Chapter 1

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The sun had already set when Galen signaled to the others to stop, but the sky was still a translucent blue, and the diffuse light allowed him to survey the area. The marches were almost behind them; the ground under his feet had stopped squishing, and was gently sloping upwards, and the vegetation had changed from willows and poplars to elms and ash trees. A battered yellow and black sign, half-overgrown with honeysuckle, announced that they were dangerously close to tainted ground.

Solid ground, though - easier for horses to tread, easier for patrols to ride. Galen supposed he should be grateful to get out of the mosquito-saturated marshland, but his muscles were humming with tension. Their guide had left them before the sun had touched the horizon, slipping back into the swamp like a little animal. Galen fervently wished he could slip back as well, hide in the swaying, dripping, whirring labyrinth until Urko gave up and rode back south.

Realistically, though, that would never happen; Urko would sooner drain the swamp and burn down the trees, if he suspected they were still hiding in it. Galen sighed and directed his attention towards his little tribe that had made him, by some strange process, their temporary leader.

Alan held on to the neck of the gelding, but he looked as if he'd break down any moment; his face was pale and sweaty, and his gaze was turned inward, probably focusing on the last reserves of his strength.

Zana caught his gaze and turned around to inspect Alan herself. „Mothers, Alan! Sit down before you fall over!" She let go of the rope that she had used to lead the horse, and urged the human to sit down, handing him a water bottle.

„I'm... fine," Alan gasped. „We can't stop now."

„Yes, we can," Zana said firmly. „It's only for a few moments, and then you'll ride on Ah..pah... Peet, why that name? It sounds like an illness!"

Their other human ambled over to her, gun resting comfortably in the crook of his arm. Galen tried not to tense at the sight; Peet and his gun had saved all their lives when Urko and his men had descended on them this morning.

„It's Apachee, not Apachoo, Zana," he grinned. „One is an illness, the other is an attack helicopter."

The last words had been an unintelligible yammer, probably from his own language. Peet seemed to sense both their irritation. „It's a machine that flies," he explained.

Zana shook her head. „What could a horse and a flying machine have in common?"

Peet patted the horse's neck. „They're both lean, mean, killing machines."

Galen supposed that was what had enamoured Peet to the other beast in the first place - their shared aversion against apes. It was the reason that horse had been so cheap that he could afford it. He had needed a second horse, and figured that he could leave its care to the humans. It worked out better than expected - Peet had adopted the gelding, although he still claimed not to care for horses in general.

„Any sign of Urko and his troupe?" Galen asked him.

Peet shook his head. „The kid was really good. Almost sunk our horses." He patted the gelding's neck again; the horse ignored him, busying itself with the hard grass instead.

Galen's own horse, on the other hand, hadn't touched the grass since they had stopped, and that wasn't a good sign. She was favoring her hind leg on the side that the bullet had grazed. He quickly inspected the wound; it needed stitching.

After another glance at their exhausted human, that looked as if he wouldn't be able to make another step anytime soon, Galen decided that he could as well clean and dress the horse's wound, and discuss their next steps in the meantime. He ordered Peet to hold the horse, and quickly removed the saddlebags.

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