” Morgo said with a sight of relief. “Their bodies are too fat and heavy. But they may be able to cut this tree down.”

The Cicernas cackled loudly, savagely and flapped their wings impotently, trying to fly up at the two white creatures who had fallen into their land. Their failure to shake the man and the girl from the tree only increased their rage and three of them set about gnawing at the thick base of the tree trunk.

Morgo surveyed his situation coolly. They were in a sea of tangled, interlocking branches of tall trees – trees high enough to preserve them from the chickens twice as big as men. He tested the branch of another tree that protruded beneath his feet, and traced its course to the upper reaches of the next mass of foliage, from which birds of paradise screamed and fled.

The gnawing at the base of the tree went on. Morgo, peering down, saw that the Cicernas were making short work of their job. He felt the tree sway and lean far to one side, fortunately toward the tree that extended a helping branch.

When the tree swayed perilously far to one side and the tearing of its fibers resounded above the gnawing beaks, Morgo led the girl down to the other tree limb on which he had his eye.

“We must jump to the next tree, Nurri Kala,” he said. “Hold fast to the branches and use this lime for your feet. The trees meet. You can cross to the other tree.”

“And you, Morgo?”

“I will follow you, Nurri Kala. But I cannot go with you. The limb is not strong enough for two. Go!”

The girl’s finely wrought hands went out to the supporting branches, revealing hidden sinews that in no way marred her beauty. She tested the limb under her foot and gauged the distance to the other trunk with shrewd eyes.

In another moment, she was making the crossing. Midway, she turned, and, testing the resiliency of the limb with her weight, called to Morgo: “It is strong enough. Hurry now!”

She clambered quickly into a mass of twigs and leaves and threw her arms about the central trunk, safe and secure for the moment. It suddenly occurred to her that when the other tree fell, it might pull this haven of refuge to earth, too. The branches seem inextricably intertwined.

She saw Morgo cautiously moving his weight across the limb. He was midway between the two trees.

Crash! There was a roar of flying, flipping, tearing leaves. Branches flew helter-skelter, whipping the foliage of Nurri Kala’s tree until its firmness trembled and it careened over its stricken mate. The air was filled with dust and falling leaves, great green petals and highly scented orchids, torn from resting places by the suddenly unlaced branches.

“Morgo! Morgo! Are you safe?”

She could not see the white man in the maelstrom of dust and greenery. Her fluttering hear stood still. The cackling of the Cicernas below was awful. She quickly covered her ears.

To Be Continued!