David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 2004
Copyright © 2004
"It is too dangerous, Ras Thavas. We cannot risk losing you."
The master mind of Barsoom offered a slight smile to Tan Hadron, odwar of the navy of Thavas. "We have lost too many already, my friend. I will not send another man to his death. I will go myself and, while I am gone, you are charged with the protection and care of our home."
Ras Thavas changed from the garments he usually wore as scientist and leader of the New City of Thavas to that of a panthan, a soldier of fortune who wore no metal of any nation. Hanging from a utilitarian leather harness was a keen edged long sword bare of embellishment and matching short sword. A dagger and radium pistol hung at his other side. A sturdy length of sleeping silk was coiled about his waist. A canteen. A pouch filled with food tablets, nutrition concentrated in the most compact form possible. A second pouch filled with a variety of coins and a few small jewels of various value. A pair of sturdy sandals.
Tan Hadron paced the master mind's apartment. "Sir, I beg you to reconsider! Yes, we must have intelligence of who is plaguing the northern caravan routes. We will get that intelligence. What we cannot afford is to lose you in that gathering. You are too well known to be an agent. You are needed here."
Ras Thavas shook his head. "Six men, Tan Hadron. Six good men. I will not send another in my name. Attend me, Jusaj."
The third man in the room stepped forward. Jusaj was Ras Thavas' major-domo. The master mind stood quietly, glaring at the odwar while Jusaj swiftly created a single braid of his master's long black hair, binding in two red feathers near the base of the scientist's skull. Jusaj produced several arm bands and ornaments of gold and silver which Ras Thavas donned.
Tan Hadron snorted. "This is no transformation, Ras Thavas. Your face is known across half the planet. I doubt that John Carter's visage is as famous."
"I am not done yet, my friend."
Ras Thavas sat at the dressing table that had belonged to his wife, now missing for more years than most citizens of New City of Thavas could recall. The master mind took up several surgical instruments of his own design and commenced to work on his face. A short period of time elapsed before Tan Hadron gasped with astonishment. The man who rose from that table bore no resemblance to the father of New City of Thavas–a subtle change in cheekbones, a slight protruding of brow, a chin more heavy than the aristocratic Ras Thavas!
The odwar of Thavas sighed, admitting defeat. "Magic. If we do not hear from you in ten weeks, I will come looking for you. And if I find you dead, I will lay waste to..."
"You will do nothing until you hear from me. Whoever is attacking the caravans is not making war on Thavas, but on those who would trade with Thavas."
Jusaj had observed the conversation without comment, but as his master turned to leave the apartment, he stepped forward. "Let me go with you, sir. You need someone to watch your back."
Ras Thavas placed a hand on Jusaj's shoulder and smiled. "I go, but I do not go alone. Come, Thasa Ras."
Tan Hadron and Jusaj watched the transformed master mind of Barsoom leave with a large and powerful calot at his heels.
At any given time there were several hundred panthans in New City of Thavas, which was a major nexus for the overland and air routes through this section of Barsoom. Many rested there before moving on, most to the south where a small war was in progress between two nations; others took positions as guards and outriders for the caravans east, west, and north of New City of Thavas. Panthans sometimes worked together as minor companies of men, but most often were solitary in service.
"The calot, yours?"
"We are a team."
Gukas, the caravan master looked at the tall man with a scowl. "You don't talk much."
"I talk with my sword--when I need to."
Gukas, a man nearly as tall as the panthan--certainly as hard muscled--grabbed his sword hilt. He winched as a bone crushing grip closed about his wrist to prevent the length of steel from unsheathing. "Good. You are fast. Ten tanpi a day, a thoat, and if we arrive intact with no losses, a hundred tanpi bonus."
"Agreed," Kugo said, releasing Gukas.
"We leave tomorrow at dawn. Oh," he added as the panthan turned to go, "you I feed. Not the calot."
"She fends for herself, and probably eats better than either one of us. I'll be here before first light."
Kugo examined the multiple thoat tracks which crossed the caravan's path. He was ten haads in advance of Gukas' two score zitidar drawn wagons. The tracks might belong to a herd of wild thoats or might be those of a mounted troop. He counted ten or more sets in the sand which lay in a hollow protected from the east wind. Beyond that hollow the stretch of low dunes was blown clear all the way to a rocky rise five haads distant. In the opposite direction a mountainous spine of tortured rock ran roughly parallel to the caravan's northern route for nearly a hundred haads.
A scrabble in the sand caused Kugo to rise. He lay a calming hand on the thoat's neck while standing ready to draw sword or pistol. Over the rise of dune to the west came the ugly snout of a large calot.
"Come, husband," the calot spoke to the panthan. "I have something to show you."
Kugo--Ras Thavas--mounted the thoat. He urged the eight-legged steed to a gallop, hoping to keep sight of the calot sprinting to the west. Within the compact body of Barsoom's most successful predator was the brain of his wife, who had once so betrayed their vows that killing her for those sins would have been justified. He had refrained from taking Thasa Ras' life, transplanting her brain into the body of his favorite hunting calot. Over the centuries they had traveled Barsoom, he waiting for her repentance to be sincere, she hoping that he would relent and return her body. When that moment arrived Thasa Ras had made an extraordinary decision: she did not want her human form back and had savaged her own beautiful body to make sure Ras Thavas knew her sincerity.
Swift are the beasts of Barsoom. Six haads west, beyond the rocky rise, a wagon was found. In the traces was the dead body of a huge zitidar. Surrounding the half-burned vehicle the bodies of five men.
The calot's nose worked into the wind. "I smell death," Thasa Ras said.
Kugo, for he was that panthan in Gukas' employ, checked his weapons then urged the restive thoat down to the wagon. As he neared the grim scene he noted the feathery tracks of burial beetles in the lee of boulders. To the calot he said, through the mind link that only he and Thasa Ras shared: "There were others."
The wagon was not unusual in design. The men were of the red race. They had met with horrific violence. Two had been blown apart by radium projectiles, the other three had been hacked to pieces. One haunch had been carved from the zitidar's flank and there was evidence the attackers had cooked and eaten the beast of burden's flesh while ransacking the wagon.
The calot observed, "Yesterday, perhaps the night before. Their bodies are too fresh to have been dead much longer. Wait! I hear something!"
Thasa Ras' ten short legs became a flurry of swift motion and in an instant the creature had entered the wagon's broken rear tail gate. Kugo dropped from the thoat and ran forward, pistol in hand.
"We're coming out, husband."
Ras Thavas scowled, the message perplexing. Then he saw a slim leg, a swirl of silk, and a very frightened young woman stepped onto the blood-soaked sand. Behind her came the calot, nudging the female with her tooth-filled snout.
The girl seemed ready to dart, but the presence of the calot kept her motionless. Ras Thavas holstered his weapon and walked forward, hands extended palm up in a show of peace. "I won't hurt you," he said.
"Are you one of Lovat's men?" There was a shudder in her melodic voice.
"I do not know of Lovat. I am panthan with Gukas. Come, calot. Heel."
Thasa Ras obeyed, knowing the girl's terror would subside if she appeared to be a well-trained calot.
"She's pretty," the master mind's wife observed.
"She's terrified," Ras Thavas returned. To the girl he said, "What happened here?"
The woman withdrew a few steps, eyes scanning the horizon. It was obvious she expected a horde of riders.
"My name is Kugo. You have no need to fear me. I only want to help. What is your name?"
The silence was broken only by the sigh of wind through the rocks.
Ras Thavas waited for a few moments then shrugged his shoulders. "I have to return to the caravan. Is there anything you need before I depart?"
Expressions of hope, despair, distrust, and fear crossed the woman's fine features, yet even then she did not speak. It was not until the panthan was again astride his thoat and turning away that she found her voice.
Kugo turned his mount and directed the thoat toward the girl. When he was beside her a strong arm was extended. For a dozen heartbeats the girl stared at the open hand then, weeping, she grasped it and was pulled up behind the panthan.
"Hold on," Kugo said. "It is a hard ride." Small arms went about the master mind's lean waist as the thoat lengthened stride behind the calot streaking southeast to the caravan.
Gukas moved away from the oil-fueled stove, a plate of food in one hand, a cup of beverage in the other. He joined Kugo, the calot, and the mysterious girl the panthan had found near the trade route. "I won't see her starve, but it comes out of your pay."
"You are a generous man, Gukas," Kugo replied.
The girl gazed at the food for an instant, then began eating ravenously.
Gukas gestured to Kugo, who rose to follow the caravan master to one side. "Have you learned anything about her?"
"I have learned all I need to know. She needs help."
"But at what price? From your report it appears those she was with were the target of others. Perhaps she was the jewel they sought."
Gukas frowned. "She is pretty."
Kugo said nothing.
The caravan master shook his head. "Remember your bonus. I hope you have not brought trouble on us."
"You hired me because there is trouble on this road. I doubt she is one of the bandits."
"I'll wake you for your watch after midnight." Gukas went to the other panthans, three besides the two outriders on perimeter guard, and gave them instructions before going to his wagon.
The drivers tended their beasts. The few passengers were in their tent. The camp was a-buzz with the finding of a girl in the middle of nowhere. Kugo turned his back on the whispered conversations and returned to the girl who, most unlady-like, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
"I have caused you trouble," she said without preamble.
"Do you feel like talking now?"
Kugo waited with a kind patience that eventually forced the girl to turn her eyes away. When she spoke, her voice was small and alone. "My family is dead now. I am the only one left." The panthan's silence drew more speech, and a faint shimmer of tears in her eyes. "My father, his brothers, my brothers and their sons, my mother... All dead because of me."
"I find that difficult to believe," Kugo said. "You do not appear to be dangerous."
"I am not dangerous, but helping me is!"
"I see. Why is that?"
The girl squared her shoulders and composed her hands in her lap. "I am Danah."
Kugo arched a brow that could not be seen in the faint starlight. "Forgive me, Danah, your name is not familiar to me."
"I am Danah, daughter of Hovathor of Jusath."
"I am familiar with Hovathor's name. I have never been to Jusath, but I know it is some four hundred haads from Amhor. Why are you here, hundreds of haads from home?"
"Not by choice, Kugo, not by choice!"
Little by little the girl's story was revealed under gentle questioning. Jusath, a small community of ranchers under the leadership of Hovathor, had continually dealt with bandit incursions from the south-–bandits which had grown in power over the last fifty years. As their strength grew so did the ability of Jusath diminish. Family after family fled the once prosperous ranches until only a handful stood together, determined to resist to the last. When Danah was born the families had been reduced to three and the bandits no longer hid their faces or murders, boldly entering the settlement when they desired, taking whatever-–and whoever–-as it pleased them.
"It was horrible," Danah sobbed, not feeling Kugo's arms about her slim form or remembering how she came to be in them. She desperately leaned into his strength. "That last day in Jusath they came and their leader saw me. 'Give her to me and I'll let your family live,' he said to my father. Hovathor defied him and was killed. They would have taken me if my brothers had not driven a herd of thoats into their midst. We fired radium shell after shell into their packed mass, killing a half dozen. As their leader Lovat ordered a retreat he shouted a promise to kill us all–-all except me! We could not stay. We packed our wagons and ran south hoping Ras Thavas might help us but Lovat and his men harried us until there was just..."
Kugo let her weep until the grief was done. He held Danah until she moved away of her own accord. The girl gripped his hand. "Thank you, but I have brought nothing but trouble and for that I am sorry!"
"I am not worried, Danah. Many have tried to kill me. I do not kill easily. I have to ride guard. Stay with the calot no matter what may happen. Do you understand?"
The panthan met Gukas coming to wake him. In terse words he told the caravan master the girl's story. "It appears we have a name for the menace attacking the caravans. Warn the other riders."
"I knew that girl was trouble!"
Kugo's voice hardened. "She isn't the cause, Gukas. She is a victim. I suggest you roust the drivers so we may leave at first light. We are too far north to head back."
Gukas nodded. "You are right. The girl can ride in my wagon."
"Thank you, Gukas."
Two days passed without incident, though thoat tracks had been detected by two of the riders on the second day. Before dawn of the third day Kugo, who had become de facto captain of the panthans, spoke to his men, the drivers, and Gukas.
"The calot and I rode hard during the night and found the bandit camp. There are twenty to thirty of them gathered near a pass fifty haads north. I believe they intend to spring an ambush as we go through."
One of the panthans asked, "Your orders, Kugo?"
Gukas sputtered. "Orders? We turn back! We can't fight that many!"
Kugo crossed his arms and said, "They would only follow. They can ride faster than the wagons and the terrain south is too open for battle. I will take two men and the calot and carry the battle to Lovat. We surprise them. While they are occupied Gukas takes the caravan through the pass. We join back up and fight rear guard as needed. If we do our job right, Lovat will be in no hurry to catch us."
"And if your plan falls apart, what then?" Gukas asked.
"We do what other caravans have done. We fight to the death. The only difference between us and others is that we have a choice of where and when."
"I'll ride with you, Kugo!"
Kugo turned to join his men and paused. Danah stood there. She looked at the tall panthan, his face in shadow, her's shining in the moonlight of Cluros. "Come back," she said. The girl ran to Gukas' wagon and went inside.
Thasa Ras ran easily beside the near silent thoats running across the sands. Through their mind link she asked Ras Thavas:
"Is she the one?"
"The one what?" came the response.
"The one who wins your heart?"
The master mind scowled. "This is not the time or place, dear."
"There is no other time or place, my chieftain, there is only now. I like her. I want you to know that."
"She is a nice girl, but I love you."
The sun was still below the horizon as the group entered the hills above the pass. Kugo pointed out the bandit camp and gave instructions to his men to wait for his signal. Panthan and calot hurried onward, circling the encampment which lay in a hollow behind a short ridge beside the caravan route.
Thasa Ras suddenly disappeared. The master mind dismounted, carrying the long Barsoomian rifle with him. He wanted to call her name, but remained silent. A moment later the calot returned with blood on her jaw.
"A guard," the calot said. "One less to worry about." Then, softly, "We go into battle, husband. One or both of us might die."
"I have lived past my time," Kugo replied. "You are too tough to die."
"Possibly, but I must say this. Even if I should survive, and you do as well, Danah is a good choice. She needs you the way I once needed you. She can give you what I cannot. I told you this would happen one day."
"You did," Kugo the panthan nodded. "I did not believe you." He wiggled forward up a slight slope until he could view the camp two haads away. Riders were beginning to gather their thoats. The silent man aimed his weapon, his finger on the firing stud. Just before the sun rose he said to the calot: "Danah might be the one."
Sunlight suddenly filled the encampment and Kugo began firing rapidly. The radium projectiles tore into the mass of thoats and men, exploding with terrific force. A shout rose from the camp as a half dozen men mounted on frightened thoats raced toward Kugo's position. At that moment two rifles opened up from the opposite slope, blowing all six riders to pieces. A general slaughter commenced until the hollow was filled with dust and targets could no longer be seen.
"Time we go," the panthan called his calot. Together they swiftly rode for the rendezvous point to join up with the two panthans. Holding their position near the trade route, Kugo saw the huge dust cloud which was the caravan coming as quickly as the zitidars could run. "Flanks!" he shouted spurring his thoat into the pass, riding high on the rock wall.
Kugo's rifle spoke when a pair of brigands showed themselves on the ridge. The shell exploded shy of his intended mark. An instant later two radium projectiles bracketed Kugo's mount, which squealed in pain as fragments of rock tore into its slate-colored side. The next round exploded beneath the panthan's mount, killing the thoat and throwing him three body lengths away.
In the fall Kugo lost the rifle. He staggered erect, ears ringing. A flash of teeth and ten furiously pumping legs raced by. A hideous shriek filled the air as the calot tore an attacker's arm off at the shoulder. Kugo filled his hand with sword and parried a thrust from a too eager opponent. He kicked the man's legs from under him then gave him the long sleep with a thrust through the heart.
A red pain scored Kugo's left side, the result of a murderous attack from the rear. His response as a master of the sword was a whirling movement, dropping low. His sword severed the man's left leg at the knee and carried upward to lay the other leg open to the bone.
Two men approached the panthan from opposite sides. Kugo did not wait for their attack. He sprang upon the one to his right, crashing his blade into the outlaw's and drew his short sword to disembowel the man before he could cry out. The master mind turned to face the other, but he was dead, his head crushed by the mighty calot's jaws.
The panthan froze, startled by the voice screaming his name. Clinging to the back of a wild-eyed thoat was Danah!
As smoothly as if rehearsed, the girl drew up, slid back on the thoat, then put her arms around the panthan after he mounted. She buried her face into his hard-muscled back, shuddering each time his sword arm rose and a voice cried out in pain. Then they were free, running through the caravan's dust cloud.
Danah cried out when she realized Kugo was cut. She tore at her silks to bind his wound.
Kugo felt her tears on his back. He gripped her forearm reassuringly. "A scratch, Danah! A scratch. You brave little fool!"
Two riders emerged from the dust shrouded pass. Kugo breathed a sigh of relief as he recognized his men, though one reeled on his mount. The second rider saw his fellow in trouble and closed ranks. That left one other...
"I'm here, Ras Thavas," the calot said, streaking toward the riders from a tangent. "Unharmed. Do you remember?"
"The dead city? Not much in the way of defense."
"It is better than this open wasteland!"
The thoats and calot caught up to the caravan. The wounded rider was passed from thoat to wagon. Kugo pushed his mount to greater speed and drew next to Gukas. "There's a dead city five haads east. We'll fight them there."
The panthan led the way to an ancient pile of stone so riven with age that hardly more than a handful of masonry stood on top of one another. Where the old plaza would have been the hard blowing zitidars were brought to a stop. Kugo dismounted. He reached up and swept Danah from the animal and hugged the naked girl to his breast. He had words to say, but not the time to say them.
"Gukas! Gather every weapon, ammunition, food, water, passenger, and driver into the rocks--there! Panthans, one on each compass point to direct the defense!"
Kugo helped unload the wagons, marveling that Danah stayed close and carried a heavy load herself. She would have gone back for more, but he would not allow it. Placing a hand on the woman's soft shoulder, the panthan pushed her behind a rock and called for the calot. Though he looked at Danah, his voice was for the calot. "If she moves, sit on her."
The panthan made another trip to the wagons, as did a number of the male passengers, and when they turned to go again, Kugo stopped them. He raised his voice so all could hear. "We hurt them, but they will come, and soon. Keep your heads down and your eyes open!"
Kugo sought out his two companions on the raid and got their reports. They confirmed four dead, perhaps a dozen others wounded. The panthan recalled his body count and observations. At least eleven bandits dead or so critically wounded to be useless. By his early estimate of the outlaw strength either one-half or one-third of the hostile force was out of commission. The odds were better, but not good. One of his men was severely wounded, though would heal given time. Counting himself, there were five warriors. Several of the passengers, though dressed gaily, had the appearance of fighting men, as were most males of Barsoom. The women passengers looked frightened, but caused no commotion.
Kugo bent heads with Gukas. "We can win, as long as we are alert and ready. They now know this sompas fruit will be most difficult to pluck."
Gukas gripped the panthan's arm. "I saw you up there. You are an arrogant and irritating man, but you are a warrior!"
A soft hand touched Kugo's elbow. Looking over his shoulder he saw Danah's worried face. Next to her, tongue lolling from its mouth, was the calot. The girl had a medical kit. "I must tend your wound, Kugo. Come, sit."
The master mind allowed the girl to lead him to a partial wall. She knelt beside him and efficiently cleansed his wound. She applied the marvelous salve which had antiseptics and promoted rapid tissue regeneration. A surface cut, such as he had, would close in a day and be fully healed in a week.
He looked down at her bent head, admiring the girl's slim form. The panthan then turned his eyes to the calot and scowled. "I thought I told you to watch her!"
Thasa Ras laughed through their mental link. "I watched her plead with the stupid calot to let her get a medicine kit to heal the mighty warrior. Danah made sense. I do like her!"
Whatever Kugo intended as reply was cut off by a shout from the lookout atop a three ad pile of masonry. "Here they come!"
Danah swiftly completed her ministrations then abruptly threw her arms about the panthan's neck and kissed him. "Conquer!" she said.
Kugo cupped her cheek with his hand. "I will." Before he took up a radium rifle, Kugo drew his pistol and placed it in Danah's hands.
The panthan climbed a wall, barely exposing his eyes above the rim. The number of shapes in the dust cloud was twenty.
"Hold your fire! When I give the command make every shot count!"
Gukas, next to Kugo, became nervous when the bandits stopped four haads away. "Why do they not charge?"
Kugo's head jerked about when the lookout shouted: "Another body of riders!"
The second group was larger than the first, perhaps a hundred in all. Kugo looked upon the anxious faces gazing at him. He smiled. "Seems we scared them."
Somebody nervously laughed. Then another.
Kugo walked among them giving advice, correcting those unfamiliar with radium weapons. Tall and magnificent, thought Danah. Thasa Ras was proud.
His words were calming. His confidence infectious. "We are in a good position. Every third person be prepared to move on command to supplement any quarter should they concentrate their attack, but do not leave any position undefended. Check your weapons."
The panthan visited the women, a half dozen in all, secured in the best fortified place. "Some of you know heal craft. May we count on you?"
A buxom woman in regal dress rose. "When someone falls we will get them."
Kugo smiled. "I admire your determination, but please, remain here. We will bring the wounded to you."
The master mind surveyed the huddle of defenders in the circle of stone they had chosen as their battleground. Five panthans, Gukas, eight male passengers, nineteen drivers--most of those young boys from the ranches; tough, willing but untrained in the arts of war. Outside the walls of the dead city were a hundred cutthroats and violent men who had had their pride injured by what should have been easy prey.
Danah was where he left her with the calot. "Go to the women," he said.
She threw back her head. "No."
Kugo lowered his voice. "Please. I would only worry about you. I cannot have my attention divided."
Again she said, "No. Remember, I am the prize Lovat seeks. I intend he pay dearly to obtain it--me. Do not send me away, Kugo. If I am not safe with you, then I have no hope at all."
The calot came to the girl's side. Her fearsome face turned upon the panthan as if she, too, agreed with the young woman. Kugo drew Danah to his breast, resting his chin on top of her head for a moment. He held her at arm's length, his voice and eyes most serious. "Stay behind me."
"Kugo, they come!"
The master mind went to the top of the wall and held his rifle at the ready. "Hold fire!" He waited until the galloping horde was a haad distant. "Fire!"
A dozen rifles spoke in unison. A tremendous detonation tore into the riders, who abruptly split into two groups. Kugo and Gukas stood shoulder to shoulder, firing methodically with good effect. A dozen riderless thoats created confusion, further hampering the outlaw charge. The panthan did not count dead or wounded, his entire being was focused on the next moving target. Behind him the panthans called encouragement to the defenders. He could only hope they fared at least as well.
A radium projectile hit low on the wall where Kugo and Gukas stood. The caravan master was knocked to his feet when a second shell exploded nearby. Kugo, erect as a statue, continued firing even as thoat riders reached the outer ruins of the dead city. At that range even the most untrained of his defenders could find targets and, after a furious barrage, the outlaws broke ranks and fled in all directions until they put a dune or rocks between them and the caravan.
A chorus of cheers rose over the crumbled masonry.
Kugo did not allow himself to relax until the wind carried the dust from the sands. A quick count revealed a score of dead or dying thoats and twelve outlaws, one of whom was barely alive enough to draw dagger and stab himself through the heart.
A report from the far side indicated more thoat losses but only eight outlaws dead. Kugo watched the panthan impatiently wipe at dark flow of blood oozing from a cut over his eye. "Should we do as well each time, Kugo, five charges should be enough."
Kugo shook his head. "They won't do that again, but neither can they let us go with what we know and how we have hurt them." As if to prove his words true, a thundering barrage of radium shells began to hit the ancient masonry.
"Keep down!" Kugo shouted.
There was a scream inside their area, then a second. Four drivers carried two of their own to the women, though one of those would die, his leg shot off.
The firing on the dead city became sporadic, testing the defenses. On Kugo's orders no fire was returned. "We do not wish to reveal our positions. They'll come after nightfall."
One of the male passengers asked how the panthan knew the mind of the bandits. Kugo answered truthfully: "Radium shells do not explode at night, though one will tear a satisfactory hole through a body--if you can hit it."
During the long afternoon six more defenders were injured and another was killed. Gukas struggled with his rage and inability to fight back. Kugo placed a calming hand on the caravan master's shoulder. "You'll soon have fighting in plenty. It is less than a zode to nightfall. Save your energy for swordplay."
"How can you be so calm? What have you got to lose, besides your life? Everything I have worked for, everything I--"
Kugo looked at the small girl with her arm around the calot's thick neck. "Everything I hold dear is with me now."
Gukas followed the panthan's gaze. He saw a beast and a girl from the country. Danah saw a ruggedly handsome warrior tall enough to touch the sky with his feathered braid. Thasa Ras saw her husband as she had once seen him before. To him alone she said: "Mean what you say, Ras Thavas. This girl already loves you. Do not break her heart."
To the calot replied the master mind. "I take you at your word, which I have come to treasure and believe. I did not think another woman could touch me, but this little girl..."
One of the panthans swiftly crawled to Kugo's side.
"A group of outlaws is using a ravine to get close."
"Six, eight, no more than that."
Kugo looked at the sun. The bright disc would not be long above the horizon. "Gukas, you're in charge. You," he told the messenger, "come with me. Calot, heel!"
Gukas stared at the broken wall of rock where three ghosts had seemingly disappeared without leaving a trace. Danah rose to follow. The caravan master shook his head. "He wouldn't like it," Gukas said.
Danah chewed her lip. "No, he wouldn't." She watched the sun descending. She remembered what Kugo had said. If only the sun would not set!
There was a shriek of inhuman pain, then four quick explosions. Danah's heart leapt into her throat and did not start beating until she heard Kugo's voice saying they were coming in. She wanted to run to him, to feel his arms around her, but his smile kept her feet still and let her breathe once again.
Kugo's voice was soft. "Watch every shadow. They probably won't attack until the moons are down. Pass it on."
The panthan found a wall of rock and sat down. Danah knelt at his side. He took her hand. "Is there anything to eat? I'm hungry."
At midnight the outlaws attacked. Kugo waited until the foe was fully committed then, while his sword arm was killing, gave the order. A half dozen radium lamps were unhooded by the drivers, who directed the light into the eyes of the outlaws while the panthans and male passengers struck down those within sword's reach. So well did the surprise work that Kugo and three of his men carried the attack deep into the outlaw ranks and with each step a foeman fell in agony.
"Fall back! Fall back!" came the cry from the attackers.
"Hood the lights!" shouted Kugo. Four winked out immediately, but two were slow and radium projectiles killed those who held the lamps and two more were wounded as they rushed to turn off the lights.
"Damn!" Kugo cursed.
Gukas and two men walked among the outlaws, their swords finishing those still breathing. He brought the count to Kugo. "Twenty-five. We lost twelve drivers. Will they attack again?"
Kugo knelt, resting his sword point on the sand. He scooped a handful of grit and scrubbed the blood from the length of steel. "I can't say. They might. They won't know how badly they hurt us. They might be cautious. Sleep. I'll wake you in a zode." The panthan walked through the camp, instructing every other defender to sleep. When the zode had passed without incident, Kugo woke the caravan master. "Every other man sleeps. You come get me in a zode. I want to be alert because they may try us at dawn."
The master mind was weary. He had to rest if he was to have any strength at day break. He found the calot. Next to the great beast was Danah, who was wide awake. "Get some rest, little one," he said to her. "I am."
Kugo drew his sword then began to lay down next to it and was startled when the girl moved so that his head rested in her lap. Her tiny hand touched his hair, his face. "I will watch, my chieftain."
For a long moment the panthan did not answer. Thasa Ras' thought stuck the master mind almost like a blow. "Tell her yes or tell her no, but do not be silent!"
Kugo looked up to the face bent over his, silhouetted by stars. "Wake me in a zode, my princess."
The panthan greeted the morning sun with both eagerness and regret. He gazed at the little form curled up in sleep at his feet. Such a brave little heart!
Thasa Ras nudged her husband's leg. "A fine choice."
"Promise me one thing, dear wife--friend. Let nothing happen to her."
"Do not make me weep!"
Man and beast gazed upon the desert. Other eyes in the caravan's camp watched the sands as well. When the attack came, it was on the other side. Kugo was tempted to rush to the battle, but his orders kept him in place as they did every other defender, for when the final attack came, it would not come from one direction.
The fighting sounded fierce, but so far the agreed upon cry for assistance had not been called. Kugo scanned the low dunes to his right. He thought he saw something. The calot tensed, confirming the panthan's eyesight.
There was a warning scream at Kugo's side followed instantly by an explosion that nearly knocked him off his feet. Danah lay on the ground, her body and pistol covered in blood and burned flesh. The smoking body of an outlaw lay only an ad away and others were coming over the wall. Kugo was suddenly very busy.
The calot sprang from one attacker to the next, a terrible nemesis of sharp tooth and horrific bite. Caught between the master swordsman and the fighting calot the outlaws began to lose heart and when little Danah got to her knees, tears streaming down her face, the radium pistol tore into the group. Of the twelve outlaws, only two escaped.
Gukas was down, his right arm broken, the side of his face bloody because of a missing ear. Two of the male passengers were dead. One of the panthans was dead, another critically wounded. Of the drivers only three were able-bodied.
Kugo picked up the caravan master. "Fall back. Final position. Take every weapon. They know our strength. They will come again."
Gukas gripped the panthan's arm when he placed him in the women's care. "No man could have asked better service. I would have liked to have seen how you spent your pay."
"We are not dead yet, master trader. And you will double my bonus."
Two lesser attacks came and were repulsed. The inner section of the dead city was more difficult to reach--much less breach--but the defenders injuries continued to mount though no more had died. When the hot sun was at noon and the shadows rested at the base of every upright object, the final assault began. A dozen thoats were driven into the area and two drivers and one male passenger was killed when they revealed their positions. Kugo held his fire until the outlaws were visible then took terrific toll on their ranks. Soon, however, the bandits were so close that the radium shells were as deadly for the defenders as attackers and steel was drawn.
Kugo, with the surviving panthan and the calot, stood at the entrance of the hold where the women and wounded lay. Behind the tall warrior, who addressed two and three swords at a time, was a fierce young girl holding two sharp daggers. Kugo's warrior companion fell. The calot killed his slayer, then took a sword through the chest. Danah picked up the fallen sword and stood over the calot, swinging wildly.
Kugo bled from a score of wounds, his footing slippery in the pool of blood seeping from the mound of bodies at his feet. The outlaws who climbed that steaming pile were greeted with death from the panthan's sword. But there was no doubt of the outcome. Kugo's blade was no longer swift, his cuts no longer clean and deadly. A red haze of exhaustion clouded the master mind's sight. In his heart he wept for Thasa Ras, for the calot lay unmoving. He wept for the love he might have had with Danah, and knew that he would kill her before letting the girl fall into Lovat's hands. He was disappointed he had failed Gukas, who was only a merchant meaning no harm to any except the damage he might do their purse. He regretted what would happen to those women watching with fear in their eyes.
Then, in an instant, the world turned upside down.
A heavy barrage of cannon fire hit the outlaws from the rear. The sun was occluded by a dense shadow. Kugo's foe made the mistake of looking up and died with a new mouth cut below his chin. The outlaws turned and ran, looking over their shoulders. Kugo's brow furrowed with confusion as a man, then others, chased the bandits. He recognized the metal on their harnesses.
A voice bellowed as a second air ship pursued the outlaws running for their lives on thoat back. "Ras Thavas! Ras Thavas!"
"Here!" the panthan shouted, sitting down. Every muscle ached. His arm felt like lead. The very air burned in his churning lungs.
Danah saw a man rush toward Kugo with sword in hand. She leapt forward, struggling with the length of steel she lifted two-fisted.
"Danah!" Kugo shouted. "He is a friend! Friend! It's over."
The girl dropped the sword and ran to her panthan. Her hands touched every cut, every bruise, assuring herself he was not mortally wounded. She wept with joy and threw herself into his weary embrace. Almost immediately she drew back and said: "Your calot is alive! She's breathing! Can we do anything?"
"I am here. Paralyzed. Nerve center. Missed lung and heart. Please cuddle while I slowly bleed to death. Oh, it hurts, darling."
Danah did not understand why the panthan laughed. She could not hear him say to the calot: "I suppose you want me to make you all better."
"Not for my sake, but for hers. She likes me."
Tan Hadron directed the removal of the survivors to the airship which had grounded at the edge of the dead city. He made sure the calot was taken directly to the ship's infirmary along with the other critically wounded. The odwar of Thavas eventually turned to sit on a pile of rock next to the master mind, now bandaged by the small dark-haired woman who had snatched the medicine kit from one of the field doctors.
"A traveler on the road heard fighting yesterday. He nearly rode a thoat to death to reach Solzith, where he sent a wireless message to Thavas. What happened?"
Danah was not sure she liked the officer or the way he talked. "Kugo! His name is Kugo!"
Tan Hadron smiled, admiring the girl's spunk. "His name is Ras Thavas, master of New City of Thavas. What is your name?"
Danah's eyes grew wide. She raised a trembling hand to her lips, flushed with embarrassment. "Nobody."
Kugo the panthan smiled and roughly pulled the girl close. "Her name is Danah, daughter of Hovathor of Jusath. My princess."
The master mind's smile widened as he observed the astonished look on Tan Hadron's face.
The tiny girl in white silks, her hair done up in latest fashion and topped with a diamond and ruby headdress, exercised great restraint in the marble halls of Thavas Center. She walked when she wanted to run. Her escort of six equally young and stunning girls, daughters of the Thavas Council, had smiles as bright as Danah's.
"Hurry, girl," Danah pleaded with the calot limping at her side. Someone had tied a blue silk scarf around the creature's neck. "Please hurry, Thasa Ras. We must not keep him waiting!"
One of the girls giggled. "Control yourself, Danah. Save some of that eagerness for tonight." A general round of laughter echoed from the gorgeously polished walls.
As they neared the auditorium gentle strains of music could be heard, music that was played at weddings. Danah's smile became more composed, her gait more regal. Her future lay before her, one that she had never conceived. To have the love of Ras Thavas, the master mind of Barsoom!
At the edge of the stage, before an audience of three thousand, Danah paused. She raised a slim hand to her breast and took a deep breath. The calot rubbed against her leg. The girl gripped the animal's short mane because, standing center stage looking at her with his true face, was Kugo the panthan!
The music stopped. There was a hush. The music began again--the march. Danah and her escort took measured steps across the smooth ersite floor. Ras Thavas gazed at her with such intensity that Danah had to look away for fear of fainting with happiness. As her eyes moved across the audience she saw a face. A face she knew and feared. A face that was pushing forward through the crowd.
"No!" she whispered in panic. "Not him! Not here!"
Danah began to run toward her panthan. She called his name in warning. "Kugo! Look out!"
There was a commotion at the front of the stage. A hard-faced man slammed his fist until a path opened and he, too, ran toward Ras Thavas, but in his other hand was a pistol. He raised it and fired just as Danah threw her body in front of her love.
The radium projectile smashed through Danah's delicate ribs. Her white silks turned red as Ras Thavas caught the girl in his arms. The assassin was instantly overpowered by a dozen men and would have died had Tan Hadron not ordered him held for trial.
Ras Thavas, the finest surgeon on Barsoom, knew that even his enormous skill could not save Danah's life. "You brave little fool!" he wept. "A thousand times me than you!"
"I love you," Danah said. She tried to say more but the light faded in her eyes and she was gone.
The master mind stood, holding the limp body in his arms. His instant rage was directed to the man who ceased to struggle. "Who are you?" Ras Thavas demanded. "Why did you kill this girl?"
"I told her when I killed her father that none would have her except me. I meant to kill you."
"That tells me why, not who."
The crowd gasped when the calot sprang from the stage. The creature arched her back and hissed loudly, jaws gaping wide, the triple rows of sharp teeth gleaming from the glow of radium lamps. The audience gave way as the creature advanced upon the group holding Lovat.
Ras Thavas, his words filled with hate, clutched the forlorn body to his breast. "My calot does not like you. Neither do I."
The master mind turned his back to Lovat. First Tan Hadron, then others did the same, including the men holding the outlaw leader. Nobody seemed to hear his agonized screams as they left Thavas Center.
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