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Presently Star said, "Milord husband—"

"Yes, pretty foots?" I didn't look at her; I was watching my side and a bit of hers, and keeping an eye overhead as well, as we could be bombed here—something like blood kites but smaller and goes for the eyes.

"My Hero, you are truly noble and you have made your wife most proud."

"Huh? How?" I had my mind on targets—two kinds on the ground here: a rat big enough to eat cats and willing to eat people, and a wild hog about the same size and not a ham sandwich on him anyplace, all rawhide and bad temper. The hogs were easier targets, I had been told, because they charge straight at you. But don't miss. And have your sword loosened, you won't nock a second shaft.

"That lad, Pug Easy. What you did for him."

"Him? I fed him the old malarkey. Cost nothing."

"It was a kingly deed, milord husband."

"Oh, nonsense, diddycums. He expected big talk from a hero, so I did."

"Oscar my beloved, may a loyal wife point it out to her husband when he speaks nonsense of himself? I have known many heroes and some were such oafs that one would feed them at the back door if their deeds did not claim a place at the table. I have known few men who were noble, for nobility is scarcer far than heroism. But true nobility can always be recognized...even in one as belligerently shy about showing it as you are. The lad expected it, so you gave it to him—out noblesse oblige is an emotion felt only by those who are noble."

"Well, maybe. Star, you are talking too much again. Don't you think these varmints have ears?"

"Your pardon, milord. They have such good ears that they hear footsteps through the ground long before they hear voices. Let me have the last word, today being my bridal day. If you are—no, when you are gallant to some beauty, let us say Letva—or Muri, damn her lovely eyes! -- I do not count it as nobility; it must be assumed to spring from a much commoner emotion than noblesse oblige. But when you speak to a country lout with pigsty on his feet, garlic on his breath, the stink of sweat all over him, and pimples on his face—speak gently and make him feel for the time as noble as you are and let him hope one day to be your equal—I know it is not because you hope to tumble him."

"Oh, I don't know. Boys that age are considered a treat in some circles. Give him a bath, perfume him, curl his hair—"

"Milord husband, is it permitted for me to think about kicking you in the belly?"

"Can't be court-martialed for thinking, that's the one thing they can't take away from you. Okay, I prefer girls; I'm a square and can't help it. What's this about Muri's eyes? Longlegs, are you jealous?"

I could hear dimples even though I couldn't stop to see them. "Only on my wedding day, milord husband; the other days are yours. If I catch you in sportiveness, I shall either not see it, or congratulate you, as may be."

"I don't expect you'll catch me."

"And I trust you'll not catch me, milord rogue," she answered serenely.

She did get the last word, for just then Rufo's bowstring went Fwung! He called out, "Got ‘im!" and then we were very busy. Hogs so ugly they made razorbacks look like Poland-Chinas—I got one by arrow, down his slobbering throat then fed steel to his brother a frozen second later. Star got a fair hit at hers but it deflected on bone and kept coming and I kicked it in the shoulder as I was still trying to free my blade from its cousin. Steel between its ribs quieted it and Star coolly nocked another shaft and let fly while I was killing it. She got one more with her sword, leaning the point in like a matador at the moment of truth, dancing aside as it came on, dead and unwilling to admit it.

The fight was over. Old Rufo had got three unassisted and a nasty goring; I had a scratch and my bride was unhurt, which I made sure of as soon as things were quiet. Then I mounted guard while our surgeon took care of Rufo, after which she dressed my lesser cut.

"How about it, Rufo?" I asked. "Can you walk?"

"Boss, I won't stay in this forest if I have to crawl, Let's mush. Anyhow," he added, nodding at the worthless pork around us, "we won't be bothered by rats right away."

I rotated the formation, placing Rufo and Star ahead with his good leg on the outside and myself taking rear guard, where I should have been all along. Rear guard is slightly safer than point under most conditions but these weren't most conditions. I had let my blind need to protect my bride personally affect my judgment.

Having taken the hot spot I then went almost cross-eyed trying not only to see behind but ahead as well, so that I could close fast if Star—yes, and Rufo—got into trouble. Luckily we had a breathing spell in which I sobered down and took to heart the oldest lesson on patroclass="underline" You can't do the other man's job. Then I gave all my attention to our rear. Rufo, old as he was and wounded, would not die without slaughtering an honor guard to escort him to hell in style—and Star was no fainting heroine. I would bet long odds on her against anyone her own weight, name your weapon or barehanded, and I pity the man who ever tried to rape her; he's probably still searching for his cojones.

Hogs didn't bother us again but as evening approached we began to see and oftener to hear those giant rats; they paced us, usually out of sight; they never attacked berserk the way the hogs had; they looked for the best of it, as rats always do.

Rats give me the horrors. Once when I was a kid, my dad dead and Mother not yet remarried, we were flat broke and living in an attic in a condemned building. You could hear rats in the walls and twice rats ran over me in my sleep.

I still wake up screaming.

It doesn't improve a rat to blow it up to the size of a coyote. These were real rats, even to the whiskers, and shaped like rats save that their legs and pads were too large—perhaps the cube-square law on animal proportions works anywhere.

We didn't waste an arrow on one unless it was a fair shot and we zigzagged to take advantage of such openness as the forest had—which increased the hazard from above. However, the forest was so dense that attacks from the sky weren't our first worry.

I got one rat that tailed too closely and just missed another. We had to spend an arrow whenever they got bold; it caused the others to be more cautious. And once, while Rufo was drawing a bow on one and Star was ready with her sword to back him up, one of those vicious little hawks dived on Rufo.

Star cut him out of the air at the bottom of his stoop. Rufo hadn't even seen it; he was busy nailing brother rat.

We didn't have to worry about underbrush; this forest was park-like, trees and grass, no dense undergrowth. Not too bad, that stretch, except that we began to run out of arrows. I was fretting about that when I noticed something. "Hey, up ahead! You're off course. Cut to the right." Star had set course for me when we left the road but it was up to me to hold it; her bump of direction was erratic and Rufo's no better.

"Sorry, milord leader," Star called back. "The going was a trifle steep."

I closed in. "Rufo, how's the leg?" There was sweat on his forehead.

Instead of answering me, he said, "Milady, it will be dark soon."

"I know," she answered calmly, "so time for a bite of supper. Milord husband, that great flat rock up ahead seems a nice place."

I thought she had slipped her gears and so did Rufo, but for another reason. "But, milady, we are far behind schedule."

"And much later we shall be unless I attend to your leg again."

"Better you leave me behind," he muttered.

"Better you keep quiet until your advice is asked," I told him. "I wouldn't leave a Horned Ghost to be eaten by rats. Star, how do we do this?"

The great flat rock sticking up like a skull in the trees ahead was the upper surface of a limestone boulder with its base buried. I stood guard in its center with Rufo seated beside me while Star set out wards at cardinal and semi-cardinal points. I didn't get to see what she did because my eyes had to be peeled for anything beyond her, shaft nocked and ready to knock it down or scare it off, while Rufo watched the other side. However, Star told me later that the wards weren't even faintly "magic" but were within reach of Earth technology once some bright boy got the idea—an "electrified fence" without the fence, as radio is a telephone without wires, an analogy that won't hold up.