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Voyage to Zodanga
A Story of Ancient Barsoom
David Bruce Bozarth
Copyright © 1997
Millions of years ago rolling oceans kissed the shores of Barsoom's continents, continents so forgotten that only faint echoes of their names have descended through time. "Voyage to Zodanga" was originally part of a series of short stories extending my world of Transits. Written in 1982, "Two Days At Sea" was "forgotten" by all, including the author until my introduction and enthusiastic embracing of the Internet. A little search and replace ... a bit of editing there and here ... and we now have a look at how life might have been before the oceans of Mars dried up and the ferocious green man claimed the dead sea bottoms.
— David Bruce Bozarth, 1997
A recent fish kill of undetermined origin gave the usually sullen atmosphere of Walaulan an even greater aura of disrepute than normal. Shunned by the world in general the sleepy coastal town offered no redeeming factors, owing its existence to its position at the end of a long, dusty road from northern Ptarth and a narrow harbor suited only to shallow draft day-sailing caravels of the Zodangan Inland Sea.
Captain Xerfal stood on the cramped aft deck of his ship and surveyed the indifferent crowd dockside. He was a man of late middle age, strong of arm and back, brown in color; a skin trait revealing mixed blood. He was of medium height with long white hair cinched behind his neck with a small silver clasp, the only personal vanity the man allowed himself.
"Orlay!" Xerfal shouted dockside where his panthan mercenary busied himself dunking the heads of two crewmen who incautiously imbibed too much of the sour wine favored in these desert parts. "Are they sober yet?"
Panthan Orlay looked toward the ship's captain. As he nodded a morning greeting, he casually held the sailors' heads beneath the foul water in the thoat trough. With apparent disdain the burly Zodangan ignored the sailors' feeble struggles as they pushed with increasing desperation at the side of the trough.
"These two are never sober, sir!" Orlay replied. At that moment he pulled the gasping men up then dropped them in the thick, wind-gathered, yellow dust choking the trough base. "I say let them drink themselves to death or meet a cut-throat thief in the dark. I am done pulling their hides out of jail and settling their debts with innkeepers."
Xerfal's stern eyes narrowed. The ship owner displayed annoyance by slowly rubbing the angular planes of his clean shaven chin. "Can they haul line, panthan?"
Orlay glanced down at the half-drowned sailors crumpled at his feet. "They will have to, won't they, Captain?"
"Bring them aboard," Xerfal said. "We have cargo to load and a possible passenger to arrive before we sail."
In compliance with his master's decision Orlay raised the sailors by the scruff of the neck, an unconscious demonstration of his great strength. The crewmen hung from his grasp like recalcitrant children; embarrassed and all too aware of the large-boned mercenary's powerful presence. On mounting the deck the dark-skinned warrior from Zodanga dropped his moaning charges.
Leaning close to the discomforted sailors, Orlay said, "We'll be in Calbanal day after tomorrow. Owing to the extraordinary length of your memories I know we shall have this fun again. I look forward to that."
One of the sailors turned away, the other rushed to the rail to empty his guts. Orlay smiled. The big Zodangan usually appeared grim-faced when on duty, though his heavy-handed humor often surfaced when dealing with drunken crewmen.
Amidships, under a canvas awning which allowed the on-shore breeze to pass unimpeded, Merchant Drogos sweltered in the morning's heat over a lavish breakfast with his two retainers; young men with hard steel never far from their hands. Drogos, on passage with the coastal trade ship for the last six days, wore robes of expensive cloth of varied colors, which unflatteringly accentuated the Phundahl slaver's immense girth. A man whose livelihood was the misery of others, Drogos deliberately ignored Orlay's courteous good-morning when the ship's soldier-panthan passed on his way aft to join Captain Xerfal.
The ship owner's greeting was quite different in contrast, cordial and relaxed from years spent together. Xerfal nodded toward Drogos when the mail-clad panthan settled against the weathered skeel wood forming the ship's gunwale. "If the Phundahl's gold was a different color and I had no wages to settle, I'd cheerfully forego profit and throw that pompous bastard and his cargo off my ship!"
Orlay straightened up, looking down into the captain's eyes. "I would be greatly honored to arrange an accident, sir."
Xerfal chuckled, clapping a firm hand on the panthan's sturdy back. "Your devotion and enthusiasm is admirable, Orlay. Unfortunately we are both honorable men."
Orlay turned a hard stare toward the three under the awning and sighed. "Unfortunately," the warrior acknowledged. The big man removed his helm, holding it under one arm then pushed sweat damp hair back from his forehead. Looking to the sky he said, "It will be a hot day, sir."
Xerfal turned an experienced eye toward the cloudless morning sky and nodded. "One day I shall sail back to Zodanga where the shores are green instead of brown and the air's as sweet as Rhoion wine." Realizing he spoke with a wistful, homesick sound, Xerfal deliberately laughed. "Do you think Dator Nuroce has forgotten about that mis-delivered cargo by now, Orlay?"
Orlay's thin-lipped smile recalled a long past night when he and Xerfal set two frightened women ashore before the ship arrived at Nuroce's port. Both the captain and himself carried scars on their backs from that powerful lord's displeasure. "Nuroce is dead, I think, killed by the lady's Chosen if I recall aright."
"Yes, I remember a rumor to that effect. Still, there are his brothers and sons..." Xerfal waved the matter aside and turned to practicalities.
"Supervise the crew loading the mantalia beans into the forward hold, Orlay. I will go ashore and pay my respects to the port master." Xerfal winked casually as he patted the heavy bulge of his belt pouch.
The two men left the ship together, Xerfal moving into dirt-walled Walaulan while Orlay directed the cargo stowage. After a time Orlay peeled off his mail and lent his strength to the tackle lines lifting large wooden pallets of sacked beans. With his help the remaining crewmen, four in all, loaded the cargo in short order.
The men returned to the ship and Orlay remained ashore, resting quietly on a packing case destined for a north-bound ship. He tipped his head back, squinting against the sun then sipped water from a canteen. A sudden voice at his elbow startled him.
"Is this Xerfal's ship?" the stranger asked.
Orlay lowered the canteen and frowned. The short, though powerfully built man in the blue cloak moved as silent as night wind. "It is."
"I am Trebyn."
Orlay's wariness lessened by a degree. "Your messenger arrived at dawn, sir," Orlay replied. "Captain Xerfal expected you earlier."
"I was detained," the man replied without explanation.
"You do understand there are no cabins available."
"I am used to sleeping under the stars, panthan."
Orlay nodded. He secured his canteen and lifted his mail from the crate, carrying it in his left hand, to leave his right free for the sword hanging at his waist. "I'll take you aboard -- Trebyn."
Orlay silently noted how the man matched his pace, neither pulling ahead or falling behind, showing the respect one fighting man offers another; for it was obvious this red-haired stranger was a warrior, one so secure in his ability he announced it with his name, which was, in the dialect of Ptarth, the word for "assassin".
The new passenger was a man of stocky build, having the appearance of a juggler or artist despite evidence of well-worn weapons. Treybn's hair was flame red and tucked under a weather-beaten cap which kept those thick strands from his all-seeing eyes. The man's eyes seemed able to penetrate the very soul of those who met his cool, calculating gaze, cataloging a person's every strength or weakness in a single startling instant. His skin, where it was exposed beneath the great blue cloak about his wide shoulders, was an indigo so dark as to appear black, and displayed scars showing past violence with other men.
Trebyn settled himself on the edge of the foredeck, well away from the busy crewmen preparing the ship for sail. A small travel bag lay on the skeel decking at his side and the man from Ptarth said nothing, though his eyes were ever watchful.
When Xerfal returned to the ship Orlay introduced the captain to the new passenger. At that time Trebyn produced two large coins which he passed to the ship owner. "The remainder of my passage. Thank you for waiting."
Xerfal placed the coinage in his pouch. "I am an honest sailor, sir. I would have waited until the cargo was loaded then sailed; a half fare is a half promise."
Trebyn smiled. "I know those terms well, Captain. How soon do you sail?"
Xerfal turned to Orlay. "Is all secure?"
"It is, Captain Xerfal."
The captain faced the Ptarthian. "Is now soon enough?"
Trebyn nodded. "If sailing now when one may already be too late is soon enough... Will I be in the way up there, sir?" The red-haired man gestured toward his travel bag lying on the foredeck.
Xerfal showed his admiration with a trace of smile. "Few of my passengers have the good sense to ask, sir. You may sit where you wish because I trust you have the additional courtesy of knowing when you might interfere with ship duties."
"I am a confirmed landsman, Captain. Water is for bathing and it should be in a small tub. I will stay out of the way."
Drogos narrowed his fat-folded eyes as the new passenger passed his table. He leaned to his left, drawing his blonde-haired retainer's ear. "Who is that?"
Sisogu replied with a whisper that matched his employer's. "A crewman said his name is Trebyn. A messenger came before dawn riding a crippled thoat with part fare to hold the ship. This Trebyn sails south to Calbanal. Do you know him?"
Drogos waved Sisogu back and pursed his lips thoughtfully. "There is a red-haired man by that name who earns his keep performing that same service. He is a barbarian from Ptarth. Since I have never seen the man I do not know if this be the same one."
Sisogu pushed away from the table. "I will find out."
Drogos grabbed the young man's arm. "Sit. Let us watch awhile."
The merchant intently observed Trebyn as the man from Ptarth occupied himself with a short piece of rope. The newcomer's hands were square and hard-calloused, yet nimbly agile as he twisted the rope into intricate and unusual knots with astonishing speed. Perhaps this idle twisting was a nervous habit, but one would be hard put to apply such description to the new passenger. Trebyn's face was impassive of emotion; though the creases lining the piercing eyes and his narrow, almost flat lips, showed the stranger capable of many kinds of expression--usually grim.
Drogos privately deemed Trebyn a most undesirable travelling companion. He voiced this opinion to Sisogu and U'a'neji. The red-hair's presence irritated the heavy-set trader from the moment the compact man boarded at Walaulan. U'a'neji dredged up rumors and awe-whispered tales of a dark-skinned red-haired man who carried rope, sword and throwing knives, a man known as a dangerous mercenary and answered to no name except "Assassin."
The table talk between his retainers kept Drogos agitated as Xerfal maintained a southerly course about two miles off the coast. Could this stranger be the same Trebyn? The question continued to plague the merchant past the lunch hour.
Drogos left the shelter of the awning and walked aft. The fat trader perspired heavily was he entered the shade of the lateen mizzen sail. He frequently glanced toward the red-haired man on the foredeck and was not the only person on board to do so. The ship's crew passed cautious comment amongst themselves regarding the recently boarded passenger.
The slave-merchant mopped his fat brow with a perfumed silk and nodded casually to Orlay, who leaned against the ship's rigging. Orlay acknowledged the man's presence with a single glance, then studiously ignored Drogos. The ship's mercenary was more concerned with the coastline lying to starboard. Potential danger lurked behind those silent dunes and dry country beyond this desolate sandy shore of the Zodangan Inland Sea. Orlay's first duty was the protection of Xerfal's ship and passengers, which he carried out to his every ability and the unwary or inexperienced never survived long. But nothing demanded he be civil to those he despised.
Drogos smiled, totally unaware of the tall Zodangan's opinion, a facial expression formed with the lips only and lacking genuine feeling. He leaned toward Orlay, whispering an observation to the tall, mail-clad panthan. "I'm frankly astonished Captain Xerfal took this red-haired man aboard. The likes of him should not be allowed to travel with honest folk."
Orlay turned an amused stare toward the overly dressed Drogos. "Captain Xerfal found his gold the proper weight for passage, milord. I rather take my chances with Trebyn than trading with you. I have seen your cargo languishing in the hold." Orlay's quiet chuckle irritated the fat merchant.
"I am only about my lawful business..." Drogos protested.
Panthan Orlay shifted the grip on his lance and moved away from the stout skeel gunwale. He fixed an unyielding gaze on Drogos. "Perhaps, milord, but slaving is not a trade honest men seek to make their fortunes." Orlay inclined his plate steel helm toward the foredeck. "With him a man knows his pockets are safe."
"Do you know him?" Drogos demanded, eyebrow lifted in anticipation of Orlay's answer.
Orlay shrugged brawny shoulder. "He's a man who minds his own business. I'd say he was a blank-shield mercenary. It is not uncommon to see men like Trebyn taking passage south, what with the trouble in Arhanga."
Drogos narrowed his eyes until they were lost in the folds of his plump cheeks. He cast a glance to the Ptarthian on the foredeck, who whittled a thick cheese with a keen-edged knife. At that moment Trebyn looked up, fastening cold eyes on the slave-trader.
Drogos shivered under the silent appraisal. Turning to Orlay, Drogos said, "If that man tries to take advantage of my position, or wealth, or cargo, it will be your duty to protect my interests as Captain Xerfal promised."
"Aye," the grim-faced warrior replied, a touch of anger creeping into his voice due to the prickish manner of the merchant. "I will do my duty, sir, though you have little to fear for your purse from the likes of him. His business is not stealing property or wealth, it is the taking of a man's life prematurely."
Orlay drew an inspired conclusion as he looked down at Drogos' fevered face. He grinned with delight and asked, "Have you angered someone, Milord Drogos? Is your uneasiness regarding our fellow passenger an expression of guilt on your part?"
"I listen to no insults!" Drogos hissed indignately.
"Then move on, sir," Orlay chuckled. "Move on and I will not be tempted to speak my mind."
Drogos' face darkened hotly under the tall panthan's brusque taunt. He shook a thick, well-manicured finger in the warrior's face. "I shall speak to Xerfal about your insolence! You will be severely punished for your impertinence and churlish tongue!"
Panthan Orlay shrugged his mailed shoulders and ignored Drogos, turning his gaze to the desert land off the starboard bow. Still sputtering with indignation the slaver ponderously turned and went forward.
The sun, near the low-lying horizon, glowed ruddy in a clear sky beginning to show stars. Sea birds of white and black skimmed the water's edge, occasionally diving beneath the surface to emerge with a silvery form wriggling frantically between sharp beaks.
Captain Xerfal stood on the aft deck, the wind whipping his long white hair across his shoulders. He diligently searched the coastline for a proper landing point to lay over during the hours of darkness when it was not as safe to sail. He would make his choice from a navigational point of view, but would, of course, defer to Orlay's judgement should the chosen site be indefensible.
After years of service with the old ship owner, Orlay seized on an old habit of scouting from the railing to increase distance between himself and Drogos. His thoughts regarding the richly dressed passenger were dark and unflattering, a judgment which remained unchanged as the voyage to Calbanal progressed.
Though it irritated him to do so, Orlay was forced to consider the slaver's thinly veiled suggestions regarding the red-haired Ptarthian. If Trebyn was, in truth, the near mythic Assassin out of the north lands, Orlay hoped the man from Ptarth had no target on board. This suggestion by Drogos was one Orlay refused to give any great weight and, as long as the red-hair comported himself properly, the Zodangan saw no reason to provoke the man on the basis of the fat merchant's unreasonable fears. If, Orlay scowled, this man was the Assassin, any confrontation between himself and the Ptarthian would surely end with a maiming or death. The question was, however, whose? Panthan Orlay had achieved his venerable thirty-six years of age by being neither impetuous or foolish.
Captain Xerfal tacked his rotund craft toward the sand dunes. Trebyn leaned against the gunwale and observed both crew and the nearing shore. He hated water travel because he never learned to swim with any great skill despite his confidence in all other matters. He remained constantly aware of the ship's progress, though no sign of his minor anxieties showed on the flat planes of his regular features--handsome features marred by a single puckered scar running from left temple to mid-point of his left cheek. He glanced at the yellow sails and smiled to himself, regretting the loss of comfort in distant Rhoion; where the gentle sun's warmth was complimented by hot-blooded women and fiery wine.
A traveller to many distant lands, Trebyn existed by placing his life in danger for payment or principal--usually the former. The survivor of a hundred battles, his long travelling left him weary and aching for peace. He eventually found it, after years of dusty roads and turbulent times, in Rhoion, a small holding north of the Zodanga border. He had believed his time to rest, to live the quiet life, had arrived. The languid days at Rhoion were pleasant and all he had longingly dreamed of in a thousand trail camps.
This idleness ended when word reached Trebyn that Jocim, a trusted and well-liked friend, came into a troubling not of his making in the lands south of the great Zodangan Inland Sea. Jocim, an old and familiar trail companion, had visited with Trebyn in Rhoion the prior spring. For a time they enjoyed quiet days talking and amorous nights wenching, though Jocim the Bard eventually chaffed at the confines of such benign existence. Jocim was a man driven by ambitions Trebyn failed to fully comprehend, yet he accepted them as he accepted the man. A genuine sadness filled his savage breast when the warrior/historian gathered his trail pack and departed Rhoion.
The memory of his missing friend made Trebyn impatient. The Ptarthian narrowed his eyes against the sun glare on water, anxious to have this part of the journey over. His intent was to rescue Jocim from a vile nest of intrigues shamelessly fashioned by hard, evil men. He cheerfully ignored the possible danger to himself, facing it stoically with the certain knowledge that if, and when, he trod the Dark Road to the Table of Is, he would travel with a great company of enemies.
The first step to aiding Jocim was obtaining the Zodangan Inland Sea's southern shore, thus this voyage from Walaulan at the beginning of the long day. From Calbanal on the border of Arhanga he would then ride three hundred miles south until he reached the forest lands beyond. Were it not for the thrice-damned desert banding the western coast, and the hostile nomads inhabiting that vast arid expanse, and the pressing need for speed, Trebyn would have avoided passage on Xerfal's ship.
The caravel was fat-bellied and slow, reeking with a number of smells; some of pungent rich spices and others so vile one dared not question their source for being told the cause. There was one odor among the many clinging to the ship which Trebyn knew well from infrequent encounters with imprisonment over the years: the close-packed scent of unwashed humanity confined in their own excrement.
The pitiful aroma rose through the lattice-grilled hatch securing the main hold, a tight mesh which scarcely prevented the poor devils from baking alive in the dark hold. If not for Trebyn's reluctance to create trouble while needing this special form of transportation he would have delighted in confounding the fat slaver by facilitating the mysterious disappearance of his goods. Trebyn smiled faintly as the sun kissed the water. Perhaps something could be arranged after they reached their destination. Nothing could be done before they docked at Calbanal.
Xerfal shouted orders from the aft deck and proficient crewmen sprang to lines in response. Trebyn carefully avoided interfering with the men's duties, though they often passed nearby to reef sail and haul tackle. Trebyn discovered, through snatches of overheard conversation, the crew had as little liking for the living cargo the ship carried as he.
"The poor bastards below decks--" one crewman said, unaware of Trebyn's proximity. "How it must hurt to be so close to their home and not to see it for a last time..."
"A good length of cold steel in the fat man's heart would solve their problems..."
"And Orlay would have your arse for breakfast."
"Orlay's no happier than we," the other replied. "At least Xerfal and Orlay makes sure Drogos waters and feeds the slaves every day. There are some ship owners who care even less than the slavers."
The sailors moved away to secure the starboard lines. In the deepening twilight Trebyn cloaked himself in shadows near the forward hatch. His dark blue cloak covering him completely. As long as he remained motionless, he was invisible.
Two whispers near the bow drew the red-haired man's attention. "Do you think he is the one?"
"The Ptarthian? Have you an enemy wealthy enough to pay his price? You flatter yourself too highly, Onuah. Unless you cross the man by accident or purpose you are in no danger of his singing blades or the rope in his hands."
Trebyn smiled beneath the brim of his hat. He had, when the situation warranted, killed without pay, but never without reason. His professional pride rose from his ability to avoid trouble instead of seeking it.
Xerfal personally took the ship's helm for the final approach to shore. Orlay stood at the bow; lance in hand, sword buckled tight, helm secured by a leather strap. Some inner sense caused the tall panthan to turn and he displayed no surprise in finding the short, powerfully built Ptarthian at his side. A silent exchange passed between the two men and, as the ship's prow ground into the fine, hard-packed beach sand, both dropped over the side.
Orlay's reconnaissance was by duty, Trebyn's by desire. Through unspoken agreement Orlay scouted left and Trebyn to the right. Hordes of barbaric nomads made this part of the coastal desert home, prompting wise men to survey an area before camping ashore.
Captain Xerfal, cautiously took the opportunity to load fresh water from the thin stream winding through high dunes from the scrub brush interior. Ever watchful, he took Orlay's report when the big Zodangan returned. He then asked Trebyn if he concurred with the ship panthan's observations.
"Aye, sir. A party of mounted men stopped at this stream sometime during the day. I would say a dozen on thoats, no more than that. How long they stayed is not certain, but they pressed on down the coast toward Calbanal."
"Think they follow us?" Captain Xerfal asked.
Trebyn shrugged his well-muscled shoulders beneath his blue cloak. The ship owner reflectively arched his brow.
"I see. Any other sign, Trebyn?"
The red-haired man nodded toward the interior, his eyes gazing at the low, wind-twisted brush which offered more places of concealment than these city-bred or ocean-raised men could conceive. His voice assumed a thoughtful tone as he replied to Captain Xerfal's inquiry.
"Footprints in the sand near the brush -- from the interior. What manner of men I could not say, being a stranger to this land, but like all men, they seemed curious, coming to the dunes and watching for a time, then removing themselves."
"Were they watching us or the riders? Will there be trouble?"
"I, sir, have known trouble in my time and never assume the lack of it. Do we camp aboard or on the beach?"
Xerfal's reply was a hearty smile of approval. "I think we can dare the land, sir. It's obvious you have no great liking for my vessel."
"Captain Xerfal, it is as fine a craft as any I have seen," Trebyn responded with a thin smile. "'Tis my own dislike for the sea which prompts the question. My thanks for your understanding."
"What more can I do for one who is willing to assume the same dangerous duties as my ship's panthan? I shall rest easy tonight, for I feel you are not one to be caught unawares while camping in Helimite territory." With that statement still lingering on the light breeze, Xerfal turned away to begin ordering the night camp.
Orlay shifted his lance to the crook of his mailed arm and dipped his helm's visor in salute. "Good night, Ptarth."
Trebyn selected an area near the edge of the camp, nearest the dunes lining the shore. He spread his cloak as a bed, then sat quietly while a fire was built and food prepared. He watched impassively as Xerfal's six crewmen, including the two recovering from hang overs, rolled out bedding or mended frayed rigging by the firelight.
The slaver's preparations for night were more intricate. Two naked male slaves were brought out of the hold and set to work erecting a pair of canvas tents; one for Drogos, the other for his men. When their work was done Sisogu returned the slaves to the ship.
Throughout the entire operation of establishing camp Drogos monopolized Captain Xerfal, voicing high-pitched dissatisfaction. "If you heed your man, Captain, there are native Helimites in the area. They are quite dangerous."
Xerfal looked at the oily perspiration coating the merchant's too round face. "I have no doubt of our ability to protect ourselves on this shore. I have made this voyage a hundred times, Merchant Drogos, and had to resort to steel only once--and that was on a passenger."
Drogos stiffened haughtily at Xerfal's implied warning. "The night is clear, the Dance of the Moons will be bright. Why not sail on? There is little chance of losing sight of land under such conditions."
"I shall give you two reasons why I will not," Xerfal tautly replied. "There are reefs south of here I do not wish to try by and, secondly,have I taken the liberty of telling you how to conduct your business? By the Hem of Thuria's Skirt, do not presume to tell me mine!"
"I see," Drogos growled disparagingly. "You are afraid."
Panthan Orlay, a witness to the conversation, clenched his gloved fists and moved forward. Captain Xerfal stopped the incensed warrior with a restraining hand across the Zodangan's broad chest.
"I will answer our passenger myself, Orlay. Please make sure the camp is secure and," he added as an after thought, "bring Drogos' slaves on deck to wash so the night watch can air and sluice the hold." Xerfal reinforced his command with a level gaze until Orlay nodded curtly, walking to the ship shouting orders.
Drogos trembled with rage. His lips snarled. "We had an agreement when we took passage, Captain Xerfal. I will take care of my cargo myself. What right have you to order your men to pamper my slaves?"
Trebyn, having come to take his share of the evening meal, interjected a puzzled question in response to the slaver's loud outburst. "Pamper? An odd choice of words, Drogos."
"What word would you use?" Drogos straightened to his full height, towering well over the calm, cloaked figure.
Trebyn met that gaze coolly, idly toying the ever-present rope between strong, competent hands. "I might call it compassion, Master Drogos. Captain Xerfal might call it preservation. It is, after all, his ship."
"And my property which he agreed to carry at a price, a very handsome price indeed! Captain Xerfal, I demand you countermand your order to remove my slaves from the hold. I shall not chance escape or potential damage through mishandling."
Xerfal's eyes narrowed tightly, his voice bleak of emotion. His reply was barely audible above the hissing roll of surf on sand. "I would think your property would have greater value were it to arrive in saleable condition, Drogos."
"You will let me worry about that, Captain Xerfal. My men are capable of tending the needs of my slaves. As you pleaded earlier, do not try to tell me how to conduct my affairs."
There was a hardness in the ship owner's eyes which was not lost on Trebyn or U'a'neji and Sisogu, Drogos' retainers. The reactions of the three listeners, however, was quite different. The young men slapped hands to sword hilts and stepped forward. Trebyn remained as he was, his eyes seemingly intent on the fashioning he made with the rope end. When he spoke, the red-haired Ptarthian's steel-edged voice seemed to ominously echo among the dunes.
"As an impartial observer I can well understand both sides. I would recommend a time for meditation before you continue this discussion. Things said in the heat of anger are usually regretted in the morn."
Drogos faced the cloaked man and raised his voice. "Your meddling is not wanted! I suggest you--"
Drogos stopped the tirade of angry words, his eyes apprehensively fastened on the hangman's noose dangling from Trebyn's clever fingers.
"Yes?" Trebyn looked up, his hands swiftly undoing the menacing knot and beginning another shaping, as if unconscious of his actions. "You were saying?"
Drogos trembled as if a cold wind caressed his perspiring neck. Trebyn's dark eyes bored into his and urged caution in the way Drogos shaped his reply. The heavy-set trader swallowed hard and finally managed to shift his eyes from the Ptarthian's unyielding gaze.
"I have nothing more to say to you!" Drogos exclaimed with a shiver. The fat man imperiously gestured for his retainers to accompany him to the caravel.
Captain Xerfal silently watched the men leave, the on-shore wind trailing out his long white hair. Without looking toward Trebyn, the old man said, "You are correct, sir. Angry words may cause regret, but not when they are the truth. Sleep well."
"I usually do," Trebyn replied enigmatically.
The first Orbit of the Moons was spectacular in the arid atmosphere along the coast, giving rise to a ghostly company of shifting shadows and silvery outlines among the sleeping forms gathered about the dying embers of the fire. When the first Orbit passed the next was hours away which left the camp in darkness. The wind gathered strength as night progressed until it howled through the twisted growths beyond the beach. The change in weather affected the camp sentry, keeping the sailor's nerves on edge. Those who managed to sleep were uneasy in their rest, tossing on blankets or jerking momentarily awake only to hear nothing but surf and wind.
Only Trebyn's bed seemed undisturbed; the cloak over the Ptarthian moved only when the wind plucked at the edges. Panthan Orlay, awakened for the last watch of the night, glanced toward the still figure. He instinctively sensed the sleeping Ptarthian was more aware of his surroundings than those who stood watch with keen eyes and alert minds. Regardless of what Drogos might think of the red-haired man, Orlay was grateful for Trebyn's presence, especially this night when barbarous Helimites were near.
The following morning Captain Xerfal's shouts woke the camp. "Orlay! Where are you man?"
Drogos and his men burst from their tents, running to Xerfal's side. "What has happened?" Drogos demanded.
Xerfal shook free of the slaver's grip and started down the beach. "Orlay's missing. He was last on watch."
The ship owner quickly instigated a search for the missing Zodangan. Two sailors discovered Orlay's helm and lance lying behind a dune just beyond the camp perimeter. Captain Xerfal swiftly examined the scuffed sand, a tiny spatter of blood; mute evidence of a struggle. He then followed the trail of a heavy body being dragged to the water. The marks disappeared in the surf.
Captain Xerfal waded into the chill wash of the Zodangan Inland Sea, raging with frustration. "A fine man! Dragged in with his mail!" He shouted to sailors on the caravel's aft deck. "Search the bottom! See if you can find his body!"
Two men dove from the stern. Xerfal waited impatiently for them to surface. The sailors braved the depths several times, though complaining of a strong current close to shore.
"Come out!" Xerfal waved the men in, unwilling to risk their lives in a futile effort to recover Orlay's body. "Return to the ship," he grudgingly commanded.
"We said there was a current, Captain," one man said, the same man Orlay half drowned in a foul-smelling thoat trough at Walaulan the morning before. "We did not say we would not dive. We must find him, sir."
Xerfal kicked the sand beneath his boots, shaking his head. "Orlay would not want it that way." Clapping a hand on the man's back, he offered gruff sympathy. "Break camp. Get ready to sail."
"But, sir!" Both sailors argued. "It's Orlay!"
Biting his lip, Xerfal looked down at his feet. "I know. You have your orders."
Drogos waited until the two sailors glumly departed. "Was it an accident, Captain Xerfal?"
Xerfal faced the slaver with narrowed eyes. "Accident? Someone bashed him near the dunes then threw Orlay in the water. He certainly didn't walk in of his own accord!"
"Are you certain?" Drogos asked, his voice strained.
"Men clad in mail avoid midnight swims!" the captain roared, stiffly marching to the beached ship.
Drogos stared after the irate ship owner with puckered brow. An instant later he whispered to Sisogu, "What happened? Did you--"
Drogos' retainer backed away. "No, milord! I did as you instructed. The panthan was alive when I left him. I swear by my Mother's Eyes!"
"Then what happens here?" Drogos glared at his men. "The other, did you do it?"
Sisogu nodded, fingering the hilt of his knife. "Without a sound."
"This thing with Orlay, then, is unexpected. We must find out what has happened." Drogos hurried after Captain Xerfal. He put the question to the ship owner.
"How should I know?" Xerfal replied. "Orlay and the Ptarthian found sign of Helimites yesterday..."
At the mention of Trebyn, the fat slaver tugged at the captain's sleeve. He gestured to the camp site where sailors hastily packed gear. The entire camp displayed agitated motion, all except the still form beneath the blue cloak. "Do you not think it passing odd that our fellow traveller has not roused from all the shouting?"
"Yes," Captain Xerfal frowned, quickly striding toward Trebyn's bed. He stopped a short distance away; a wise man exhibited caution when waking a stranger armed with weapons. "Sir! Awake!"
When there was no response, Xerfal looked to Drogos, who seemed secretly amused. Goaded by Drogos' silent innuendo that Trebyn had not awakened because he knew of the Zodangan's disappearance, the ship owner knelt to jerk the great cloak aside. Xerfal moved back, shocked by what he found, but his reaction was nothing compared to the slaver's astonishment.
A low mound of sand, covered by the cloak, supported the hard-scaled body of a darseen sand lizard. The reptile's dun colored body was twice pierced by a sharp object. Drogos quickly recovered his wits, pointing an accusing finger to the empty bed.
"What more proof do you require, Captain? The Ptarthian assassin is your murderer! He rose from his bed while we slept and killed Orlay! Why else would Trebyn make such an elaborate subterfuge?" Drogos bent to pick up a large shell decorated with fire ash in the semblance of closed eyes and cleverly wrapped with a red scarf.
"Why, indeed?" Captain Xerfal mused. "No quarrel passed between them. To my knowledge Orlay and Trebyn never exchanged hard words. What reason could he have to kill my guard?"
"Who knows what motivates his kind? Orlay told me he thought the man was a mercenary, an assassin. Do his kind need a reason to kill? I think not, sir. The man is a cold-blooded sort and--" Drogos lowered his voice, demonstrating an insecurity Xerfal easily noted "--perhaps he intends to kill us one by one!"
"How? When we sail, which we will do immediately, he will be left ashore. We will make for Calbanal with all speed."
"I protest, Captain Xerfal! The man must be found and brought to justice for his crime. You cannot leave him here to make his escape. My men will aid you..."
The ship owner scowled. "Drogos, you are swift to assume my passenger's guilt. It is just as plausible that after killing Orlay, Trebyn was taken by Helimites who then left the lizard to delay pursuit. Who can tell? The beach is rife with foot prints, thus impossible to clearly determine what happened last night."
Drogos offered further protest and Xerfal silenced him with a sharp glance. "I sail with the tide, Master Merchant. When I reach Calbanal I shall take this matter to the constable and we will come back, sir, with enough men to make a proper search. Orlay is probably dead, drowned in his mail and his body carried out to sea, but I will bring those who can best unravel this mystery while there is still a slight chance of finding either Orlay or Trebyn alive. You may search for the Ptarthian if you wish, Drogos. If, however, this terrible deed was done by Helimites as I believe it to be, I would rather have more men to make that search than just this ship's company. Should you reconsider, break camp and board within the xat."
Drogos sputtered indignately as the caravel's captain left him standing beside the up-turned empty blue cloak. "You heard Captain Xerfal, U'a'neji." The corpulent slaver glared at his retainers. "Break camp."
As the swordsmen turned to do his bidding, Drogos stopped Sisogu with a painful grip. The trader gazed at the bloody darseen lizard then silently accused Sisogu. The young man paled, confused by the grim evidence and his master's ire. Drogos silenced Sisogu's defense with a warning shake. "See that you manage the loading better than you managed this other thing..." The warrior blushed shame for his failure and swiftly joined his companion packing the merchant's camp supplies.
Drogos scowled at the silent dunes, perplexed by the turn of events. Where was the Ptarthian? That question haunted the slaver as he boarded the caravel. Drogos remained tense and distracted until the ship was underway, often intently examining the barren shore.
Captain Xerfal ordered half sail and manned the helm himself because the weather had turned over night to high wind and intermittent squalls under a heavy gray overcast. White-capped waves quartered the ship's course, causing an uncomfortable pitch and yaw. Near the noon hour the weather abated sufficiently for Xerfal to dare the coastal reefs, though gusty winds and irregular currents made the passage longer than expected.
In safer water the belated noon meal was served. Drogos and his men sat the table mid-deck consuming their meal and the slaver seemed almost jovial as the ship continued to beat southward. Among the crew, however, ugly words were whispered away from the passengers' hearing.
Xerfal's men had liked Orlay well. The ship's panthan had protected the vessel from pirates and settled shipboard arguments. More frequently the big Zodangan rescued crew members from irate port constabularies after enjoying themselves too well in wharf-side taverns. Orlay was harsh, but fair, and his sudden loss affected all. The sailors grumbled through the day, their mood sullen; haunted by a desire for revenge and frustrated by lack of focus upon which to vent it. Captain Xerfal made no effort to still the crew's collective rage, he, too, favored Orlay with friendship and rough affection.
South of the reefs the sea swells ran higher than normal. Under other circumstances Xerfal might have run the coast well into late twilight, but the morning's delay, the poor weather, and the extra time required to navigate the reefs caused the ship owner to turn into shore for an unplanned night camp. When Drogos learned of this, the fat slaver exploded with rage.
The angry captain held his temper, his tone hard and unrelenting. "You have voiced your displeasure, Drogos, and again stated your urgent need to reach Calbanal, but if you open your mouth one more time, I shall put you and your cargo ashore! Any man with half an eye can see the weather is turning for the worse. There's nothing between here and Calbanal but cliffs and I will not chance a night run in bad weather with no place to land. I will hear no more of this, Drogos!"
The caravel grounded and Xerfal sent two nervous sailors ashore, armed with unfamiliar swords, to scout the area. They returned within ten minutes, reporting nothing but wind-swept sand void even of animal tracks. Xerfal ordered the camp established.
Since the day's sail ended far earlier than planned the ship owner made use of the remaining light to replace strained rigging amidship. Xerfal supervised the refitting as Drogos' men unlashed the grill and callously tossed scraps of salt meat into the hold, followed by a water hide dropped into the foul-smelling darkness. Sisogu and U'a'neji did not bother to enter the hold. Their duty done, they swiftly re-secured the hatch and joined their master ashore.
Captain Xerfal kept his angry thoughts to himself, exchanging silent expressions of disgust over the slave's treatment with sailor Onuah, who helped him with the rigging. The repairs completed, Xerfal sent Onuah ashore to take his meal at the communal fire. Alone at last, the ship owner wearily leaned against the main mast, thinking hard thoughts about the inexplicable events marring a usually routine voyage.
He was a simple ship owner interested in a profitable voyage. As such he rarely questioned the motive or reason why anyone took passage on his ship, but something was very wrong this trip. Orlay disappeared, murdered no doubt, the man from Ptarth had vanished, and an obvious tenseness now existed between Drogos and his two warriors, commencing at the moment Trebyn joined the ship's company at Walaulan. What did Drogos have to fear from the red-haired man? Why was the slaver so insistent that Trebyn murdered Orlay? The unanswered questions left Xerfal feeling uneasy.
A sibilant hiss from the dank hold disturbed Captain Xerfal's musings. He voiced a whispered warning. "Quiet, you. Drogos is ashore now, but he may return."
"Captain Xerfal," the voice said, "come to the grill."
The ship owner's brow puckered with bewilderment. There was a familiarity in that summons which caused him to disregard the slaver's explicit instructions to avoid his precious cargo. Xerfal walked toward the hatch, apparently investigating the ship's repairs, while actually assuring himself that Drogos and his men were preoccupied ashore. When he reached the hatch sparely illuminated by an oil lantern hanging from the main boom, he glanced down at the face peering up through the lattice work.
"We thought you dead!" Xerfal gasped.
"Let them continue to think that," Trebyn replied. A larger man jostled the Ptarthian aside so his face was visible beneath the grill.
The captain felt his knees go weak. "Orlay! What are you doing down there?"
Trebyn made the answer. "It was the best place to hide at the time, Captain Xerfal. Do you know who you are carrying in this hold?"
Orlay shook his head, a large, bloodied bruise discoloring his temple. "Slaves, true, and the son of Jalus Torhator, sir! The poor wretch has had his tongue cut out!"
"Gods!" the captain trembled. "Are you sure, man?"
Trebyn's voice was quietly sincere. "I should know him very well, sir. His father and I have, uh, conducted business in the past. There is no doubt of his identity."
Xerfal swayed unsteadily as the information sank in. "Torhator's son on my ship -- in a slave chain! What shall I do?"
"I would suggest you release him. It would go well for you. Jalus can be understanding, especially to those who aid his kin."
"I will! At once!" Captain Xerfal knelt to undo the hatch lashings.
"Not now!" Trebyn hissed. "Wait until Drogos is asleep."
"I do not understand."
"You will. Trust me in this, Captain Xerfal."
"Why should I?"
Orlay somberly presented an answer to that. "Would Trebyn have saved me if he were a dishonest man? I say let the Ptarthian have his time."
Captain Xerfal considered his panthan's response and reluctantly admitted that if Orlay trusted the red-haired man he could do no less. "I will wait. Is there anything I can do?"
"Just tell your men to come aboard a few at a time after the slaver retires. Tell them to go to their quarters and stay there."
"Then do nothing--hear nothing," Trebyn whispered. "Whatever you do after your men board, do not come ashore."
Drogos woke from a sound sleep. He focused his eyes on the dimly visible canvas roof overhead and tried to determine what disturbed him. Was it a sound? A difference in the way the wind shuddered the tent? He lay awake several moments and, when nothing came to his hearing, he called himself an old fool and rolled over to go back to sleep.
With a sigh he assured himself everything would be well after they docked at Calbanal on the morrow. He would be a rich man with no worries then, and the evidence which could damn him would be safely delivered to those who felt they had a proper use for the insolent prince chained in Xerfal's hold. He--
--screamed as flailing hands dragged him from the tent. Drogos shouted for his men, eyes rolling with fear as he made out the angry faces ringing round him as he lay on the sand. The hatred in the freed slaves's faces, standing about his prostrate form, eyes narrowed and filled with vengeance, struck the obese merchant like physical blows. Drogos quaked, pleading for his life while calling for his men again and again.
One of the slaves laughed, a harsh and terrible sound. The half-starved Helimite flung a gristly object at the fat man. U'a'neji's head, exhibiting a horrible expression, thumped against the slaver's chest. Another head followed, rolling to one side, grinning with bulging eyes and protruding tongue. Poor Sisogu!
Drogos wailed, shutting his eyes and begging for mercy. He cried out when a rough hand bunched his night shirt and shook him.
"Look at me, you fat fool!" the raspy voice commanded.
Drogos opened his eyes and saw Orlay's livid visage bent close. "You're dead!" the trader exclaimed, madness creeping into his voice. "You're dead!"
"Not quite, no thanks to you."
"Spare me!" the merchant pleaded. "You were not supposed to be hurt. I only wanted the Assassin--" the slaver's terrified words halted in mid-breath as Trebyn's flat-planed, scarred features came into view over the Zodangan's chain-mailed shoulder.
A loathing, humorless smile stretched the Ptarthian's thin lips. "I do not know you, Drogos, but you must know me. Why else would you want me dead? Was it because I could identity the poor wretch you've humiliated?"
Drogos' eyes showed their whites, his jaw quivered with terror. Trebyn again toyed with his rope. The Ptarthian's infernal fingers again fashioned a hangman's noose.
"Torhator did not send you after me?" the fat man squeaked.
"Better if he had, Drogos. You would not have suffered such terror these last two days. When I bring death for a price it is swift and as painless as possible. But I knew nothing of the kidnapping. In fact, had you been less antagonistic toward me, I might have been sleeping when your man came to kill me. You made me curious, slaver, and I always satisfy my curiosity."
"You were not sent to kill me?" Drogos babbled. Light reflected from the hand-held torches shimmered in the merchant's fearful tears, his eyes so distended the pupils seemed non-existent in the expanse of white.
"I haven't seen Jalus Torhator in five years, fat man. However, there is a business relationship between us. I could not allow his son to be delivered by you to whomever awaits. Who is it that wants the boy?"
"I--I really do not know," Drogos stammered, the vacant terror etching his face declaring the truth of his reply.
"I see," Trebyn sighed. "Well, it is of little importance to me now that the boy is safe."
Drogos frantically seized on Trebyn's words. "You won't kill me?"
Trebyn shook his head. "Hardly. I am not a vengeful man. The boy is free and will be returned to his father."
"Then protect me!" Drogos cried. "I will pay you handsomely, sir!"
Trebyn swung the miniature hangman's noose from his fingertips. "I have no desire, or need, to increase my wealth at this time, Drogos." The Ptarthian knelt to remove a single gold coin from the heavy money belt about the slaver's vast waist. He stood and thrust the coin into his own pouch, saying, "The price of my cloak, good sir, which was left behind. I appreciate your kind generosity in replacing it."
"Trebyn!" Drogos cried as the red-haired man turned and walked away. The Ptarthian never looked back.
Drogos gave up hope of finding aid from that one and demanded it from Orlay. "It is your duty to protect my person, Orlay. You--"
Orlay fiercely scowled in the erratic torch light. He rubbed both hands against his leggings, as if he sought to remove an odious smell from them. The tall Zodangan rose, apathetic to the slaver's plea. "Your safe passage expired when your man attacked me and attempted to murder another passenger. Good night, sir."
Drogos fitfully grabbed Orlay's boot and received a hard kick for his effort. Orlay spat his disgust and disappeared into the darkness beyond the torches. Drogos found himself surrounded by wild-eyed slaves. He screamed piteously as they closed in.
Orlay waded into the surf, moving toward the ship. He accepted Trebyn's extended hand as he mounted the caravel's side and both men turned their backs to the beach, to sit in silence on the caravel's rail. Neither seemed moved by the agonized screams which, mercifully for Drogos, ended shortly after Orlay sat down. The Moons of Barsoom neared the eastern horizon over the Zodangan Inland Sea and, after an extended period of silence from the beach, Orlay glanced over his shoulder. He counted the unmoving forms of three men, two headless, lying on the blood-stained sand.
Orlay turned to the expressionless Ptarthian. "What are you going to do about the boy we left in the hold?"
"Return him to his father, if need be," Trebyn replied. "However, if you and Captain Xerfal are interested in more wealth than you can imagine I suggest you return the lad. Jalus Torhator can be quite generous to those who do him service."
"Might that be dangerous for us, Trebyn? After all, Torhator does not know us."
"But he knows me, Orlay. Say to Jalus Torhator, 'Twice full the moons when the banth lay dying' and he will accept you."
"What's to prevent us from using the boy for our own purposes?" The warrior's question was rhetorical; it was clear the Zodangan entertained no such thoughts.
Trebyn's solemn reply removed Orlay's grin. "Me."
Orlay required no explanation of the implied promise. "The boy will be nursed and cared for, Trebyn. I feel certain Captain Xerfal will be well glad to leave these waters for a time, but if he is not I will take the lad myself."
Sensing the Zodangan's word was as inescapable as death, Trebyn nodded. "I wish you safe journey, Orlay."
Trebyn rose, recovering his travel bag stowed near the forward hatch. He bound his few belongings in a cloak which once belonged to U'a'neji, who certainly had no use of it now. He moved to the rail.
"Are you leaving us?" Orlay asked.
Trebyn paused, offering his open hand in farewell to the tall warrior. "I could sail on to Calbanal and leave there in the morning, but I think I will make better time from here. My way is inland and those who once suffered in Drogos' chain offered me a thoat if I decided to accompany them into the desert."
"This Jocim must be good friend indeed to have such a one in you."
"Orlay," Trebyn swung a leg over the rail, holding to the rigging with one hand, "I have few friends, but the ones I have may always count on me. If ever you need me, I will know."
"What have I done to be so honored?"
"You left me in peace and you will take Jalus Torhator's son home when I find it difficult to turn from my own path. It is enough."
Orlay stood at the rail and watched the compactly built Ptarthian move over the side. Trebyn splashed through the shallow surf and sprinted across the sand toward the dunes and scrub brush. The ship's panthan thought he saw the man from Ptarth offer a departing wave, but it was so dark it might have been imagination. A moment later Orlay ruefully rubbed the lumps on his skull and turned aft to speak with Captain Xerfal.