THE PLANET OF WAR...
After a miraculous journey through myriad miles of interplanetary space, Hector Blake, an Earth-man, finds himself lost upon Marsa savage, untamed world of ferocious beasts and warlike peoples, lighted by the fiery glow of its two whirling moons. Hazarding his life to win the love of the planet's most beautiful woman, he must survive the attacks of hideous monsters and defeat ruthless foemen, before finally daring to challenge the awesome power of the terrifying alien creature that would reduce all Mars to abject slavery.
All who have thrilled to Edgar Rice Burroughs' famous tales of adventure and romance are sure to find in Under Crimson Moons all the swordplay and wonder they could wish for.
I THE CALL OF THE RED STAR
III THE HALL OF THE MARTIAN KING
IV WARRIOR OF MARS
V DO OR DIE!
VI THE VENUS OF MARS
VII MORTAL COMBAT
IX PERILOUS SKIES
XI CITY OF THE MARTIANS
XII "TO THE DEATH!"
XIII TRUTH AND BEAUTY
XIV A PRISONER IN THE PIT
XV UP FROM THE DEPTHS
XVI IN THE TOWER AND AFTER
XVII IN THE TEMPLE AND BEFORE
XVIII BLOODY BATTLE
XIX LOVE AND DEATH
XX HEART'S DESIRE
UNDER CRIMSON MOONS
N. P. B. Barker
Copyright © 2005
This work is dedicated to the memory of Edgar Rice Burroughs and to the writers in the Burroughs tradition.
Cover and Illustration by Tangor
WHEN THE time is right and The Memoir of Hector Blake can at last be submitted for publication, I wonder whether it shall appear in a respected journal of science or be considered a mere work of fiction. I can offer no proof of its being anything other than an amazing fantasy, for there is much that can never be told. Perhaps, when these words can finally be read, years of progress in learning will have established their veracity beyond doubt. If not, it is up to you, the reader, to judge for yourselfall I ask is that you open your mind.
I first had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of Hector Blake when we shared a table, in the smoking room, of the finest hotel, in the principal port, of a Portuguese colony, on the West Coast of Africa. When I had entered the room there had been but one vacant chair in the room; and this at the table of a young man.
He was sitting a little apart from the others there, gazing pensively into the smoke rising from his cigarette. I approached him and asked his permission to avail myself of the empty seat. At first he did not seem to hear me, so preoccupied was he by his thoughts, and I was compelled to repeat my request.
"Forgive me," he said with a smile, rising and inviting me to join him; "I was far away."
He was a tall, clean-limbed man, broad of shoulder and narrow of hip; his hair thick, his features regular and strong. At first glance, I had thought him to be around thirty years of age, but, regarding him more closely, I wondered whether he might be somewhat olderhow much so, I found myself quite unable to judge. He had spoken in a deep, clear voice and, to my pleasant surprise, I recognized him to be an Englishman.
After a brief exchange of pleasantries, we sat in silence.
While preparing my pipe, I glanced at the other occupants of the room; they were the usual types one might expect to find in such a place, and before long my eyes were drawn back to my table companion.
I am, I flatter myself, an excellent judge of character, and from the first there was something in the resolute set of his jaw and the assured way he held his muscular frame that marked him a man of mettlean Englishman of the best sort. It has been through the efforts of men of his stripe that England has been raised to her present exalted rank among nations. And there was something more: there radiated from him a compelling, other-worldly charisma; an almost palpable aura of mystery.
Who might he be, I wondered, and what had brought him to the Dark Continent?
As the reader may know, I have had several collections of travellers' tales published, and my literary instincts told me that the answers to these questions would provide a story well worth retelling.
Musing thus, I must have been staring at him, for suddenly he turned his face to mine, catching my eye.
"Devilish warm," I blurted.
"Yes," he replied, "it is rather." His tone was detached, but not unfriendly.
I was on my way south to hunt lion, and I enquired of him if he might be undertaking a similar venture.
"A lion hunt?" A weird light commenced to shine in his eyes. "That is how it all began."
His enigmatic response further aroused my curiosity, and I was wondering how I might draw more from him without discourtesy when he spoke again.
"Mine is a rather unusual story, and perhaps it should be told." He paused. "But no, it is a long a story, and I could not impose upon you. Besides, you would never believe it."
I assured him that I should like nothing more than to hear him tell his tale; but again he demurred and, in the end, I had fairly to beg him to tell it. At last he agreed, but only after exacting from me the promise that I would hold what he was to tell me in the strictest confidence until certain conjunctions of circumstance, the nature of which he specified, had come to pass.
At my suggestion, we shared a meal in my rooms, from where we were afforded a most pleasant view of the harbour and the densely forested hills that embrace it. Then, after we had eaten and after we had had a little drink and a smoke, Hector Blake started to speak. What follows is his story, essentially as he recounted it to me.
"I am going to tell you of things that you may find a little difficult to believe," he began, "and I am concerned that you will consider me either a lunatic or a liar."
There was something in the steady way he met my gaze that testified to his being neither. As he went on, his manner was that of a man speaking the truth; remembering not imagining; seeing with his mind's eye the scenes he was describing. Sometimes he spoke quietly, sometimes with great intensity of feeling, sometimes with gladness, sometimes with sorrow. Moreover, he answered the questions with which I occasionally interrupted his narrative, in a detailed and consistent fashion; impossible for one who had not experienced all he described. Strangest and most persuasive of all, he frequently employed a foreign language unlike any I had ever heard; its words possessed a peculiar beauty, yet were of such an unsettling, alien timbre that I wondered how a human throat could utter such sounds.
And, as Hector Blake spoke to me of his interplanetary Odyssey, I too found myself transported to another worldthe world of the crimson moons.
THE CALL OF THE RED STAR
UNDER CRIMSON MOONS that whirl through seething skies, I battled to win possession of the Planet of War's most precious jewel.
Hector Blake is my name. I was born in England, the son of a soldier and an American girl from Connecticut. Alas, they are both dead: my father fell in battle and my mother, weakened by grief, was carried off by a fever a few years later.
With my coming to manhood came the War. For the thousand years its recorded history, the men of my line have been fighting men, triumphant upon battlefields the world over. Ever had it been my ineluctable destiny to follow in their illustrious footsteps, seeking honour and glory in battle.
Yet, not long after the armistice, I resigned my commission. I had become affected by a certain ennui: I found there to be something absent from the soldier's life in time of peace. Strange as it might seem, I missed the bursting shells, the rattling guns, the mad, wild thrill of going over the top, and the tragic friendships forged in adversityif not the monotony, the rats, and the mud.
I travelled extensively, trying my hand at many things, from gunrunning in South America to prospecting in Africa.
As though challenging the Fates, I courted danger, and I had many perilous exploits. Once, while hunting alone in Brazil, I was set upon by an immense jungle serpent. With my bare hands, I overcame the reptile, even as it strove to crush the life from me, its gimlet eyes boring into my own eyes, its gaping jaws seeking my throat.
Yet such episodes failed to provide the fulfilment I sought, serving merely to give variety to the quotidian round. They pale before the momentous and extraordinary adventure that was destined to befall me.
One fateful morning, I set out to hunt a lion in a mountainous region of a remote country. My quarry, a man-eater, had been preying upon the people of the valley below, and I had taken it upon myself to rid them of its scourge.
None of the native huntsmen had dared trail the beast to its mountain lair. They believed the highlands to be the domain of a race of demons, and the lion to be not a creature of flesh and blood, but rather a malign spirit in leonine form. It was said that of those who, in the past, had had the hardihood to brave the haunted hills, few had returned, and that those few had been driven mad by what they had seen there.
No such dark fears infected me. Lion or devil? I knew which way a well-aimed rifle shot would settle the question.
Through a long, hot day, I followed the spoor of the lion-creature, climbing high into the foothills of the mountains. Of the demons and evil spirits with which the natives imagined that place abounded, I saw no sign. I had, in contrast, little trouble closing in upon the object of my quest: when he became aware of my presence within his realm, he disdained to flee and I became at once the hunter and the hunted.
Early in the evening the hunt reached its climax. I was lying concealed in a patch of vegetation. About twenty yards from me, farther along the edge of a steep-sided ravine, which fell away to my left, was a similar thicket within which I suspected the lion to be hidden.
I watched and waited.
The sky above was tinged with pink and gold, and the glory of the setting sun's light upon the surrounding peaks contrasted strikingly with the deep shadows within the mountain forest. Remembrance of the beauty of the scene was to take on great poignancy for me: I knew it not, but I was not to experience another Earthly sunset for a long time.
At last, I glimpsed amid the leaves a tawny shadow slinking towards me. Cuddling my rifle to my cheek, I took careful aim. Were the lion again to show himself, I should have my chance. Were I to miss, he could be upon me in a single bound.
For a seeming eternity, although my blood was coursing in my veins, I kept perfectly still. Finally the lion emerged again into view; a mighty, black-maned beast, silhouetted in all his majesty against the sky.
I squeezed the trigger.
My shot's report echoed among the rocks and trees, sending clouds of birds billowing from the treetops. Knowing not whether I had hit my target, I paused to listen (only then did I commence to sweat), but to my ears came nothing save the startled screeching of the birds.
At length I arose, intending to establish the success or failure of my marksmanship, but before I had taken more than a step there came an eerie ululation from the ravine below. Again I took cover and, lying prone at the cliff edge, cast down my eyes to seek the source of the sound.
Thirty feet beneath me, on the floor of the ravine, a score of strange figures had shambled into view. They were tall but stooping, and accoutred in gaudy skins and feathers. Oddly, their flesh was white: not the pink-white of a European, but the ghastly parchment-white of a corpse.
Were they demons or men?
As I watched, I became aware that someone, or something, was creeping upon me from behind. I cannot say how I knew, but sometimes, it seems, a sixth sense alerts me to danger. In response to the warning, I rolled over.
A huge and savage-looking fellowone whose uncanny appearance proclaimed him a comrade of those in the canyon belowwas towering above me, his brutish visage contorted into a malevolent grimace. A split-second later, he hurled himself upon me.
I used my attacker's momentum against him, but even as I threw him, his claw-like hands gained a grip upon my hunting harness, and, in the end, we both went tumbling over the edge of the cliff.
Fortune decreed that my enemy have the worst of the fall: his howl of terror at his plight was terminated abruptly with the shattering of his skull upon the rocks of the ravine's floorthus was any lingering doubt about his nature, or super-nature, dispelled.
The twenty strange beings already in the canyon had witnessed our plunge; for a moment they were disconcerted, but then, giving vent to hoarse cries, they commenced to advance rapidly upon me.
The body of my assailant had served to break my fall, but when I rose to meet the new threat a sharp pain lanced through my left ankle; it was either broken or badly sprained.
I glanced behind me and regarded the precipice down which I had fallen; to scale it would be a challenge at the best of times and quite impossible with an injured ankle.
Setting my teeth, I turned back. I was unarmed: my rifle lay high above me on the brink of the cliff, having been knocked from my grasp. The hands of the oncoming savages were similarly weaponless, but I drew little comfort from this: upon their scowling faces, my eyes descried only implacable hostility.
Lurid details of the bloodcurdling stories I had heard about the denizens of the highlands sprang unbidden into my mind. Did they mean to tear me limb from limb then and there, or to capture me alive for a more fiendish fate? Was I to be a human sacrifice to some savage god, or the meat course in a cannibal feast?
The motto of my house is 'tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito', and, notwithstanding the pain from my ankle, I hobbled forwards, fists balled, to confront my hideous foes.
I went down beneath a barrage of blows (although I might say I landed more than a few of my own), overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. Every time I rose up, I was again brought down; until finally, I was battered into oblivion.
It was night when I came to my senses. I was lying alone upon the mountainside, high above the forest, staring up at the star-strewn sky. My head hurt abominably; I was a mass of cuts and bruises, and, I was sure, I had gained at least one broken rib to go with my ankle. Of my uncanny assailants there was no sign; I appeared to have been abandoned.
My first impulse was to seek cover, but when I attempted to move I discovered that I could not.
I was paralysed!
Although I ceased not from mental struggle, I found myself utterly unable to compel my inert body to obey the commands of my brain. Lying there, helpless under the glorious vault of the heavens (so very different from the London sky with its lights and smoke), I was possessed by the feeling that my doom impended.
After the passing of a measureless time, I observed, rising from behind the black mass of a towering crag, a bright red star. So bright was it that its light bathed the mountainside in a rosy radiance.
The skin of my scalp prickled as I felt the red star exert a strange and powerful attraction upon me. Utterly fascinated, my eyes tracked its movement across the sky until, at last, it came to be directly above where I lay, in the very centre of the sky.
Then, with preternatural suddenness, the air became icy coldit was as though some power had reached down from spaceand a moment later, I fell upwards into the sky, as one might in a dream. Unlike in a dream, I did not fall back; instead I remained poised at the edge of space, high above the world.
Irresistibly, my eyes were tugged back toward the red star. As I watched, a myriad of flaming motes burst from it; a shower of hurtling meteors that bore down
upon me until, in no time, they were swirling all around, making me the centre of a vortex of light. Ever closer spiralled those specks of fire, until, finally, they commenced to strike my body. I screamed a silent scream as every atom of my being was sundered from every other; as that which had been mass was rendered into energy. Through it all, I remained aware, and still I heard the red star's call.
Before opening my arms to Destiny's embrace, I reached out one last time to the Earth; for a moment there was resistance, but then my mother planet gave up her hold upon me and I was swept from her bosom, into the abyss.
I OPENED my eyes and gazed in wonder at the sights that met them. Upon me, from low in a violet sky, a small, brass-coloured sun was shining hotly. I was lying within a bowl-shaped depression, some fifty feet in diameter, upon rocky, reddish ground. Here and there tufts of yellowish vegetation burst forth, bearing vivid blooms. The only sounds were the whisper of my breath and the throb of my heart.
Unsteadily, I rose to my feet.
To my amazement, my body appeared uninjured; indeed, since I was quite naked, I could see that it exhibited not even the slightest graze. Nor, upon closer examination, was I able to find any trace of the many scars, large and small, that had thitherto served as mementoes of my adventures.
When I flexed my limbs, steel-hard thews rippled beneath my unblemished skin. Often in the past had my physique provoked the admiration, and sometimes the envy, of my peers. Yet my musculature appeared to be even more well-developed than before. I felt strong and fit, and utterly healthy. It was as though I had been taken apart, cleansed and purified, and had then been remade, better than beforeit was as though I had been perfected.
Was I dead? Was this the Afterlife?
I am not what might be called a religious man. Never have I been zealous in my observance of the various ceremonies and duties prescribed by religion. The inevitable consequence of such non-observance, it is promised, is non-admittance into Heaven; but had I, after all, been assumed into Paradise?
A bestial roar, followed by a cacophony of screams and snarls shook me rudely from my eschatological cogitations. Startled, I took a step forwards, intending to investigate the alarming noises, only to find myself sprawling face down in the rusty dust. Incredible as it might seem, the very force of gravity had lessened!
Crawling like a babe (it appeared that I should have to learn to walk following this, my second birth, even as I had after my first), I succeeded in gaining the lip of the crater, over which I peered. Thereafter, it took a good few seconds for my brain to impose meaning upon the veritable kaleidoscope of exotic shapes and colours brought to it by my eyes.
Below the rim, sloping gradually down before me was an uneven, desolate landscape, pockmarked by craters, riven by canyons, and patched with trees, their leaves golden and their branches queerly twisted. In the distance the land rose to form the foothills of a tremendous mountain; a single sharp peak of appalling magnitude that pierced the sky, its ramparts bright yellow-ochre and dark purple-blue, its crest brilliant-white.
I caught no more than a fleeting glimpse of the strange scene before my attention was seized by the source of the savage sounds. Charging madly towards my position, covering the ground in great leaps and bounds, was a beast fully three times the size of a tiger, seeming a monstrous crossbreed of big-cat and prehistoric reptile. The thing was being carried forwards upon six legs that terminated in talon-tipped claws; its hide was black, spotted with scarlet, and covered in glassy scales that scintillated as it moved; its jaws were gaping wide, revealing a forest of fangs; and its yellow eyes, aglow with hunger, were fixed upon its prospective prey.
Fortunately, I was not the object of its charge.
Below me, not more that ten feet away, stood a mana man unlike any I had before seen. He stood upon two legs as men do, but he was at least seven feet tall and his glittering, scaly skin was coloured a deep blue. Strangest of all, from the base of his spine emerged a tail, almost as long as he was tall, as thick as a human arm for much of its length, tipped with bone. Yet, despite his alien aspect, I knew him for some kind of man: he wore a belt and harness of leather, from which depended a number of pouches and tools; over his shoulders was slung a fur; and in his hands he held a stone-shod spear.
The monstrous tiger-lizard was bearing down upon the blue man with such rapidity that it was clear that, for him, flight would be futile. Nevertheless, to hold one's ground against the onrush of such an awful thingresisting the urge to break and run, however forlorn the hope of escapetakes courage, and he made no attempt to flee. That his stand was evidence of bravery rather than of fear-induced paralysis was confirmed by his next action: when the animal came to be within ten feet of him he cast his spear.
The weapon struck home, catching the upper back of the titanic, black and scarlet predator, near the neck. It was, however, immediately apparent that it had failed to penetrate any vital organ.
Ceasing its rush, the beast commenced to tear wildly at the shaft protruding from its back with claw and jaw, all the while emitting piercing screams and ground-shaking roarsnever before had I witnessed such a paroxysm of bestial furybut, try as it might, it could not dislodge the barbed head of the spear.
At length, the monster regained its composure. Ignoring the spear, it began to circle its would-be victim, creeping to the left, seeking the most advantageous position from which to spring upon him. By then, the object of its appetite had plucked from his harness a short-hafted, stone-headed axe, and, in search of an opening, he circled too; yet his weapon seemed a puny thing with which to face so fearsome an adversary, and the conclusion of the encounter seemed foregone.
Giving voice to a warlike cry, I sprang upwards from the ground. I had acted upon a sudden impulse: I had simply been unable to stand by and see so brave a maneven so fantastic a fellow as hetorn apart and devoured before my eyes. My aim had been to distract the creature, in order to give the blue man the opportunity to strike with his axe, and in this I succeededrather too well.
I had reckoned without the un-Earthly gravity, and my upward leap sent me arcing through the air much farther than I had intended, heading straight for the ravening meat-eater.
I landed plumb upon its back.
Twisting back its head, the tiger-lizard reached for me, attempting to snatch me from my perch. Only narrowly did it fail; its greedy jaws snapped shut only inches from my face. Thereafter it commenced to buck frenziedly, twisting and leaping. In my efforts to maintain my position, I grasped the shaft of the spear that was still lodged in its shoulder, and when, after a few seconds, I was thrown, I tore the weapon free.
Briefly, I again found myself hurtling through the air, before crashing to the ground some ten feet from my erstwhile mount.
Straight away, the giant beast turned upon me and crouched ready to pounce; but, before it could do so, the blue man leapt forwards dealt it a terrific blow upon the flank with his axe. The vitreous scales adorning its skin shattered as the axe-head's flinty edge bit into its flesh.
The strike of the axe delayed the fantastic carnivore's attack upon me only for a momenta moment, however, was long enough. I still held the blue man's spear, and by dint of the delay, I was able to raise its point even as the animal launched itself upon me.
The tiger-lizard bore me to the ground, knocking the wind out of me. Momentarily, I expected feel its razor-sharp claws tear at my flesh and its dagger-pointed fangs close upon my throat. Instead it gave vent to an ear-splitting scream and its massive body was shaken by a convulsive shudderthen it lay still. The impetus of its leap had forced the head of my borrowed weapon deep into its underbelly, piercing its savage heart.
Thereafter, it took me a little while to regain my breath, and a little while longer to extricate myself from beneath the vast carcass. Finally, I rose, expecting to receive the well-earned thanks of the strange fellow to whose aid I had gone so boldly; but he gave no sign of gratitude, instead he stood very still a little way away, regarding me warily, axe in hand.
When he spoke, his language was quite unlike English, nor did it resemble any of the other tongues with which I am conversant, yet I found to my amazement that I could grasp the gist of his meaning. He was asking me why I had helped him, and from where I had come. I was unable to reply, however; my attempts to speak resulted only in the emission of bursts of unintelligible gibbering.
As he questioned me, the blue man advancedhis movements jerky, reptilianuntil, in order to keep him at what I imagined to be a safe distance, I was compelled to raise the spear, which I still held, having had the foresight to retrieve it from the body of the tiger-lizard.
My action gave him pause and caused him to lapse into silence.
For several minutes, thereafter, we stood in suspicious mutual regard. It was a stand-offor so it seemed.
At close range, the blue man, standing quite still, save for slight undulations of his tail, appeared even more inhuman than he had from a distance. His hide, which was predominantly a deep Prussian blue in colour, shading to a lighter cerulean around his chest and abdomen, was encrusted with jewel-like nodules; it was as though gems of lapis lazuli, turquoise and sapphire had been set there. His fingers and toes were equipped with more-than-inch-long claws. Gleaming, crocodilian teeth studded his prominent snout. And he was glaring at me through unblinking, garnet-red eyes.
The apparent stalemate was ended abruptly.
In a sudden blur of movement, the blue man twisted his body in a graceful pirouette that brought his tail sweeping around in a great arc. So unexpected was the manoeuvre that I was unable to evade his appendage, and it struck me upon the side of the head, knocking me to the ground.
Quick as a flash, he fell upon me. The spear was wrenched from my momentarily benumbed fingers and, in a further instant, its point was at my throat. During the long seconds that his gemlike eyes blazed down upon me along the length of the spear, I knew that my life hung in the balance. Then, at last, he turned suddenly away, leaving me and giving his attention to the carcass of the beast I had slain.
Putting my hand to my head, I discovered that I bore no physical woundI had been struck by the flat of his osseous tail-tip, not by its serrated edgethe most serious injury was to my pride.
Although I was somewhat irked by the blue fellow's use of me, I resisted the temptation immediately to attempt to requite the blow. Instead I climbed to my feet and, concentrating hard, succeeded in walking the few steps to a large, flat boulder. There, after pausing briefly to exult in my small victory, I sat down.
From my seat, I watched in fascination as my conqueror, proceeded to skin the tiger-lizard. I was somewhat alarmed to see that he employed no tool, only the sharp claws that edged his hands and feet. His actions made me well aware of the extent to which I was utterly at his mercy; he had been furnished with formidable weaponry by Nature, whereas I was unarmed. Indeed, I could scarcely walk, let alone fight. Were we to contend in deadly earnest there could be but one outcome.
Engaged in his bloody task, the blue man seemed to have lost interest in me, and I considered attempting to withdraw. But, even were my departure to be allowed, where should I go? My chances of thriving, alone in an alien wilderness that might well teem with voracious wildlife, appeared slim.
And so I watched and waited.
When he had completed his labours, my captor (for such in effect he was) slung the skin over his shoulder and approached. He pointed toward the mighty mountain.
"Come," he hissed.
I had been presented with a choice. Should I launch myself upon him in futile defiance, or march with him to an unknown fate? I abhor futility and there could be but one answer. Standing, I said in English: "Lead on."
We made our way down into a valley and, after fording a long, straight waterway, climbed up into the hills beneath the mountain. Our progress was slow at first, for it was necessary for me to acquire my gravity legs. Although I fell several times, upon each occasion the blue man stopped and allowed me to rise. His patience served to remove the last remnant of my resentment at the way he had recovered his speardoubtless, had our situations been reversed, I should have acted in a similar manner.
We passed through strange and marvellous landscapes, replete with fantastic flora and fauna, and there were still greater wonders to come. Following a dark purple sunset, I watched in open-mouthed astonishment as the heavens filled with shimmering, iridescent aurorae, through which shone the stars. The lights were accompanied by a crackling hiss, not dissimilar to the noise one hears from a gramophone record prior to the commencement of the music.
Then came the moons. Two crimson orbs, each appearing far larger than the lone satellite of familiar skies, came whirling through the firmament at speeds discernible against the stellar background, casting ever-changing sanguine shadows upon the otherworldly scene.
It was all too astonishing. I had seen too muchmore than the finite mind of man can holdand I commenced to feel somewhat dazed.
We travelled for no more than an hour after dark. After scaling a steep scarp, we came to a narrow defile at the end of which stood two blue sentries. Wordlessly, we passed them by, and entered into the dark valley that lay beyond.
THE HALL OF THE MARTIAN KING
ON THE morning of the second day of my new life, I awoke from phantasmagoric dreams to a reality yet more amazing. I was lying in a small, dry cave upon a pile of soft furs. Dimly, I recalled having been escorted to that place on the foregoing evening. Straight away I had hurled myself upon the bedding, and so exhausted had I been that sleep had claimed me instantly. It was still dark in my rude bedchamber, but a sliver of light, entering through a crack in the flaps of hide that covered its mouth, indicated that the sun had risen.
Rubbing my eyes, I came forth to stand upon a ledge, about a third of the way up a sheer cliff-face. Before me stretched a narrow gorge, embraced by towering, red-ochre crags, all ablaze where the light of the sun caught them. In the lower, less precipitous, portions of the cliffs gaped the mouths of many caves, interconnected by narrow pathways, rough-hewn steps and wooden ladders. Blue figures were coming and going between the caves or were clustered in small groups upon ledges and platforms. I was, it appeared, resident in a settlement of several thousands of the strange beings. Farther away the valley grew wider; there the nether regions of the rusty bluffs were clothed in golden-leafed trees and the ground carpeted in a luxuriant, saffron sward. Through the centre of the vale a frolicsome stream danced its way down to a small lake, the lilac waters of which reflected the cloudless sky. Patches of wild flowers provided splashes of vivid colour and scented the warm breeze with a spicy perfume I could almost taste. At its far end, a mile or two away, the valley was closed by the interlocking spurs of a transverse range of hills.
My senses were afforded but scant opportunity to drink in the foreign scene: someone, or something, was approaching along the ledge to my left. A moment later, after rounding some obtruding rocks, one of the blue race came into view and advanced upon me.
That my visitor was an example of the female of the species was immediately apparent: her appearance differed markedly from that of the male I had already encountered. She stood only about six feet tall; her skin was relatively light and smooth; her face was more rounded and her jaws less jutting. Her sex was made most obvious, however, by her breasts: six of them, two in the usual position for women, and two further pairs beneath. She wore no clothing, but was resplendent in necklaces of rough-hewn gems and, about her limbs, rudely beaten bands of metal. Upon her smooth head she wore a colourful head-dress of feather-like scales. Her ornaments in combination with the lustrous azure of her skin produced an effect that was most striking.
The blue female appeared a little unnerved to see me standing outside my cave, and there was a certain hesitancy in her steps as she came forwards. She carried with her a wooden platter of food and water, which, with a bow, she proffered to me.
"Thank you," I said, taking the offering.
She bowed again in response, and departed.
Even though she was a member of an unfamiliar race, her sex had made me mindful of my nakedness. Re-entering the cave, I secured a fur about my waistthus was decency satisfied.
After coming out again, I hunkered down and began to eat and drink. I was ravenous and the meal, comprising two large, egg-like spheroids and a generous portion of a substance that resembled frogspawn, was highly palatable.
While I breakfasted, I pondered upon my situation. Nowhere upon the Earth could be seen a landscape such as the one laid out before me, and that I was no longer upon the world of my birth was certainbut where else could I be?
I recalled the stars I had glimpsed through the night-sky's gauzy curtains of multicoloured light. The constellations had been familiar, and from this I reasoned that the furious bronze orb that was shining hotly upon my shoulders must be the same sun that had warmed my Earthly life. But, if not the Earth, then upon which of the sun's family of planets did I now dwell? Two further deductions provided the answer: that the solar disc was shrunken indicated that I was upon a world farther from it than is the Earth; while the relatively low gravity must mean that I could not be resident upon any of the giant worlds of the outer solar system.
Only one candidate remainedMars!
Only on the surface of Mars have astronomers detected the signs of intelligent life: canal-like markings first noted by Schaparelli and later confirmed by Lowell. I had crossed a long straight waterway the previous eveningcould it have been a Martian canal? Furthermore, Mars possesses two moons, known to Earth-men as Phobos and Deimos. Could they be the bloody satellites I had observed spinning through the nocturnal heavens?
Yes! There could be no other answer. Somehow, by a weird science so advanced that it appeared almost magical, I had been transported to the Red Planet.
But then a further thought crashed in upon me. The truth was that I knew almost nothing of the power that had swept me thither: only that it was capable of sweeping me many millions of miles through the void. Might it not be equally capable of carrying me through time as well as space, or even onto another astral plane?
My brain commenced to swimhow does one make a determination of probability when anything might be possible?and it was for the sake of my sanity that I thrust all further speculation concerning my location and the means by which I had come there, from my brain. Contemplation of the unknowable is pointless, and I dislike few things more intensely than pointlessness.
With my mind at rest and my belly full, I felt invigorated and quite ready to face whatever the Fates might weave.
I did not have long to wait for a further development. Again there came the sound of approaching footsteps and soon a Martian male appeared and advanced to stand before me. He carried a spear, but he employed it as a staff and his demeanour was not menacing. I guessed him to be my acquaintance of yesterdaynor, in this, was I mistaken.
For a full minute, he stood in silence, entirely immobile, his glittering gaze fixed upon me, his expression utterly enigmatic.
At last, he addressed me: "The non-Thoon speaks."
Momentarily, I was at a loss. Then I was struck by an astounding realization: when I had thanked the female for my breakfast I had spoken to her not in English, but in the language of Mars, and it was to this that the male was making reference.
He proceeded to question me, and, to my amazement, during the ensuing dialogue I found myself able to utter the peculiar sounds of his language, the words coming increasingly easily. When he spoke of the 'rarnkor' I knew him to be referring to the terrible tiger-lizard that I had slain; when he spoke of the 'Thoon' I knew he referred to the blue race of Martians; and when he spoke of 'Kanthor' I knew him to be giving the planet Mars its native name.
It was evident that during the process of my transfer to the world called Kanthor changes had been worked not only upon my body, but also upon my mind. The words of an alien languagea language, I was to discover, that is spoken by Kanthorans of all nations and raceshad been inserted into my brain!
This was not only most convenient (doubtless many a baffled schoolboy would be glad to have full knowledge of Latin or Greek suddenly appear in his head), but also somewhat disquieting. My physique had been brought to perfection and I had not been displeased, but a man's mind is his sanctum sanctorum and I shuddered to think of what else other than words might have been implanted, and of what might have been uprooted.
In his questioning of me the Martian came straight to the point. Indicating himself, he said: "It is probable that, but for the non-Thoon, this Thoon would have fallen beneath the jaws of the rarnkor." He pointed to me. "Why did an enemy intervene?"
"I am not an enemy," I replied; "I simply did not wish to see you killed."
He considered my reply for a moment. Then he asked: "From where has the non-Thoon come?"
In response, I told him the strange story of my coming to be upon the Red Planet, in so far as I understood it myself.
When I had finished the Thoon was silent for a long while.
Finally, he spoke: "That the non-Thoon would succour one not-of-his-kind supports his claim to be from beyond the moons; for upon Kanthor all strangers are enemies, and the fate of one who falls into the hands of his enemies is enslavement or death."
"And which is to be my fate?"
"It is for the spirit of Sithak, the leader of these Thoons, to decide. This Thoon is duty-bound to speak for the non-Thoon; this Thoon is Serrack, and Sithak is his father. Should the non-Thoon not wish to face Sithak he must go now, but, be warned, the lands of his kind are far away."
"My kind!" I exclaimed. "Do you mean that there are people like myself upon this world?"
"Yes," answered the one called Serrack, "but the nearest of them live far away, beyond the wild lands." He gestured to the south. "Were the non-Thoon to attempt such a journey he would die as surely as if Sithak's voice had commanded it."
I possessed only the most vague inkling of the perils of Kanthor, but that little knowledge was enough to cause me to concur with Serrack's estimation of my chances of flourishing outside the valley of the Thoons.
"Come then," said Serrack. Turning away, he led me down from the ledge, and then up again along a steep, well-trodden pathway, to a yawning cave mouth. The blue men we encountered along the way cast inquisitive glares upon me; the blue women and their children retreated into the mouths of their caves from where they pointed and chattered excitedly.
After passing through the rocky portal and along a short tunnel, we entered a huge, irregularly-shaped cavern, which was dimly lighted by shimmering torches. It was rather cool inside, and I was further chilled by the cavern's macabre decorative scheme: all around its walls were arranged thousands upon thousands of humanoid skulls, every nook was crammed with them, every shelf of rock was laden with them. Most of the crania were Thoonian, but not all, among them were skulls of many different shapes and sizes: large, small, one-eyed, three-eyed, tusked, horned, ridged, galled.
I wondered, were these bizarre forms the result of pathological malformations, afflicting misfortunate individuals? Or were they representative examples of monstrous Martian races of men?
At the far end of the great cave a colossal throne had been hewn from the living rock. Upon this seat was sitting one who was evidently Sithak, the kingor 'kerrador' as the Martians say. A dozen or so others of the blue race stood before their ruler, and sitting in the shadows upon the surrounding rocks were several score more of them. With our entry the hiss of conversation quietened and all eyes turned to blaze upon us.
Advancing upon the throne, Serrack and I rounded a circular arena, which was about twenty feet in diameter, paved with milk-white tiles, and bounded by a kerb of skulls. Within that ring, I later had good reason to know, otherwise indissoluble disputes between Thoons are resolved in single combat to the death in a rite called Nassooth.
When we were standing before Sithak, Serrack straight away set about explaining to his king and father the circumstances of his meeting with me, and the nature of the service I had rendered him.
The figure on the throne-seat was richly adorned: the leather of his harness was set with jewels; and he wore the skins of several beasts, including the glittering black and scarlet of a rarnkor. Once he had been a mighty hunter, but no-longer, for he bore the unmistakable signs of old age and ill-health: his skin, hanging loosely from his bones, was a dark, greyish blue, and some of the gemlike nodules that encrust the skin of Thoons had fallen from their settings, leaving black craters.
At first, as Serrack began to speak, Sithak, the kerrador, gazed down listlessly from glassy eyes that had lost their inner lustre, but it was not long before his eyes fastened themselves upon me and a flame of interest flickered into life within them.
For the most part, I directed my own gaze upon either Serrack or Sithak, only occasionally glancing at the other high-ranking Thoons standing nearby. When my eyes met those of one in particular of these others, he pulled back his lips to reveal his pointed teeth, an action that could only have been designed to intimidate me. Serrack had not quite finished when this unfriendly fellow stepped forwards and spoke.
"Lies!" he hissed. "Are these Thoons to be gulled into accepting an enemy into their midst?" He waved a beclawed hand in my direction. "It is not of Sithak's tribe, nor is it even of Thoon. It is a Soft One like the Slithians that come to steal Thoons. Let its skull go to the Array of Enemies!"
'Slithians'? The word meant almost nothing to mealthough something about it boded illbut the hostile Thoon's use of it had a dramatic effect: there came hisses of support for his suggestion from all around the cavern.
Emboldened, he continued in ferocious tones: "Sulgor hears his voice! If Serrack lacks the spirit to kill enemies, Sulgor shall!"
And then, with his words still echoing among the rocks and bones, the huge blue chieftain lunged towards me, a murderous gleam in his carbuncle eyes.
WARRIOR OF MARS
THE ONE who had called himself Sulgor swiped at me with an open hand. Had his talons connected, they would have torn out my throat. It was fortunate, therefore, that my fighting ancestors had bequeathed to me the speed and agility required to avoid injury. After ducking beneath his swing, I sprang upwards to deliver a terrific right straight onto the point of his huge, protruding jaws. Not anticipating such a riposte from a mere 'Soft One', he came straight onto it. Its force lifted him fully a foot from the ground and sent him flying backwards through the air, to land with a clatter and a grunt several yards away.
From those looking-on came hisses of astonishment and perhaps of approbation. I too was surprised; a keen pugilist in my youth, I had known myself to be capable of delivering a telling blow, yet still the spectacular success of my coup was unexpected.
I held myself ready as Sulgor rose unsteadily to his feet, shaking his head in an attempt to clear his evidently befuddled senses. When his eyes met mine, bloodlust ignited within them, and, venting a snarl of fury, he rushed forwards again.
His charge was curtailed by a peremptory cry.
The word was Sithak's, and the old king's voice still rang with the power to command. "Sithak is Kerrador. None but the spirit of Sithak shall decide which is to live and which is to die in the tribe of Sithak. Sithak's alone is the power!"
For the merest moment Sulgor hesitated, his gaze alternating between the eyes of Sithak and my own eyes. Then he lowered his head in submission to the will of his ruler, and stepped back into his place among the other chieftains, whence he continued to cast upon me an incandescent glare of hostility. In Sulgor, I had made an implacable foe, and I knew from that moment that one day there must come a reckoning between us.
Sithak turned his attention to me; he questioned me and invited me to speculate upon what my advent upon Kanthor might portend. To my surprise, he did not greet my responses with scepticism. Awake to the possibility that I might be a prodigy of the gods, he made reference to fragmentary legends, transmitted from extreme antiquity, that speak of the existence of other worlds and even allude to the possibility of travel between them.
As the aged king continued with his enquiries and remarks, the sibilance that I had observed to be characteristic of Thoonian elocution became in him ever more of a wheeze; it was clear that his exertions were taking their toll upon him. It was not long, therefore, before the audience was brought to a close; but not before Sithak, after expressing his desire to speak with me again, had granted me the right to abide with his tribe.
I was glad that the interview was over. Although I had been finding Sithak's comments most intriguing, I looked forward to being afforded the opportunity to establish with certitude that I had not broken my frightfully aching knuckles on Sulgor's chin.
Outside, while I flexed my fist, I asked Serrack to tell me why it was that my presence had provoked such hostility in Sulgor. He replied that it was the result of my association with him.
Serrack and Sulgor were deadly rivals in the struggle to succeed the ailing Sithak. Serrack was Sithak's son and favourite, but the identity of the next king, would not be Sithak's to determine. After the kerrador's death, a meeting of the tribal chiefs would name his successor, selecting the one who had proved himself by his deeds in battle and in the hunt to be mightiest of the tribe.
What of 'Slithians'?
These, Serrack explained, were deadly enemies of the Thoons; a red-skinned race who were preying upon the blue men, capturing them and carrying them off to an unknown fate.
Several days later, a ceremony was held. Serrack, in the presence the leading warriors of his clan, presented me with a number of items, indicative of my status as a warrior among the Thoons.
The first of these was the skin of the rarnkor I had killed. Even though I considered myself to have triumphed over the creature more by luck than skill, as I girded the glittering black and scarlet leather about my loins, I could not help but experience a warm glow of pride. The tiger-lizard of Kanthor is renowned for the wanton ferocity with which it strives to satisfy its craving for flesh; and for me to have slain such a beast was a mark of great distinction. My wearing of its hide proclaimed me 'Hector Blake, Rarnkor Slayer', an impressive appellation indeed!
I was also gifted a leather harness and belt, and a collection of weapons. Among my arms was a metal sword, captured, I was told, from men of my kind.
When I was alone in my cave I drew my sword from its scabbard. The Martian blade was keen. Testing its balance, I found that I could wield it as well as any I have held.
It is my good fortune to have studied the art of fence in Heidelberg (not long before the War). From the first I had demonstrated a natural talent for it, swiftly becoming my Swordmaster's most favoured pupil. He disclosed to me secrets of swordsmanship not taught to ordinary pupils, and when, at last, I had come to be able regularly to defeat him, he had saluted me in the old Prussian style and said simply: "You are the master now."
Always in life do I strive to maintain the attitude of a conqueror: that confidence of success which so often induces real success. With a naked blade in my hand, I was at last properly dressed. It is the lot of every man to be born into a world he has had no part in making. Destiny had decreed that I be born again upon another planet, but this time I was no helpless, mewling infant: I was a man; I bore arms as a man must, and I was certain that I could master the vicissitudes of Fortune.
Many times over the ensuing weeks and months (I am uncertain quite much time passed; the Kanthoran calendar is rendered fearsomely complex by the planet's superabundance of moons), I was summoned to speak privately with Sithak, the aged ruler of the Thoons. Our discussions ranged widely. I descanted upon the philosophies of the Earth, and Sithak expounded at length the Thoonian creed. As is so often the case with those nearing the end of their days, the old king was much interested in matters that might be revelatory of the divine scheme. He made it his mission to deduce the meaning of my epiphany; I do not know if he succeeded.
I learned much from Serrack too; not least how to stalk the beasts of Mars. There was much good hunting to be had around the valley of the Thoons, and Serrack was fascinating company, this despiteor perhaps because ofthe exoticism of his mentality. My enjoyment of our expeditions, combined with my appreciation of the fair-minded and loyal way in which he had sought to repay my service to him, was the foundation of the queer kind of affection that I came to bear for the blue fellow. And I think, in his Thoonian way, he reciprocated my regard.
Most of my days were spent hunting with Serrack, or in martial training with him and the five warriors of his clan that were being prepared for entry into the Thoonian games; these being an annual series of tests of fighting ability, triumph in which is the primary means by which a warrior rises to the rank of chieftain. He might also gain promotion by general acclamation, perhaps after exhibiting a high degree of bravery in battle, or by victory over an existing chieftain in combat in the skull-ringed arena of Nassooth.
After initial uncertainty, Serrack's warriors became eager to train with me, for I was able to instruct them in fighting techniques unknown to them, which would serve them well in the coming contests.
Thus did I earn my keep and, in the process, learn a great deal about Thoonian methods of combatknowledge that was to prove invaluable. A Thoon's most spectacular and damaging move is the one to which I had fallen victim on the first day of my life on Mars. I came to appreciate that if Serrack had wished to kill me on that occasion he could have done so with ease. Executed in deadly earnest, with a tail-tip's bony, serrated edge, a blow from the tail of a Thoon is quite capable of striking off an opponent's head. Their sharp teeth and powerful jaws are not used in contests between them; to employ them thus is considered dishonourable.
At first I rather enjoyed living the life of a warrior of Mars. The differences of culture and race seemed unimportant. I became able to recognize many of the Thoons and even to decipher certain of their facial expressions: a curl of a lip might signify annoyance, a blink of an eye uncertainty, a flick of a tongue a strange kind of amusement. I even considered entering the lists at the next games and endeavouring to win a higher rank among them, for it is natural for a man to measure himself against his peers. This even though the major advantage conferred by the chieftain's estatethe right to mateheld little attraction for me; the females of the blue race, splendid creatures though they are, ignited no amorous fire in my breast.
Yet, with the onward march of time, I became subject to profound yearnings, the nature of which I could not fathom. I confided my discontents to Sithak, the kerrador, and he advised me to embark upon a pilgrimage to the sacred mountain (that same dominating peak that had been among my first sights upon Kanthor) for it is the belief of the Thoons that the gods of Marsthe Dath Korcan be communed with from its summit.
Thereafter, I was claimed by the conviction that whatever it was for which I longed could be found upon that bright pinnacle; and I resolved that, once I had learned enough about the perils of Kanthor to be able to be confident in my ability to survive in the uplands, I would climb towards the sky and seek an answer to the mystery of my coming to the Red Planet.
Nor was the requisite confidence much longer in coming. One morning, when setting out on the hunt, I deemed the time to be nigh; I vowed to myself that when next I departed the valley of the Thoons, it would be in response to the lure of Destiny.
There were seven in the hunting party that day: Serrack, the five warriors he was preparing for entry into the games, and myself. We made camp no more than half a day's march westward. Then, shortly after dawn the following day, we were sent forth, tasked with the bringing back of something toothsome for the midday meal. In a spirit of competition, we were to hunt singly, and upon our return our prizes would be compared.
All morning, I vainly stalked the same billorus.
By the time the sun was near its zenith, I was ensconced in a clump of shrubby vegetation at the end of a narrow defile. For a long while the bulbous herbivore had been ambling in my general direction, pausing frequently to browse upon tufts of coarse yellow grass and to root in the hard, red ground with its tusk. The sun was hot upon my shoulders and, by then, my pleasure in the chase had commenced to pallgods! how I yearned for my hunting riflebut provided my quarry did not veer off, it would soon come within range of my spear, and I should at last have my chance. It would be my only chance, for in all probability the others had long since returned to camp, laden with meat.
As I waited, not moving even to wipe the sweat from my brow, I recall pondering the mystery of how it was that Mars should be such a torrid world. (I was subsequently to discover that midwinter nights can be chilly and that the sea-breezes blowing upon the shores of the blood-red polar oceans are often bracing, but still the climate is far warmer than might be expected given the planet's relatively great distance from the solar orb). Could it be heated from within by volcanic fires, or might some atmospheric effect account for it?
A sudden shadow passed over me, briefly blotting out the sun and breaking me from all meteorological speculation. Instinctively, I took cover, diving down into the bushes. The billorus was alarmed too; it squealed and scampered away on its six stubby legs.
Squinting into the sky's bright glare, I saw an awe-inspiring sight: sweeping through the air, not far above me, were a dozen or so gigantic, dark-purple creatures, perhaps most closely resembling birds of prey crossed with the titanic flying reptiles of Earth's primordial age. The body of each was fully the size of that of a horse, and their wings, which were beating powerfully as they fought to gain altitude, were tremendous in extent. The most breathtaking thing of all, however, was that each of the flying beasts was carrying, mounted upon its back, a manlike figure!
Having been advised by Serrack to keep a weather eye upon the sky, I understood straight away what I was seeing: the lizard-hawks were beasts called snaroths. And the riders?Slithians!
Truth be told, I had paid Serrack's warning little heed. When he had described the Slithians and their flying mounts, I had been quite unable to determine whether I was hearing of beings of reality or myth. Even as I stared, open-mouthed, at their rapidly receding silhouettes, my mind remained reluctant to admit the evidence of their actuality that was being adduced by my eyes.
The Slithians had flown from the direction of our encampment. Connected to the saddles of their sky-steeds were several net bundles, each of which was capacious enough to contain a man. Immediately, I fell prey to the conviction that my Thoonian comrades had been captured.
Springing to my feet, I turned away and began to run back towards our base, covering the ground speedily in the strange gait of the Martian runner. As I ran, I glanced back frequently over my shoulders; soon I saw the airborne raiders vanish behind the crenellations of a distant ridge, away to the west.
My grim foreboding was soon confirmed: our camp had been ransacked and my fellow tribesmen were nowhere to be seen.
A rageful curse escaped my lips.
Scarce pausing, I set out again, running back the way I had come. I had, straight away, determined that my comrades' best hope of rescue lay in my giving immediate chase, in the hope that the enemy's base was near at hand. A return to the valley of the Thoons would avail me naught, for by the time a war party could take up the pursuit, the Slithians and their captives might well be long gone.
Progressing at a steady trot, I soon passed the place where I had first caught sight of the Slithians. I ran on until, at last, after toiling up a steep scarp, I gained the rampart of the ridge behind which they had disappeared.
Before me stretched a flat-bottomed valley, wide and long, its floor broken by many strange and grotesque formations of brightly coloured rock; tremendous deposits of sapphire, emerald, ruby and diamond burst forth to flare and glitter in the sun's bright rays. It was not, however, the fabulous riches displayed there that seized my attention. Rather were my eyes drawn to the most astounding feature of the valley: an isolated column of multicoloured stone, a mile or so away and some two hundred yards high, jutting thumb-like into the sky.
No sooner had my gaze fallen upon the great stack than several dark shapes plunged from its flat crown, swooping low and then soaring into the skysnaroths and their Slithian riders!
My desperate chase had met with success. It was far from clear, however, how my triumph would benefit those I hoped to succour. For a while, I harrowed my brain, yet there came to me no tactic the employment of which seemed likely to yield the liberation of my fellows. I was by then a day's travel from the home of the Thoons; it would take at least two days to return with reinforcements. Even then, no army could possibly scale the rocky tower undetected. The surface-bound Thoons would be powerless before the airborne Slithians; the latter could rain missiles upon the former with impunity, or simply fly away. I doubted whether even I alone could climb up unnoticed. And even were I to reach the top, what then? I should find myself hopelessly outnumbered.
While I was standing thus, erect upon the ridge's crest, contemplating my lack of options, there came a hoarse cry from above me, and several huge, dark shapes swept downwards from the sky.
It was then that I glimpsed the girl.
DO OR DIE!
FORTUNE SMILED upon me. The eyes of the sky-riders were fixed upon other prey, they were seeking something I had seen take refuge within a little wood, around a hundred yards away, below the ridge upon which I was standing.
Crouching behind a boulder, I watched as six mounted snaroths swooped down to land somewhere behind the trees. Soon six manlike figures appeared on foot, coming around the rightward border of the trees. After drawing bright-bladed swords, they plunged into the foliage. Meanwhile, a half dozen or so more snaroths were still wheeling overhead, their riders ready to deploy their nets should their quarry be flushed out into the open.
A few minutes later a lone figure did indeed break from the left-hand edge of the trees, dashing towards another grove a little farther away.
Even as the sky-riders watching from above dived, I was bounding down the hill, sending scree sliding and dust billowing. I had been galvanized into action by a realization that had filled me with mingled shock and exultation: my glimpse had been fleeting, but the running figure had appeared fully human, and some quality in its bearing led me to believe it to be female.
After making the nearest of the trees, I pressed my way through the fronds and tendrils of the undergrowth, careless of the many dangers that were sure to lurk there. It was not easy going and it was only after the elapse of several minutes that I reached the other side. Peering out from among aureate arborescences, I found myself to be near the place where the Slithians had abandoned their snaroths. Net bundles lay all around, containing the fruits of the day's hunting, attached by twisted cords to the saddles of the lizard-hawks.
Moments later it became apparent that the hunters had taken their prey. Six of them appeared from around the edge of the thicket, carrying with them a person-sized parcel tightly cocooned in netting. With their approach, I was afforded my first good look at representatives of the Slithian race of Kanthor, and, although they were humanoid in form, they presented to my eyes a singularly unprepossessing aspect.
Their flesh was, for the most part, bright red in colour; this the result of their skins being almost entirely transparent, rendering visible various of their internal organs and vessels, and even the occasional flash of white bone. They were almost naked, wearing nothing save short, skirtlike garments of greenish leather, and crudely wrought leather harnesses from which various scabbards and pouches depended. Their eyes were wide and staring, and the iris of each was extremely pale, leaving the pupil a tiny island of black set in a vast ocean of white.
The unlovely half-dozen threw down the new parcel among the others. Then, after attaching it by ropes to the saddle of a snaroth, they departed in order to assist in the assembling of the rest of their company. I heard them calling to one another in guttural tones.
Seizing the opportunity thus presented, I crept forwards until I had reached the newly brought bundle. The snaroth to which it was tied, keeping an amethyst eye fixed upon me, commenced to give out a queer cooing and fluttered its wings nervouslywings that were purple-black and overspread with long, feather-like scales.
Ignoring the beast, I applied my knife to one of the connecting ropes. The blade's edge was sharp, but the rope, which was many-stranded and rubbery, proved difficult to cut. It was composed of filaments taken from the web of an animal that I had not yet encountered, but of which I had heard tellthe sipperath. Sipperaths resemble Earthly spiders in that they capture their prey in webs, but differ from them in that they can grow to the size of bears.
For no more that a few score seconds was I allowed to work on the rope, parting but a few of its threads, before I heard the sounds of the red men's return. After tearing with all my strength at the webbing enveloping the bundle, I managed to insinuate my dagger down inside it.
"Endure," I whispered, lowering my face towards what I hoped was the head of the captive. "I shall come for you." Then, reluctantly but rapidly, I withdrew to a place of concealment amidst the other baggage.
When, a few minutes later, the Slithians took off, their snaroths leaping, grasshopper-like, high into the air before opening their great wings, they were unaware that they had with them an unmanifested item of cargo. The net sack beside which I had chanced to hide myself had contained the carcass of a small robax. The beast, being dead, had been trussed up a good deal less securely than had the fancied human female; consequently, during the time it took for the red Kanthorans to assemble, I had been able to drag the carcass free, hide it in the brush, and secrete myself in its place.
My position was most precarious. I had been able to wrap myself only loosely in the sipperath mesh, and I had almost lost my grip when being jolted into the air. Now, with the rugged surface of Kanthor flashing by far beneath, I clung on for dear life, my every sinew trembling with effort.
Fortunately, we soon achieved our destination, which was, as I had hoped and expected, the towering thumb of stone. The plateau at its top, which I estimated to be around fifty yards in diameter, was rough and uneven, riven by chasms, and broken by jagged outcrops. There were, however, some relatively level areas, and it was on to one such region that I was deposited. Losing no time, I unbundled myself and found a hiding place amongst the sundry spoils of the chase.
I could see for miles around and, I confess, was at first a little alarmed to find myself so far above the surrounding land; but, doubtless, the colossal formation that supported me had stood erect for unguessed ages, and, doubtless, it would not topple for ages moresuch at least was my earnest hope.
After corralling their winged mounts, the Slithians assembled not far from me in order witness the cutting open of the parcel that contained their most recently acquired prisoner. In addition to those with whom I had hitched a ride, there were two dozen or so others of the red men already there.
I was still not entirely certain of the nature of their prize, and, craning my neck, I peered forth expectantly from where I crouched. Had I seen what I thought I had seen? When it came, the answer to this question provoked from me an involuntary emission of wonder, which, by good fortune, was drowned by the uncouth grunts of the Slithians.
Kanthor had thitherto presented my eyes only with alien or monstrous forms and they were quite unprepared for the beauteous vision with which they were then gifted. In the midst of the Slithians was standing a young woman, perfectly formed, alike to the women of Earth in almost every respect. She did, however, differ from her mundane sisters in two significant ways, one a quality the other a quantity: her skin was a very pale jade-green, and she was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen.
My marvelling orbs widened that they might collect more of the splendid light reflected from the divine symmetry of the girl's face, the fine features of which were framed by long, straight hair so black that it defied illumination, appearing to draw in and absorb the fervid rays of the sparkling sun.
She was wearing a fitted bodice of soft, yellow leather, trimmed with light, speckled fur, extending from beneath the curve of her breasts to her slender waist. An elaborately knotted cord girdled her middle, and a flared skirt of scintillant, midnight-blue gauze flowed down over the elegant curve of her hips, all the way to her shapely, sandal-shod feet.
The ideal proportions of the girl's figure and the loveliness of her face were enhanced by the dignity with which she bore herself in the face of her enemies' harsh words and impudent eyes. Among the Slithians, who were for the most part diminutive in stature, she stood straight and tall, her chin raised in defiance, with no indication of fear in her diamond eyes or upon her emerald lips.
A thrill ran through me in admiration of her fortitude. I almost surrendered to the urge to leap among the red men and give them a taste of my steel, but I held back, knowing that so rash a course would further the girl's cause not a whit.
Twenty feet from me, near the centre of the plateau, beneath an eruption of live sapphire, was the entrance to a cave or tunnel; and it was through this orifice that the charming captive was taken by four of her hideous captors. Of other prisoners there was no sign; if my Thoon comrades were there at all then they must be confined somewhere below, within the tower itself.
By then, the sun was low in the sky, peeking from behind a splendid cinnabar cloud-scape; but, although nightfall could be no more than an hour or so away, I deemed it unlikely that I could avoid discovery till dark. Even as I watched, another group of Slithians arrived, and soon I was sharing the rock stack's crown with around fifty of the uncanny fellows. They wandered hither and thither; and that my presence would be noticed, sooner rather than later, was certain. Yet even had this not been the case, there could be no delay: the danger facing the girl was both terrible and immediate.
Thinking themselves immune from attack, my foes had posted no guards at the rocky portal through which the girl had been taken, but still an unobserved crossing of the intervening space would not be easily accomplished. For several tense minutes, I peered from my niche, awaiting the right moment in which to make my dashthe moment when no pale eye was glancing in my direction.
Meanwhile, the Slithians lit a fire. Soon thereafter three of them started in my direction, presumably to get meat for the flames. My discovery appeared imminent, and grimly I drew my sword; to complete my mission it would be necessary for me kill half a hundred red warriorsno mere bagatelle!
Just then a beneficent Fate intervened, presenting me with a slender chance. There came, from behind the three who approached, the sound of voices raised in angry disagreement; a knife flashed in the sun, and, for the merest fraction of a second, all eyes turned to watch the disputants.
It was now or neverdo or die!
Springing forth, I sprinted towards the cave-mouth and hurled myself through it. Unseen beneath my feet, the ground dropped away and I tumbled pell-mell into utter darkness.
At last I came to rest. When my eyes had accustomed themselves to the gloom, I saw that I had fallen down a flight of around twenty, roughly-hewn steps. Save for a few minor abrasions, I was uninjured. I accounted myself most fortunate not to have broken any bones or, indeed, to have dashed out my brains.
My sword lay upon a stair about half way up (I had released my hold upon it during my descent, that I might not impale myself upon it). Swiftly, I moved to recover the weapon, knowing that were my enemies to appear before I had done so, I should be helpless before them.
None came. Evidently I had escaped detection, and I smiled as my fingers closed about my sword's hiltso far so good.
The air within the cave-like interior of the tower was cool, a mercy after the oppressive heat of the Martian afternoon, yet still beads of perspiration broke out upon my brow as I made my way silently down an uneven, spiralling passage. The darkness was relieved by not infrequent shafts of sunlight, entering through fissures in the rock, illuminating deposits of precious stone and veins of noble metal.
Before long, I came upon a torchlit chamber, cut from the substance of the tower, seemingly ages ago. There were signs of more recent activity too: piles of wood and other building materials. Around the walls were the entrances to half a dozen small cells, blocked by heavy, wooden gratings.
A male figure, appearing entirely human in form, stood with its back to me at the doorway to one such cell.
He was no Slithian.
It might have been the torchlight, but the white of his skin appeared to possess a yellowish, almost metallic cast. He was splendidly garbed, wearing a short, flexible skirt of black metal, woven like chain mail, and a richly wrought cuirass of dark leather, inlaid with precious metals and encrusted with jewels.
The man was muttering through the wooden grid before which he was standing, and I managed to catch sufficient of his words to know that the girl was within the cell.
Sword raised, I slunk forwards. It was my intention to strike down the yellow-skin from behind. I disliked being compelled to approach an enemy in such a manner, even such an abject and degraded specimen as this one had, by his utterances, revealed himself to be, but silence and expedition were vital: the fate of the jade-skinned girl, and that of the Thoons, hung upon me. Besides, the fellow had long since forfeited his right to life: he and his band were making war upon my adopted tribe, and grim Necessity oft-times demands that war be prosecuted in a manner unvitiated by sentiment.
On that occasion, however, I made a poor slinker. I could not entirely suppress that part of me that wanted to engage the man face to face and, as I drew nearer to him, my would-be victim, becoming aware of my approach, wheeled to face me.
Momentarily, my attention was arrested by that which was affixed to the centre of the fellow's brow: a splendid, blood-red gem, around the diameter of a half-crown, multifaceted, and alive with fiery sparks.
Then I met his gaze.
As I did so, his eyes appeared to emit a flash of violet light, blinding in its intensity. Simultaneously, something struck me with great force between the eyes, sending me reeling backwards to stagger against the edge of the rocky aperture through which I had come. My every nerve was atremble; my knees threatened to give way beneath me, and I found myself struggling to remain conscious.
Dimly, through the spots of coloured light that danced before my eyes, I saw my foe, wearing a murderous glower upon his finely cast features, advancing unhurriedly upon me. His hands held a weapona thin spear of yellow metal, two feet long, tipped with a dark, spiked jewelwhich was pointed at my heart.
Providentially, my efforts to ward off insensibility met with sufficient success that I was able to push myself forwards from the wall and, extending my sword arm, ram the point of my blade through the bejewelled leather of my enemy's breastplate. Immediately there came a rush of blood from the cut, and I knew that even in my disorientated state I had aimed well.
The features of the yellow man assumed a mask of blank surprise, and a moment later his lifeless body collapsed to the floor.
I had had a narrow escape, and, for a moment, I stood regarding the body of my late antagonist where it lay sprawling at my feet. With what mysterious forceseeming a palpable burst of light from his eyeshad he struck me, well nigh rendering me unconscious?
To this question I knew not the answer, nor indeed might I tax a dead man for it; and so, still blinking, I stepped over the corpse. Pressing my face to the wooden bars of the cell, I peered into the darkness. The next I knew a knife-blade, thrust forth from within, was hurtling towards my breast!
Thanks be to my warrior progenitors! The rapidity of the reflexes I had inherited from them enabled me to step back, just in time. Raising my hand, I managed to catch the wrist that held the dagger. The weapon was my own, and the arm I held was that of the girl to whom I had lent it. Clearly she had prepared a warm reception for any that might harm her.
"I am a friend," I whispered.
The girl gave no reply, but, after I released my grip, she withdrew her arm. Thereafter, it took but a moment to unbar her cage.
"Do you know if there are other prisoners?" I asked as she emerged.
She indicated that she did not; this after her eyes, bright in the gloom, had regarded me intently for a moment.
"Come then," I said.
We moved swiftly, making our way farther down, along a curving passage. I led; the girl followed half a pace behind.
My thoughts orbited my new companion. How beautiful she was! Never had I seen, or even dreamed of, such absolute physical perfection. And to have come across so captivating a creature upon Mars utterly astounded methe laws of feminine beauty, it seems, are universal.
So distracted was I, that when we reached another chamber, similar to the one in which I had found the girl, I took several steps into it before realizing that it was tenanted by three Slithians. They were sitting before the door to the room's single cell, playing some manner of game with coloured stones.
I stepped back smartly into the bend of the passage, out of sightbut I had been heard. There came the sound of one of the Slithians drawing his weapon as he came forwards to investigate.
My own sword in hand, I sprang out upon him. Mindful of my unaccountable (and near fatal) experience in the higher chamber, I was, at first, much concerned to avoid eye-contact with my adversary. This proved impossible; but on this occasion no burst of violet light dazzled me and no invisible hand struck me.
It was a matter of a few seconds before I buried the tip of my blade in my opponent's heartthe precise location of the organ having been rendered readily discernible by the translucence of his skin. Then, in a single great bound, I crossed the room and fell upon the two others. They made a great deal of noise as I engaged them, but the top of the tower was far away and no relief came.
When one of the Slithians, retreating before the ferocity of my attack, was driven close to the door of the cell, a blue arm shot through the grille by which it was barred and a powerful, beclawed hand grasped him by the throat. And, even as the hand's fingers tightened upon the windpipe of the red man, my point found the vitals of his fellow.
"Serrack of Thoon!" I cried toward the cell. "Are you within? It is I, Hector Blake of Earth."
The face of Serrack appeared at the bars, for it was he who owned the throttling hand, and when he released his hold the last of the crimson devils fell dead.
It was the work of a moment to unbar the door and release the occupants of the capacious cell beyond. All were Thoons; around a score of them, of various tribes.
"The non-Thoon is Hector Blake," declared Serrack, addressing himself to those of the blue men who did not know me, "a warrior from beyond the moons that has, by dint of his prowess, earned the respect of the spirit of Serrack."
Briefly, we conferred. An opening, opposite the one by which the girl and I had entered, led down, possibly to an exit, but all agreed that the red men could not be left alive: for, doubtless, upon becoming aware of our escape, they would come after us with their nets and spears.
In truth, however, even had logic indicated retreat to be our best course, the azure warriors could not have been persuaded to withdraw, so much did they thirst for vengeance. Eager for battle and jostling for a frontal position, they ran back up the passageway and fairly exploded onto the rock stack's crown. A few of the Thoons carried weapons taken from the three dead Slithians; others, as their unready enemies were cut down, seized the swords of the newly fallen; still others, so consumed were they by blood-fury, fought on with talon, tooth and tailand deadly indeed were the weapons with which Nature had furnished them.
Concerned for the security of the girl and seeking to reassure her by remaining near, I had allowed the Thoons to push past me into the van, but with the commencement of the fight the martial spirit of my line rose up to claim me, and, leaving her in the relative safety of the tunnel's mouth, I plunged into the fray.
As my keen Martian blade carved a swath through the nearest knot of red men, hot blood surged in my veins, propelled by a heart beating with the joy of battle. Nor was it very long before I was wrenching my ensanguined weapon from the cloven skull of the last of my immediate adversaries. Even as I was so doing, there registered upon my consciousness, above the frightful din of battlewhich is music to the ears of the fighting mana feminine cry.
Casting about with my eyes, I saw a sight that froze my heart with horror. The platform atop the mighty tower of stone was a veritable shambles. All but a few of those of the red race of Kanthor lay dead or dyingthis despite the fact my blue allies and I had been outnumbered more than two to one. Only in one area did the conflict continue: there, a dozen or so of the red men were fighting a desperate rearguard action, making for the place, near the edge, where their snaroths were corralled.
Yet it was not the grisly scene of carnage that had dismayed me, nor even was it the prospect of the escape of a few of my enemies. My blood had run cold because one of the retreating Slithians was dragging away with him, held in a vicelike grip, the jade-skinned girl.
Even as I sprinted after her, hurdling the many bodies in my path, the Thoon warriors engaging the retreating Slithians surged forwards. Half the reds went down beneath a wave of vengeful muscle and sinew, but, before their blue foes could sweep forwards again, the remainder reached their mounts.
The snaroths gave vent to ear-splitting screeches and flapped their great wings as the swords of their riders slashed at their tethers. One of the Slithians was dragged back to his doom, but five others flew freeand with them went the girl.
Without breaking my stride, I sprang after her, my leap taking me way out beyond the brink of the platform, far above the serrated rocks of the Kanthoran surface.
Should I fall it would mean death for me, and for the girl a worse fate.
THE VENUS OF MARS
IT WAS again Kanthor's lesser magnetism, this time combined with my unfamiliarity with the habits of snaroths, that almost proved my undoing. The upwards jump of the creature, upon which were mounted the green-skinned girl and her red abductor, took it into the sky much more quickly than I had anticipated, and I passed under its scale-mantled body.
Far below me awaited the jagged rocks and my certain demise.
The Fates, however, chose to weave me one last chance of survival: the remaining length of the rope by which the lizard-hawk had been tethered was dangling beneath the beast and, instinctively, my left hand clutched for it. Pain seared through my palm and fingers as they slid down the writhing cord, but knowing the dire consequences of my letting go, I did not let go.
After managing to sheathe my weapon, I commenced to climb the rope, hand over hand. I knew that I must ascend quickly, reaching the saddle before the Slithian became aware of my presence. Dangling beneath him, I should be entirely at his mercya quality he could be expected to possess but little of.
It was the girl who facilitated my success in avoiding detection, her struggles serving to occupy her captor's attention. Although he was gripping her by her right wrist, preventing her from using the dagger she held (the one I had given her), she was raining blow after blow upon him with her free limbsit was as though he held a tigress.
Meanwhile, the fear-stricken snaroth was hurtling southwards through the violet sky, vainly seeking to leave behind the sources of its terror: the battling creatures upon its back, and the nameless thing climbing up from below. A snaroth can carry one passenger with ease and two with a little effort; three, however, can be transported only for a short distance, and as the creature shot through the air it gradually lost altitude.
The cord by which I was hanging was fastened to the snaroth's saddle at the pommel, and as I fought to heave myself up, over the front of a beating wing, the animal twisted back its long neck and its jaws sought me out through the feathery scales of its golden ruff. I discouraged its attempt to fasten its myriad of pointed teeth upon my shoulder by cuffing sharply it upon the tip of its beak-like snout.
I came up over the wing not a moment too soon. Horrified, I saw that the Slithian, evidently enraged beyond endurance by his prisoner's assaults upon him, was thrusting his sword at her bosom.
Even as the weapon's steely point sped towards an emerald-tipped breast an appalled cry broke from my throat. My shout reached the ears of the ruddy fiend over the wind's rush and was sufficient to deflect him from his murderous purpose. Panicked by my sudden appearance, he released his hold upon both the girl and the reins, and, leaning down towards me, raised high his sword.
Defenceless, I could but watch aghast as the bright amber light of the sun flashed upon the razor-sharp edge of the upthrown blade.
Then, most opportunely, the green girl acted. Before the red man could bring his weapon down upon me, she pushed him, two-handed, with all her might, and so precarious was his position that he pitched towards me, right out of the saddle.
The arms of the Slithian flailed as he fell, and temporarily he succeeded in arresting his descent, his empty hand closing about my left ankle. An instant later, I compelled him to release his hold by bringing my right foot forcefully down upon his mirthlessly grinning skull-face.
By then, the frantic flight of the snaroth had carried us out of the valley of the tower of stone. Looking down, I saw that we were passing over a great chasm in the Kanthoran surface, and it was into the darkness of this rift that the rubious demon plunged.
The lizard-hawk chose the very next moment to enter a veritable frenzy of fear and rage: it bucked and twisted, even contriving to loop-the-loop. As land and sky tumbled through my field of vision, I lost my grip upon the wing, but still clung on to the rope.
After several sickening seconds, I was dashed against the ground, only to be immediately jolted back into the air, with such violence that my arm was almost torn from its socket. An instant later, I crashed to the ground once more, and this time the impact caused me to let go of the rope.
Winded, I lay coughing and spluttering, only dimly aware of the screeches of the receding snaroth. It must have been almost a minute before I was able to stand and, with urgent eyes, scan my surroundings. What had become of the girl? Had she been thrown clear? Had she been carried away? Had she followed the Slithian into the abyss?
It was with a feeling of extreme relief that I caught sight of her, about a hundred yards from me. She was runningher long, slender legs carrying her speedily over the broken ground, her ink-black mane streaming behind her, her gauzy skirt hoisted above her kneesand close at her heels were the four remaining Slithians that had escaped the Thoons.
The fugitive was making for a narrow ravine, leading through a low ridge, which crossed her path at a point not far to my left. None had seen me, and, darting between rubiginous rocks and aureate bushes, I scrambled up onto the ridge and down into the ravinethere to lie in ambush behind a breast-high boulder.
Despite the green girl's athleticism, it had been clear to me that the red men must eventually overhaul her, and, as I drew my sword, I fervently hoped that I had been correct in my determination that she could remain ahead of them until she reached my hiding place.
Rapid footfalls drew nigh; then the girl flashed by me. An instant later I threw myself into the path of her pursuers, swinging my sword in a great horizontal arc. The most fleet-footed of the oncoming Slithians, unable to check his rush, was cleft almost in twain by my blade. There was barely time to free my weapon from his body before the other three were upon me.
The ravine rang with the clash of metal upon metal as, finding myself forced onto the defensive by my enemies' weight of numbers, I wove about myself a protective lattice-work of steel. Although I cannot deny possessing a certain skill with the blade, no sword can be in three places at once, and I was keenly cognizant that, at any moment, I might succumb to a lucky thrust from one of the three sharp points that were eagerly seeking my vitals. I fought on, however, making no attempt to disengage, determined to give a good account of myself and to win as much time as possible for the girl to make good her escape.
Suddenly, one of my adversaries stumbled beneath the impact of a stone hurled from above and behind me. He dropped his guard and, quick as a flash, I ran him through. Glancing back, I saw that, instead of fleeing, the girl had climbed a little way up the rocky side of the canyon; from which point of vantage she was aiming another stone at our common foes.
A thrill of admiration for her resourcefulness and courage swept through me: evidently a brave heart was beating within her seemingly fragile frame.
Emboldened by her continued presence and taking full advantage of the disconcerting effect her continuing barrage was having upon my opponents, I pressed forward my attack with vigour. The outcome of the encounter was no longer in doubt: where once I had had four enemies only two remained. Before much more time had elapsed, there was only one, and then, a heartbeat later, the last of the red devils lay face down, champing at the dust.
Victory was ours! Together, the girl and I had prevailed.
I sank to my knees, taking in huge draughts of air. When my breath was back, I rose and went to stand beneath the girl's perch. Her bright, clear eyes followed my approach.
"Tal-kar," I declared, employing the customary Kanthoran greeting. "Hector Blake, an Earth-man, at your service." I extended my hand. "Will you come down? I shall not harm you."
She stayed put. "I do not understand," she stated, her voice clear, harmonious. "What is an Earth-man?"
I told her.
"You have come from beyond the moons?" she exclaimed, a weird light commencing to shine in her eyes as they searched my face. "Were you sent by the Dath Kor to protect me?"
"Perhaps," I answered with a smilethe girl had made reference to the Kanthoran gods, giving them the same name as had the Thoons. "In truth I know not how I came here, or for what purpose."
Warily, the girl returned my smile; and then, acting upon a sudden determination, she placed her hand in mine and allowed me to help her down.
She and I were in a pretty fix. The great chasm, over which we had flown, tore across the landscape for as far as the eye could see, blocking our passage to both the Slithian base and the valley of the Thoons. Of the snaroths that had belonged to our vanquished foes there was no signalarmed by the red men's fate, the lizard-hawks had flown.
By my estimation, the home of Sithak's tribe lay in a roughly north-easterly direction. I suggested, therefore, that we travel eastwards along the rift, in the hope of finding a way to cross it; and, although my assurance that we should receive a cordial reception from the blue men surprised her, the green girl gave my plan her assent.
By that time, however, it was too late in the day to go far, and our priority was to find a place of relative security in which to spend the night. I had learned during many a hunting expedition with Serrack that the safest such place is in the branches of a tall tree. Consequently, we made for a little wood, a few hundred yards away.
Amid the trees we came upon a pond. Straight away the girl, standing at the water's edge, began to unfasten the ties of her fur-trimmed bodice of velvety, buff-coloured leather. After removing the garment, she dropped it to the ground at her side. Then her slender fingers set to work upon the intricately knotted cord, tipped with silvery tassels, which girdled her slim waist and held in position her skirt of sparkling, dark-blue gauze.
It was all done so naturally and unaffectedly that I did not think to avert my eyes, finding myself quite lost in admiration of the graceful curves of her outline. I became aware that I was staring only when she suddenly looked up at me. And at the very instant our eyes met, she let fall her dress.
Abashed, I turned away; a second later I heard the splash of her entry into the water. When I looked again, only her head and shoulders were visible above the rippling surface.
Raising an arm, she beckoned to me.
I was sorely in need of refreshment after a day of battle, and the water was most inviting, yet, momentarily, I demurredso powerful an influence did Earthly mores continue to exert upon me, even through never less than thirty-five million miles of interplanetary vacuum. Then, with an effort of the will, I sloughed off my otherworldly modesty, and with it my harness, sword-belt and sandals. Finally, in a single movement, I threw aside the rarnkor hide from about my loins and plunged into the pool.
For some time thereafter Martian girl and Earth-man disported themselves in the limpid water, and the golden glade rang with laughterthe first real laughter I had heard or given out upon the Red Planet.
At length, the girl drew herself from the pond. After donning her dark petticoat and tying the bright cord about her waist, she began to gather leaves from some of the plants growing upon the bank. Her purpose in this became apparent only when I too had come forth on to dry land.
Acting upon her command, I lay down, and she proceeded to place a leaf upon each of the many minor gashes and abrasions that the day's adventures had left upon my body, binding each of them into position with stems of grass. The leaves, she explained, possessed therapeutic properties. And, indeed, my skin tingled beneath her touch, an effect I attributed to the leaves' healing power.
"The women of my country are by tradition taught the healing arts," said the raven-haired girl. "It is our most sacred duty to tend to the wounds of the men who fight for usas you have for me." And so diligently did she discharge her obligation that she did not cease until she had sought out every last cut and graze for treatment.
The diaphanous fabric of her single item of clothing, clinging to the moistened skin of leg and thigh, did little to disguise the quaint beauty of her figure, glorious in the first bloom of womanhood. I too wore very littlenaught but an animal skin about my hipsyet, in our exotic Eden our dress did not seem immodest or wanton. Nor was I in any way disconcerted by the intimacy of her ministrationsthey were, after all, justified by medicinal necessity.
Her tender duties done, the girl bade me lie still; turning from me, she began to collect fruits and nuts from the nearby trees. I knew next to nothing of the edibility or otherwise of Kanthoran plant life, the Thoons feasting almost entirely upon flesh, and so I obeyed, contenting myself with keeping a watchful eye upon her.
When she was done, we sat by the pool to eat.
"I am afraid that this is all I have to contribute," I said, producing from a pouch at my belt a quantity of the biltong-like dried meat that forms the hunter's reserve.
Laughing, the girl took a portion, and her strong, white teeth gnawed upon it. "Delicious!" she exclaimed. "Certainly, it is better to eat than be eaten."
I understood the implication. "The red men are cannibals? They would have eaten you?"
"Eventually," she replied, shuddering.
We were very hungry, and for a while we ate without talking.
The girl aroused within me a powerful fascination; I was quite captivated by every graceful movement of her limbs, and every changing expression upon her beautiful face.
Only very occasionally did the sounds, sights and smells of the Martian wood divert my attention from her, and then but briefly. Many bizarre forms of life, strange insectoids and bird-sized, lizard-like, creatures, murmuring, chattering and hissing, skittered among the trees' spiralling branches, strangely-shaped yellow leaves, and fragrant flowers.
It was only when the girl, quite casually, after briefly focusing her gaze upon a small, blue fruit, caused it to detach itself from the pile lying in out midst and float upwards towards her mouth, that I broke the silence between us with a muttered exclamation of astonishment.
Laughingly, she explained that she had levitated the little fruit with the power of her mindsimply by willing it!
Notwithstanding my astonishment, I was struck by a thought. After recounting my experience with the yellow-skinned man I had confronted outside the girl's prison, I asked if it were possible that I had sustained from him some species of psychokinetic attack.
After pausing a moment in thought, the girl replied that she did not know, never before having seen any Kanthoran with yellow-gold skin; but she admitted that such a thing might well be possible. Noetic abilities of a sort that appear extraordinary from a terrene perspective were, the girl told me, widespread upon Kanthor, differing widely in potency and character between and within the planet's various races. Historically, among her own people, there had been certain savants who had developed their mental faculties to an unusual degree. Her own achievement in elevating the fruit had been relatively unexceptional; all but the weakest of intellects could perform such feats.
Ashamedly, I admitted to her that, such abilities being unknown upon the Earth, I believed myself to be among the feeble-minded.
"Nonsense," said she. And I was soon both exultant and amazed when, in response to her urging and instruction, I at last succeeded in raising a cherry-sized fruit a few inches into the air by the projected power of my mind!
So fascinated was I by the revelation that I shared this undreamed-of psychical capacity with my companion at dinner that it was a while before it occurred to me that I knew little else of her, not even her name.
When I asked her by what she was called, however, she seemed a little taken aback, and her smooth cheeks flushed emerald.
"I am called Kara Dea," she answered at last.
I liked her name; so much so that I repeated it several times, familiarizing myself with its, to me, strange sound. As I spoke Kara Dea looked from my eyes to my lips with a strange sparkle of excitement in her own eyes and a strange half-smile upon her own lips.
I reminded the girl of my own name. She too appeared to approve, and when she practised its pronunciation, never had the words 'Hector' and 'Blake' been said so sweetly.
Further converse had to wait; by then the last carnelian shards of sunlight were piercing the forest's topaz gloom, and the time had come to seek the safety of the trees. Soon we found a specimen of a certain kind of tree the smooth boles of which do not ramify until far above the ground.
I boosted the callipygous Kanthoran into the lower boughs; then, after placing a fallen log against the trunk, I clambered up after her, and when I had kicked away my improvised ladder we were fairly secure.
The branches were flat and wide. We discovered a bowl-like crook, and there, after we had made ourselves comfortable, Kara Dea began her story.
"I am a daughter of Sherpath."
I must have looked blank.
"You have never heard of bright Sherpath?"
I shook my head.
The girl appeared amused by the depth of my ignorance of things Kanthoran, yet so infectious was the silvery sound of her laughter that, although the joke was at my expense, I could not help but join in her mirth.
"Then I shall start at the beginning," she said. "Sherpath is the capital city of Pathtar, which is my country. Once it was the centre of a mighty empire, but now its very survival, and that of all its people, hangs in the balance. From the north-east we are menaced by the waxing power of the one known as the Prime of Skanthhe is the Slithians' master, and it is his desire to make all Kanthor his dominion. From the south, meanwhile, we are harried by the Quorrite rebelsat this time most of our fighting men are campaigning in the marshes against them. The Kerrador of Pathtar, who is -" Here she caught herself, as though choosing her words. "The Kerrador of Pathtar who is called Korval Dax, leads our warriors. In his absence, and that of the finest of the Sherpathian noble class, we are ruled by Baytor Thag, who is the Kerrad of Urpath, another city of my country."
With the mention of this Baytor Thag, the Kerrador 'Prince'of Urpath, the slightest of frowns appeared upon Kara Dea's forehead.
"No sooner had my father departed to join with the forces fighting to subdue the Quorrites than a powerful nobleman commenced to pay court to me. At first I looked not unfavourably upon his suit; he is of royal blood, and I have long known that I should have to marry in the interests of my house, not my heart. But in the weeks that followed I came to know more of him, and the more I knew, the more did he come to frighten and revolt me. Yet my coldness seemed only to inflame him, provoking him into pressing his claims with ever greater ardour. No day would pass without my being subject to his importunate solicitations, until, at last, I resolved to tell him plainly that his attentions were unwelcome. We were alone in a gardena lovely place in High Sherpath, overlooking the lower cityand there I told him to his face that I could never be his. Such was his chagrin at my words that he forgot himself and sought to force himself upon me."
"The brute!" I exclaimed.
"Perhaps it was my fault, perhaps I was being selfish," the girl went on, "perhaps I should have submitted. Am I aught but a servant of my line?"
"But this is monstrous," I growled. "Surely your father places some value upon his daughter's honour."
Kara Dea's eyes flashed. "My father is a man of noble spirit," she rejoined, "and a fighting man; were he to become aware of the events of that evening he would personally cut out the man's heart and throw it to the nathribs." She smiled, the imagined prospect pleasing her. "But, in truth, it would be a disaster for Pathtar if my house and that of my suitor were to be set at odds."
The girl took a deep breath and continued her tale in earnest tones. "With desperate strength I struck at him. My blow temporarily disabled him and I was able to break free of his embrace and hide myself. Then I heard him call for assistance; and when it was his own guards that came, not my own, I knew that I was utterly in his power. I was overwrought, I wanted only to escape, to reach my father, and, eluding those that searched for me, I made my way to the place where the royal snaroths are stabled.
"All through the night I rode. Fearing that my intention would be guessed and that I would be pursued, I headed north, meaning to circle back later. Shortly after dawn I was spotted by a roving band of Slithiansthe servitors of the Prime of Skanth are seen increasingly often near Sherpath. They pursued me for a long time, far out over the wild lands, until, finally, I was captured, as you saw."
My blood had fairly boiled as Kara Dea had told her tale. I was smitten by the realization that, although our association had been of short duration, I had already come greatly to admire her. No man could fail to be drawn to the fine qualities of her character, already clearly evidenced: her native intelligence, her blithe humour, and her indomitability in the face of adversity. Nor was I unaware that she possessed that perfection of physical form designed by Nature to excite the esteem of men.
The instinctive desire of the male to protect the female was awoken in my breast. A woman's need is a call no man can refuse, and from that moment I knew where my duty layI knew the purpose to which I must thereafter bend my every faculty.
I took the Martian maiden's hands in mine.
"Kara Dea," I said, "I shall not rest until I have returned you to your people. If you will permit it, I shall be your protector and, I hope, your friend."
A smile touched her lips. "Yes," she said, "I should like that."
IN THE night I awoke several times. During one such period of wakefulness, I witnessed a tyrack come sinuously through the wood. For a while, the monster paced beneath our perch, its green and scaly hide glinting in the moons-light, its eerie eyes regarding me from atop their erectile stalks. Rising onto its hind legs, it scrabbled with the other four against the smooth trunk of the tree. Before long, however, it concluded that we were unreachable and, giving a frustrated hiss, departed.
During other watches of the night, I simply gazed in wonder at my dormant companion. Such beauty! The moons, casting their restless beams through the forest's canopy as they swept through the shimmering sky, produced upon her smooth curves an enchanting chiaroscuro of ruby highlights and beryl shadows.
Mysterious indeed are the weavings of the Fates. Feeling the warmth of Kara Dea's skin, pressed against me, the weight of her head, pillowed upon my shoulder, and the caress of her hair, a silken stream flowing across my breast. I pondered upon the marvellous sequence of events by which we twoconceived upon different worlds, separated by sometimes as much as two hundred and fifty million miles of cold, empty spacehad come to be huddled so close together in a tree.
With the lavender light of dawn, I was again awake; and when the girl's eyes opened and a smile lighted her face, it was as though morning broke anew.
We descended the tree, breakfasted on fruit, and bathed once again in the pond. Afterward, when she had refastened her chamois corset below her breasts, Kara Dea withdrew from its hiding place the small dagger I had given her, and offered to return it to me.
"Keep it," I said. "You may have need of it again."
She nodded and returned the blade to its niche.
Without further ado we set forth, travelling hopefully in an easterly direction, parallel to the great crack in the crust of Kanthor. Throughout the day no predators assailed us, nor did we espy red men or blue. The hours passed quickly; all too quickly, for I found Kara Dea to be a most companionable creature. Occasionally our conversation touched upon matters of moment, but mostly we talked for the sake of talking.
The rift, blocking our northward passage, tapered gradually, until, by the time we reached a point roughly south of the caves of the Thoons, the gap was narrow enough for a tree trunk to have been laid across it, by persons unknown, forming a makeshift bridge
Prior to our discovery of the rude crossing, we had stayed always a hundred yards or so from the edge of the fissure. Kara Dea had been responsible for the maintenance of this distance; always had she led me away if ever we had approached more closely. Now, as we neared the brink she seemed disquieted, shrinking back from it and pressing her body against mine. She would not say what it was that worried herafraid, perhaps, that her words would invoke the object of her apprehension.
Standing at the edge, I was curious about the depth of the fissure, and, intending to sound it, I snatched up a stone. Upon becoming aware of my intention, Kara Dea gave a sharp cry; but her warning came too late, and we listened, momentarily frozen, as the stone fell, clattering, into the depths, to be lost to our hearing long before it reached the bottom, if bottom there be.
Coming to myself, I stepped out onto the tree trunk: it wobbled a little, but proved adequate to its purpose. Upon gaining the other side, I turned and beckoned to the girl. She hesitated, throwing a worried look into the darkness below; then, after making an apotropaic gesture, she came quickly across.
Nothing had emerged from the abyss to menace us, but as we hurried away the pretty Martian still wore a frown.
"What is troubling you, Kara Dea?" I asked. "Please tell me."
She awarded me a meaning look and whispered: "The Dwellers Beneath."
I wondered whether my companion had made reference to the Dath Shador, dread adversaries of the Kanthoran gods, of whom the Thoons had sometimes spoken (albeit in hushed tones), but, perceiving that she was upset, I forbore to ask.
For a while thereafter her brow remained furrowed, her eyes downcast, her smile absent. I was mindful of the strain under which she must be labouring. She had been driven from her home; she had been made prisoner by the degenerate Slithians, and she was heading for what she must have considered an uncertain reception from the savage Thoons, a race with which her own people had never enjoyed aught but hostile relations. Such trials would be hard enough for a man to endure, yet until that moment the young Kanthoran woman had kept her chin up splendidly.
Seeking to reassure and comfort her, I took her hand in mine. Eagerly, her fingers clasped my own, and soon the light of her smile broke through the gloom and she was gay again.
That my simple action had been so gloriously crowned with success had a curious effect upon me. My heart filled with a feeling of extraordinary felicitynever had I experienced such utter joy. I was quite at a loss to explain the origin or significance of so intense an emotion. Why should a mere smilewinning though it wasmove me so?
My happiness did not outlast our arrival at the valley of the Thoons. The sentries guarding the pass imparted grave news to me: Sithak, the old kerrador, was dead, and at that very moment the chieftains of the tribe were meeting in conclave to select a new ruler.
"What of Serrack?" I asked grimly. "Has he returned?"
"Serrack is lost: taken by Slithians," came the reply.
I was doubly dismayed by these tidings. Not only was I sad to hear of Sithak's passing, but also was I greatly concerned for Serrack, having expected him to have beaten Kara Dea and myself back to the valley. What could have befallen him and the other Thoons after my precipitous departure from the tower of stone?
There was no time to lose, and, still leading the girl, I made for the great throne-cavern.
The macabre grotto was full. In the cupreous torchlight hundreds of Thoons were visible, sitting all around upon the rocks, and, from the shadows many hundreds more sets of carbuncular eyes glinted. Before the vacant throne were standing the half-dozen high-chieftains who were seeking elevation to it.
Thoonian assemblies are impromptu affairs, not much governed by standing orders, or much constrained by precedent; the participants attempt to sway their peers by shouted argument (and often by thinly veiled threat). As Kara Dea and I entered a good deal of disputation of this sort of was taking place.
"Chieftains of the Thoon, hear me!" I cried above the tumult. "Serrack lives!"
This was welcome news to the majority of them, and they quietened sufficiently for me to be able to address them, although I had still fairly to bellow my report.
Further fractious debate followed my speech; at the end of which it was agreed that a decision on the kingship would be delayed until the following day; by when it was hoped Serrack would have returned.
But even as I was inwardly congratulating myself upon the success of my intervention, one I recognized stepped forwards.
It was Sulgor.
I had seen little of him since our brief encounter on the second day of my Kanthoran life. He had spent most of the intervening time skulking in his cavehis humiliation at my hands had so set back his cause that he had ceased to be regarded as a serious candidate for promotion to the tribal purple. Now, however, his cunning brain had conceived of a ploy by which he might both reassert his credentials to lead, and wreak vengeance upon the author of his disgrace.
"It is well that these Thoons await the coming of Serrack," said he, casting upon me an incandescent glare, "but Sulgor has heard his voice and must speak. By edict of Sithak, Hector Blake, although a Soft One, is a warrior among the Thoonas such, he is bound to obey the laws of the Thoon." The blue chieftain's eyes passed from me to blaze upon the green girl at my side. "No mere warrior may possess a female, not even a female Soft One. She must be given over to a chieftain."
Sulgor's words were sooth, and there came murmurs of agreement from the shadows. Tribal custom dictated that I could have no say in the fate of Kara Dea; intercourse between non-chieftains and females is strictly prohibited, the taboo placed upon such congress being as powerful as any that might govern the conduct of the natives of Earth's South Seas.
After pausing to allow his words to sink in, my enemy continued: "Although the female's form is peculiar, this Thoon shall deign to mate with her!"
Sulgor's utterance rendered me almost speechless with horror and rage, but finally, through clenched teeth, I growled: "Kara Dea of Sherpath is under my protection. None shall harm her!"
My words, however, were little more than empty bombast. I could not kill them all, although at that moment, had I the power, I should gladly have depopulated Kanthor in Kara Dea's cause. My blood pounded in my ears and my breath came in laboured gasps, as, from under galled brows, I met Sulgor's malevolent glare. When, almost imperceptibly, he glanced toward the palely-paved, skull-encircled arena of Nassooth, I nodded. Soundlessly the challenge had been offered; soundlessly it had been accepted. It would be single combatto the death!
The rite of Nassooth is a formal business, and it took a while for the proper ceremoniesto prepare the ring and the participantsto be performed. In the meantime the sudden storm of my anger passed, leaving dark clouds, fraught with foreboding, louring upon me. In my rage, I had played into Sulgor's hands: I had allowed myself to be goaded into accepting his challenge, when there were many among the Thoon chieftains, allies of Serrack, who would have extended their temporary protection to Kara Dea.
"Forgive me, Kara Dea," I said, taking her hands in mine. "I had hoped to be bringing you to a safe haven; instead I have placed you in the utmost jeopardy."
"Do not reproach yourself, Hector Blake," she replied softly. "I could not wish for a more valorous championalready my life is yours."
Reaching forth a hand, I touched her smooth cheek with my fingers. "Should I prevail I shall gain the rank and prerogatives of a chieftain, and be able to continue to offer you my protection. Should I fail…" I trailed off, the prospect was ineffable in its horridity.
"You shall not fail," said Kara Dea.
I was moved by the girl's simple expression faith in me, and my resolve hardened.
Soon thereafter, I was escorted to the arena. The fighters can take nothing into the ring with them and even my rude clothing was stripped from me. Then, while Sulgor and I were anointed with aromatic oils, the concourse chanted the song of Nassooth. Strangely, there came into my mind a memory of the fanfare that had surrounded a prize-fight I had once attended at Madison Square Garden in New York.
At last, the necessary ritual completed, Sulgor and I stepped over the kerb of skulls, and onto the polished white tiles of the arenaa place from which only one of us could emerge alive. Six blue warriors stood guard around the perimeter with spears raised, ready to kill any that should exit it while his opponent yet lived.
Traditionally the combatants salute each other before engaging; Sulgor, however, disdained to honour this custom. His failure to do so provoked hisses of displeasure from the onlookers, and I gained the impression that most of them were inclined toward me: they wanted Serrack to lead them and saw me as the herald of his return.
Fleetingly, I glimpsed Kara Dea, her eyes wide, her hands clasped between her breasts. Then I was compelled to turn my attention to my opponent. Sulgor was among the most mighty of the Thoons, a race equipped by Nature for battle, and he would be no mean antagonist.
With the banging of a gong Nassooth commenced!
Sulgor advanced menacingly, his tail whipping from side to side. The moment he came within range he attempted the same manoeuvre that Serrack had executed on the first day of my life on Mars. Evidently he sought an expeditious and dramatic victory, to bury for ever the memory of his earlier humiliation.
Had my head been in the path of the osseous tip of his appendage as it hissed through the air in a great arc, bones would have been shattered and arteries severed; but this was an old trick, one with which I was by then quite familiar. I ducked and, while he was still recovering his balance, sprang forwards to deal him a blow to the solar plexus, with all my strength.
"Cursed Soft One!" Sulgor gasped, hissing like a nest of serpents.
I cut off further speech by hitting him again, this time on the side of his head, near an ear. It was like hitting a stone, but the blow shook him, and I grew in confidencecould I but continue to strike him cleanly, avoiding his counters, then might I succeed in bludgeoning him into defeat. I remained keenly cognizant, however, that, with the ring being scarcely twenty feet in diameter, the slightest misstep would result in my swift extinction.
Enraged and snorting like a mad bull, Sulgor charged, his arms outstretched, his taloned fingers clutching for me.
Again I eluded his attack. I jumped aside and, as he passed me, hurled my shoulder against his back. Propelled by my shove, he stumbled on towards the edge of the circle. The nearest guardian raised his spear ready to strike: were my antagonist to set even a toe outside the ring, he would die.
Just in time, he checked himself.
The realization that he had come so near death seemed to smother the flames of Sulgor's rage, and for a while we circled each other, awaiting an opening. His changed demeanour emboldened me and, advancing, I hammered a one-two into his chin. As I leapt back, however, the claws of his right hand raked my torso. The gashes were shallow, but had he been a heartbeat quicker (or had I been a heartbeat slower), I should have been opened up from shoulder to groin.
The sight of blood provoked Sulgor into rushing upon me again. Yet my blows appeared to have hurt him, and he came on clumsily. It was not difficult to avoid his lunge by skipping back, and again my fist smashed into his face; but, as I gave ground, his tail swept behind me, tripping me.
I succeeded in retaining my feet, but, by then, my opponent was upon me. His powerful arms closed about my middle, and I was hoisted from the ground. So crushing was the pressure exerted upon me by his deadly embrace that it was a desperate battle even to draw breath. Each time I exhaled his grip tightened; soon my lungs commenced to burn and my vision to grow dim.
Meanwhile, Sulgor, his eyes ablaze with bloodlust, was striving to lower his gleaming fangs to my throathe purposed to finish me with a bite to the jugular!
Bronze serpents writhed beneath my skin as, with arms outstretched and fingers gripping the flesh of Sulgor's face, above and below his protuberant jaws, I fought to hold back his needle-sharp teeth. At first my struggles seemed to be in vain, but even as my enemy, fixated upon his objective, forced forwards his gaping mouth, so was I able to gain sufficient leverage to begin to prize it open still further.
Closer and closer came the jaws of death, and wider and wider they gaped.
At the very last, when the nearest of Sulgor's teeth were scarce an inch from my flesh, there came the sharp and sickening sound of the bones of his skull and lower jaw parting.
Perhaps a shard of shattered bone pierced his brain, for a moment later, his muscles spasmed and his hold upon me loosened. I heaved myself free of him, and he collapsed to the floorquite dead.
Victory was mine!
Standing ecstatic over the lifeless body of my vanquished enemy, its visage still contorted into an impossible rictus, I was seized by the urge to throw back my head and howl in exultation while beating my breast like a jungle ape.
It was a close-run thing, but I restrained myself, aware that such an ejaculation would ill-become an Englishman.
SO FOCUSED had my attention been upon the desperate struggle with Sulgor, that I was no more than dimly aware of the full-throated roar of acclamation that greeted my triumph. I became fully conscious of my surroundings only when I felt Kara Dea's arms go about mean embrace of a very different quality from that in which I had so recently been held by my late antagonist.
I enfolded the girl in my arms. Her body trembled against my naked, bruised skin, as, lowering her head to my breast, she shed hot tears upon me. I admit that I too was almost overwhelmed; the strength of my emotion provoked not so much by relief at my own survival as by my success in keeping her safe from harm.
After what seemed a long time, I lifted my face from the perfumed silk of Kara Dea's hair to see a most welcome sight: none other than Serrack stood at the arena's edge. He had entered the cavern shortly after the commencement of the contest.
The great Thoon approached and, laying a hand upon my shoulder, congratulated me upon my victory. Then he turned and advanced purposefully upon the royal throne. A frightful din accompanied his progress as those assembled cried out his name and rattled their weapons.
Serrack had returned bearing trophies; their gathering had been the cause of his delay: nigh on fifty Slithian skulls, destined for the Array of Enemies. And upon the proud tide produced by this grisly evidence of his martial prowess, he was acclaimed Kerrador of the Thoons, and the tribe that had been Sithak's became his.
I too gained promotion, victory over Sulgor earning me the rank of chieftain, and my elevation was acknowledged in a brief ceremony. The right to mate is the badge of chieftaincy, and one rising to that estate must be accompanied at his investiture by a female. Kara Dea was kind enough to agree to play this role; throughout the rite she was referred to as my Sheema Ka, which means 'First Woman', such being the appellation borne by the premier female of a chieftain's harem.
As well as the Slithian skulls, the new Kerrador of the Thoons had brought home a number of snaroths, captured from the red men. The hapless creatures were intended for the pot (Thoons do not domesticate animals, their instincts are too carnivorous), but when he learned of my pledge to attempt to return Kara Dea to her people, Serrack spoke these words: "Once again is Serrack indebted to Hector Blake; a return must be made to him. Take two snaroths and employ them after the manner of the non-Thoon."
Serrack's award had provided the means by which the girl and I might essay to cross the wilderness that lay between the valley of the Thoons and her home with a chance of success. Nevertheless, we did not seek to depart straight away. It is the custom of the blue race to observe ten days of mourning upon the death of a king. After which period the skull of the deceased is installed in the Array of Kerradors, and his successor's ascension to the throne is solemnized. That we might pay our respects to the old king and the new, Kara Dea and I decided to delay our leaving.
Besides, before we could go anywhere, I had to be taught to fly.
My progress was rapid. Kara Dea revealed herself to be an adept aviatrix, and she imparted her skill to me with patience and kindness. And, I flatter myself, I proved an apt pupil; the general principles that govern the riding of snaroths and those of Earthly horses are similar (although there are, of course, three dimensions to be considered, rather than two), and my horsemanship has ever been a source of pride. Furthermore, the sky held no fear for me; flying had been one of my greatest pleasures upon the Earth, and it was good to be airborne again, if a little strange, at first, to feel beneath me a living creature, not a machine.
Snaroths are spectacular creatures. Their feather-like scales are of such a deep violet as to appear almost black; when a scale's surface catches the light, however, it shines with a remarkable depth of colour. In startling contrast is the bright yellow of the ruff at the base of a snaroth's long neck, and of the paddle at the end of its long tail. Like those of other species of flying beast, snaroth scales are highly valued by all Kanthoran races for decorative purposesand I doubt not that, given the chance, Earthly milliners too would kill for them.
Unfortunately, a snaroth's beauteous appearance is not mirrored by a similarly attractive disposition. They make unruly mounts, and their eyes are constantly aglitter with ire. Taming one is, therefore, a dangerous and exciting business.
While we remained in the valley of the Thoons, Kara Dea and I were almost constantly in each other's company. It became our wont to fly together, squeezed into a single saddle: she would position herself in front of me, and I would reach around beneath her breasts to grip the reins. Thus arranged, we swooped and soared upon our lizard-hawk high above the Red Planet; and the same spiced wind that blew back her luxuriant, ebon locks, to whip my face and neck, carried to me her sweet laughter. The touch of my instructress's body pressed close against mine set every fibre of my being atremble. And did I just imagine that similar tremors were passing through her frame?
During the few, mercifully brief, periods when the girl was out of my sight I grew gloomy and anxious; but when my eyes lit upon her again my heart thrilled and my blood seethed. That I should find such gladness in her society perturbed me strangelyit was really quite peculiar, and not a little alarmingI cudgelled my brain for an explanation, yet none came, and it was not until later that I came to understand the nature of my exquisite affliction.
On the morning of the tenth day of mourning, in a solemn and dignified ceremony, the mysteries of which I have vowed never to divulge, the skull of Sithak went to the Array of Kerradors, whence, through its empty orbits, the old kerrador's spirit was able to watch over the ritual that marked his heir's coming to kingly power.
In the evening, the accession of Serrack was celebrated at great open-air feast, held below the caves and attended by the highest chieftains and their sheemas ka.
Prior to the commencement of the festivities, Kara Dea, naturally desiring to look her best, discarded her chamois bodice and tattered shift of blue gauze. She ornamented herself in the manner of the Thoon, ringing her svelte limbs with bands of beaten metal, encircling her elegant neck with strings of roughly cut but highly polished gems, and crowning her jet tresses with a vivid head-dress of feather-like scales. Finally, for modesty's sake, she girdled her slender hips with a stripy fur.
Having done these things, she proceeded to question me at some length about the suitability of her costume. The extent to which it was revelatory of her figure might have shocked an Earthly eyeher single real garment extended scarcely to mid-thigh at any point, and in others it finished far aboveyet it did not seem indecorous upon savage Mars. Indeed, the overall effect was so charming that I was momentarily entranced.
Delighting in my silent admiration, the Martian brunette posed, hand on hip, an impish sparkle in her diamond eyes and a pert smile upon her emerald lips. When I recovered from my aesthetic arrestation, I assured her that she would be the belle of the ball, and this pleased her.
Later in the evening, the girl and I wandered away from the dying fire, down the valley to the lakeside. In a glade, within a leafy grove, near the water's edge, we sat down upon a smooth, flat rock, which was shot through with glimmering gems.
"Hector Blake of Earth, you have been kind to me, and I am most grateful," said Kara Dea, her eyes cast down upon her hands, which were clasped together in her lap. "Your reward shall be great if we reach Sherpath."
Earlier, when she had been my partner in the Dance of Thoon, the girl had been gay, but her mood had changed, darkened by a shadow of sadness.
"When we reach Sherpath, Kara Dea," I said, attempting to reassure her. "And to see you safely into your father's arms shall be reward enough for me."
She smiled. "There are things I must tell you," she said, "of Sherpathand other things."
"Then tell me," I said with a laugh, still hoping to cheer her.
She did brighten; and she started to tell me a little of the history of her people.
The city of Sherpath (Kara Dea told me) was founded a dozen millennia ago. Its first king was Korath Darsent, Sherpathians believe, by the Dath Kor, the very gods, to lead themand the ruling house still traces its ancestry to his queen.
For thousands of years Sherpath flourished: other cities were established in the land of Pathtar, and dominion was won over many foreign lands and races. From the girl's descriptions of it, the Pathtaran imperium seems to have been a magnanimous one, similar in character to the best of our Earthly empires, bringing the boons of civilization to less advanced peoples.
But Pathtar's golden age of power and prosperity was not to last: a little less than a millennium ago the succession to the throne was disputed by two cousins who, although from the same royal mould, were cast in different metals, the one noble, the other base. Five hundred years of civil war ensued, but so adamant are the walls of the cities of Pathtar that neither side was able decisively to defeat the other. The True Line continued to rule in Sherpath, while the descendants of the Great Betrayer, Hintar Ghul, held sway in Urpath, the second city of Pathtar.
"For half a thousand years Pathtar remained divided," said Kara Dea. "Then, at last, there came a Kerrad of Urpath in whom the blood of Korath Dar ran sufficiently strongly to whelm the sap of Hintar Ghul. It was his wish that our land be reunited, and he acknowledged the overlordship of the rightful kerrador in Sherpath. Since then Pathtarans have been at peace the one with the other. All succeeding Kerrads of Urpath have made the necessary oath of fealty to the kerrador, although, even to this day there are still those in Urpath who consider their primary allegiance to lie with the Urpathian Line.
"In the present time, while the Kerrador, Korval Dax, campaigns against the Quorrites in the southern marshes, it is the current Kerrad of Urpath, Baytor Thag, who rules in Sherpath."
Although Kara Dea did not say so, I gained the impression that she considered this Baytor Thag to be a reversion to typeone in whose veins the tainted blood of Hintar Ghul flowed thicklywhen she had spoken of him her thitherto smooth brow had become furrowed.
"Our nation must remain united, else the servants of the Prime of Skanth will destroy us," the girl continued, with feeling. "Skanth is far away to the north-east of Sherpath; until recent times the despoliations of the Slithians have afflicted only distant lands, or, as their conquests brought them nearer, those who were our enemies. Lately, Melnior fell; once, not terribly long ago, that city was the proud capital of a province of the Empire, and with its fall the way to Sherpath lies open.
"Little is known of the Prime of Skanth. He is thought not to be of the red race. And it is said that the same Prime has ruled in Skanth for a thousand years; such a thing cannot be, of course, but it is true that for ten centuries the pullulations of the Slithians have been encouraged, and that the resulting multitudes have been organized for a single purposethe conquest of all Kanthor!"
I nodded and remarked upon the similar danger that threatens the advanced nations of Earth.
Then, after pausing as though to gather her thoughts, my collocutress continued on an apparently different tack. "Korval Dax, the Kerrador of Pathtar, has a daughter. She, the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, has reached ten years of age, and it has been suggested that she be joined in marriage to Baytor Thag, the Kerrad of Urpath: their union would fuse the rival branches of the royal line."
"Ten seems an awfully young age for a girl to marry," I interjected in surprise.
"I do not understand," responded the girl. "Such has always been the age at which the women of Pathtar come to nubility. I am but ten years old."
It was my turn to be puzzled; and confusion reigned for a short while before the answer to the riddle became clear. Of course! Kara Dea had been reckoning time in Kanthoran years.
Although Mars and Earth have days of similar duration, a Martian year lasts for almost two Earthly years. Therefore, upon her tenth birthday Kara Dea had been a little under nineteen Earth years old.
Fascinated, I enquired further, discovering that the traditional allotment of life upon Kanthor is three score years and ten, even as it is upon Earth. As with Earthlings this is by no means an upper limit, and given a quiet life Kanthorans can live considerably longeralthough upon the Planet of War, quiet lives are rare.
Remarkably, the people of Mars grow to adulthood at the same absolute rate as do the people of Earth, and it is only in the last few years of life that they begin to show the signs of old age. Therefore, a dweller upon the Red Planet might reasonably expect to enjoy a period equivalent to a hundred Earthly years of adult life, wherein his body and mind operate at the peak of physical and mental fitness. On Earth the analogous period might be, at best, a mere thirty years.
I wonder, does this strange ratio hold true for human life upon the other planets? Would a man dwelling upon the stately outermost world of the solar system live for many centuries? Would an inhabitant of the speedy innermost world grow old quickly as the brief years flew by?
Much later, I came to know that for as long as I remained upon Kanthor my body would age in accordance with its laws. Could I but survive that cruel globe's perils, I might remain alive for another century and a half.
Gods! Given such a time, what achievements might a man not set against his name? What conquests might he not make!
Kara Dea resumed her narrative. "The Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath must marry in the interests of her country, not her heart. If so commanded by her father, she should submit even to Baytor Thag; what is she, after all, but a servant of her ancestresses and of Pathtar?"
The apparent harshness of the girl's words surprised me.
Said she: "Were the Kerrad of Urpath to marry the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, then, upon the death of Korval Dax, he would become Kerrador of Pathtar, yet it is said that it is not the throne he most craves to possess, but the kerraja herself. The Jewel of Pathtar they call her, for she is very beautifulshe is said to be the most beautiful woman in all the world."
Appearing much troubled, the Martian maid gave a sigh and lapsed into silence, her eyes once again downcast. As she had given voice to her lattermost words I had been struck by the thought that no matter how radiant a beauty the Crown Princess of Sherpath might be, she could not possibly be so lovely as the girl sitting beside me. Kara Dea's beauty, of both of character and form, was such that I was certain, no other woman of Mars or Earth could match herthere could be none upon a thousand worlds!
While my companion had been speaking my attention had rarely strayed from her facefrom the symmetrical curves of her lips, the delicate tilt of her nose, the elegant arch of her browsand then, most often, my eyes had moved to trace the enchanting outline of a naked shoulder, or had briefly lit upon the smooth swell of a pale, beryl-tipped breast, partly concealed by a coal-black lock of hair.
Upon the few occasions that I had glanced completely away from Kara Dea, glimpsing the un-Earthly hues of the night-blooming flowers and the splendour of the effervescing sky, through which whirled the crimson moons of Mars, how flat and colourless had seemed such sights, and, before long, my orbs had been drawn back to bathe in the girl's sublime light.
Reaching forth a hand, I gently touched a verdant cheek. "Kara Dea," I whispered, "I cannot believe that the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath's beauty could compare with yours."
In my Earthly existence I had been no ladies' man (I had preferred to lead the man's life), and it had not been my intention to make love to the girl with these words. I had merely uttered that which had been at the forefront of my mind.
Having thus spoken, my usual self-possession deserted me, and I found myself claimed by an emotion, strange and powerful. An astounding realization had bloomed within my mind, and I knew from that moment that I loved Kara Deaa beautiful soul clad in a perfect form, so palpably made to be loved.
How I yearned to take her into my arms and crush her to me, to kiss her, to gaze into her eyes, and to unburden my heart. Yet, although hot blood surged in my veins, propelled by a heart beating with a fiery passion, I mastered myself, knowing that a man must not do that which he cannot do with honour.
While battle raged within my breast, Kara Dea's lustrous eyes bore into my own eyes, seeming to penetrate me to my very soul, until, at length, after briefly fluttering her eyelashes, she dropped her gaze once more to her lap.
We walked back up to the cliffs and the caves in silence: I was striving to come to terms with the dizzying thoughts tumbling through my brain. The girl too seemed preoccupied and I became concerned that, somehow, I had upset her. And if I had, was it something I had said, or not said? Something I had done, or not done?
Sleep would not come, and for much of the night I paced before the entrance to my cave, gazing up at the great mountain's shimmering peak, which was lighted by the fire-glow of Kanthor's spinning satellites, and pondering upon that most profound of mysteries, that sweet enigma with which the mind of man has grappled in vain since time's dawnwoman!
Naturally, there had been Earth-girls for whom I had felt a degree of affection; there had been one in particular I had thought I had loved, but, as time had passed, her gimlet eyes had come increasingly to remind me of those of the serpent with which I had wrestled in the jungles of Brazil. Kara Dea had evoked in my bosom a sentiment of a quite different ordertrue love, complete and imperishable.
I knew not how it could be that I, Hector Blake, an Englishman, had come to love a little green girl, a native of another planet: I could do naught but yield to the fact of it, as to an elemental force.
Yet, I did know that I could make no avowal of my tender feelings until I had made good my pledge to return Kara Dea safely to her home. I was her sole guardian in a world of peril, and I could not take advantage of her dependence upon memy future exertions in her cause must be animated by duty alone.
And even when I had done my duty, I should have the right to ask her to be my wife only when I had won for myself a high position among her people; for in Sherpath my Earthly rank would mean nothing, and I should be naught but a nameless traveller from another world.
Doubtless, the mystic mountain's dominating pinnacle echoed with divine laughter at my predicament!
WHEN THE time came for Kara Dea and myself to take our leave of the blue men of Mars, all the foremost chieftains of the tribe assembled on the cliff-tops above the valley to see us off. To Serrack, the new ruler of the tribe, I gave my word that I would, one day, return to hunt with him againand I shall.
After the girl and I had spurred our snaroths into the air we headed south, and soon the tiny shadows cast by our mounts upon the Kanthoran surface passed over the ancient canal, the waters of which sparkled in the morning sun, and over the great chasm, from the depths of which no light returned.
In the sky our voices were carried away by the wind and soon we lapsed into silence. With the breeze behind us we made rapid progress; and the rugged, hilly landscape gave way to a flatter, more arid region, patched with scrubby trees. Near noon we flew above a more substantial wood at the edge of which was a small lake, and Kara Dea signalled that we should descend to water our mounts. I was glad to indicate my agreement; partly because I looked forward to soothing those parts of me that were becoming saddle-sore, but mostly because I was missing the euphony of my fellow traveller's voice.
Herds of herbivores scattered beneath us as we spiralled downwards. A more accomplished flyer than I could have swooped down upon them with net and spear, but alas I was not yet ready for such sport.
Upon landing, we tethered our snaroths to a fallen tree trunk near the water's edge. No sooner had I secured my beast than Kara Dea approached. Touching my breast with a slender hand, she raised to me her lucid eyes. "There are things I have not yet told you, my Earth-man," she said quietly. "And I must tell you everythingwe two must have no secrets."
The girl, however, did not choose immediately to expand upon her pronouncementnor did I press herinstead, she turned from me and commenced to gather ragga from the surrounding undergrowth. Ragga is the sweet and spicy secretion of an insect-like creature, which, common at certain times of year, is greatly esteemed as a delicacy by Kanthoransand by way of a bonus, each flossy deposit contains within it a nourishing thumb-sized grub.
On Kanthor danger is ever present, and while Kara Dea delved among the flaxen leaves I remained near, a short spear in my hand, endeavouring to keep my eyes upon her.
I knew it not, but five other eyes also watchedthough not fondly.
What revelations were to come, I wondered? Like that of all those of her sex, the Martian maiden's mood was subject to sudden changealthough always did she retain her innate gracemost often she was gay, but occasionally I would find her wistful or even sad, as though she were oppressed by an ineffable burden.
To my shame, my attention was so distracted by these thoughts and reminiscences that I allowed Kara Dea to wander off through the trees, momentarily out of my sight. Upon coming to myself, I followed hurriedly, breaking into a glade amid the trees just in time to see two dark, manlike figures emerge from the bushes on the opposite side, seize the girl and drag her back with them into the foliage. I dashed forwards, crying out, but when I was half way across the clearing, three more of the same breed sprang forth, swords in hands, to intercept me.
My assailants were covered from head to toe in black fur, velvety in texture for the most part, but hispid upon the face. Each had in the centre of his face a single, great, golden eye, oval and multifaceted and rimmed with red; the nose of each was little more than a ragged hole, and from behind his blood-red lips, protruded pointed, yellow teeth.
Although this was my first encounter with their kind, I knew them to be representatives of a race called the Kaythe. During the past few days Kara Dea had had occasion to describe them to me. Even in comparison with other inhabitants of the Planet of War the Kaythe are ferocious and warlike; divided into a number of semi-nomadic hordes, they hire themselves out as mercenaries to any who will meet their price (and strange indeed is the currency in which their wages are paid). Baytor Thag, the Prince of Urpath (he who ruled in the city of Sherpath in the absence of Korval Dax, the king), had engaged just such a Kaythish cohort to defend the city while the bulk of the army of Pathtar was seeking to quell the rebellion in that country's south.
Scarce pausing in my advance, I launched my spear at one of the black-furred mercenaries as he came on. It took him straight in the centre of the chest, stopping him in his tracks. He collapsed in a heap, my spear's point protruding fully a foot from his back. Thereafter, I had barely enough time to tear my sword from its sheath before the other two were upon me.
Each of my antagonists held a weapon in each of his hands: a long-sword in one and a short-sword in the other. In my experience two swords are less easily wielded to good effect than one; it is, however, the habit of the Kaythe, who reckon themselves the most mighty warriors of Kanthor, to give battle in such a fashion. And they do make formidable opponents, being often advantaged by the disconcerting effect their unusual method of fighting has upon adversaries unfamiliar with itas indeed was I.
The fury of the black fellows' assault drove me back, and on to a flattish outcrop of stone, low and uneven, at the centre of the clearing. Here, jagged projections and loose plates gave uncertain footing, and as I lunged to thrust the tip of my blade deep into the eye of the foremost of my foes, I slipped and my weapon was wrenched from my grasp.
Scenting victory and giving vent to a savage cry, the single remaining Kaythe jabbed at me with his shorter sword, even as he directed at me a horizontal cut with the longer one. There was only one way to avoid simultaneous disembowelment and decapitation, and, narrowly evading his thrust, I threw myself forwards to grapple him.
The blades of my enemy's two swords were too long to be brought to bear in such close work, but still his abundance of weaponry proved decisive: even as the fingers of one of my hands closed upon his windpipe and those of the other closed upon the hilt of my dagger, he brought the heavy pommel of one of his swords down upon my temple.
I went downout cold!
When I regained consciousness I did so with a start, more than a little surprised to find myself not dead. Looking up, I saw that the sun had not moved far. I had been insensate only for a short while: no more than an hour.
It was evident that I and the bodies of the slain had been abandoned. (The Kaythe care naught for their fallen; their dead and wounded are invariably deserted on the battlefield).
Apart from a large and painful lump where I had been struck, I was uninjured: the same could not be said for the last of my erstwhile antagonists. It appeared that he too had lost his footing upon the loose stones; or perhaps I had borne him over as I, myself had fallen. Thereafter, it had been his great misfortune to tumble straight into the fatal embrace of a rax-flower; and the contortions of his body bespoke the torment of his passing.
Carnivorous plants are common upon Kanthor, and they grow far larger and take much more substantial prey than do their Earthly counterparts. The rax-flower is one such vegetable killer. Its appearance brings to mind that of the sea anemone of Earth's oceans (although it is a plant, not an animal), and some specimens grow to be fully a yard across. These deadly blooms lie hidden beneath shifting sands or drifting leaf litter, awaiting an unwary footstep. When triggered, their tentacle-like petals rise up swiftly to sting their victim, and so noxious is the virus they inject that an agonizing death inevitably ensues.
The rax-flower's quivering fronds were pink against the rusty ground, and I could make out tiny filaments of crimson running along them as they drained the blood from my late enemy.
My head was lying no more than six inches from the edge of the plant, and, wordlessly, I gave thanks to the Dath Kor for my escape. Indeed, I had been doubly blessed, in that no other, more motile, meat-eater had chanced upon while I had been dead to the world.
The screech of a snaroth came to my ears; it must have been just such a cry that had jolted me back to consciousness. Somewhat unsteadily, I clambered to my feet and, after recovering my sword, lurched towards the source of the soundsback towards where Kara Dea and I had tethered our mountsleaving the rax-flower to its feast.
Upon attaining the border of the trees, I saw the snaroths to be beset by feskals. One lizard-hawk was already down; the other was still fending off its loathly attackers, creating a storm of leaves and dust as it beat at them with its great wings.
By then my head had cleared and, slashing to the left and right with my weapon, I hopped and skipped through the feskal pack. Then, after springing onto the back of the still-battling snaroth, I swung my blade to sever the restraining rope. Instantly, the beast launched itself into the air and opened wide its great wings. In its terror it bucked frenziedly as it rose, but I have broken wild mountain stallions in the western states of America, and would not be unseated.
My striving to remain in the saddle so occupied me, however, that it was only when I had mastered my mount that I realized that a feskal had fastened itself to my right calf. With a shudder of revulsion, I wrenched away the foul creaturemaggot-like and fully two feet longits sucker mouth left a bloody ring in my flesh.
Thereafter, I caused my sky-steed to rise high into the air. The abductors of Kara Dea, I reasoned, must themselves be mounted upon snarothshow else could they have come so far into the wilderness?and I hoped against hope that I might espy them.
The Kanthoran horizon, although a smaller circle than that of the Earth, was still awful in its extent, and of those I sought I saw no sign. The realization crashed upon me that my chances of ever again finding Kara Dea in the apparently boundless terra incognita
stretching before and below me were vanishing smallsurely even to seek for her would be an exercise in utter futility.
Momentarily, my eyes lit upon the titanic mountain that still dominated the northern horizon. Might it not be wisest for me to turn in that direction and, returning to my original determination, seek out the gods of Mars and an understanding of the purpose for which I had been drawn across the desolate immensity of space?
Yet, even though I have gazed into the cold and meaningless void, and should know the fate of one woman to matter naught in the cosmic scheme, only for the merest moment did I entertain any other thought than that I should quest for the dear girl whose sweetness and beauty had so touched my heartwhile the slightest scintilla of hope still glowed, I would persist in my search for her, ever would Kara Dea be my lodestar.
But where should I begin?
When one loses a precious thing somewhere along a dark street, only a small part of which is illuminated by a lamp, it is beneath the lamp that one must look. And I had one slender clue: I knew of the band of black mercenaries, employed by Baytor Thag to defend Sherpath. Was it not possible that those who had snatched my Martian girl from me were of that company?
Onwards thento Sherpath!
For perhaps two more hours, I drove my snaroth through the livid skies of Kanthor, scanning with desperate eyes the horizon ahead and the increasingly tree-covered ground below. As time ran on, I came more and more to be assailed by the apprehension that I was upon the wrong course, and that, with every second, I was being carried farther from her for whom I quested. Yet there was no alternative, and I flew onwards, in torment.
My anxieties proved baseless; against the odds I won my desperate gamble. Although my own eyes could descry nothing in the vast emptiness of the sky ahead of me, the single great eye of a Kaythe can see with great acuity: my approach had been observed by those whom I hunted, and having detected me, they circled back, unseen, to do battle. From out of the sun they camein the manner of the wartime aces of whom my Earthly flying instructor had oft-times spoken.
A feminine cry alerted me to the danger.
Squinting into the solar orb, I made out ten snaroth-mounted warriors, black against the blazing light. The first of them was already tilting at me; his lance couched. I jerked the reins, and he missed narrowlyhad it not been for the warning I should surely have been skewered.
Flashing by me, my enemy flew on until he was several hundred yards away. When he was opposite the sun I saw him to be a man of the green race, not a Kaythe. Reining in his mount, he wheeled and, after emitting a bloodthirsty war-whoop, came at me again. He appeared to be the leader of the group, and evidently he had awarded to himself the honour of dispatching me. The nine others, who were black-furred Kaythe, circled some way off; one of them, I glimpsed, held a green girl, trussed up in front of him.
"Fly, my Earth-man!" cried Kara Deafor it was she. "I go to my destiny!"
My position was a most perilous one. Yet, although I knew myself to be inexpert at aerial jousting, I drew my own lance from its boot and, aiming its point at the heart of my oncoming enemy, spurred my lizard-hawk into rapid flight. I had found my Kara Dea and I forbore to seek escape.
My weapon missed its target, but so did that of my opponent. Nevertheless, the green man's greater experience in airborne combat proved decisive: even as our paths crossed, he brought up the butt of his lance and struck me a glancing blow with ita blow sufficient to knock me from the saddle.
Well do I remember glimpsing the grimace of triumph that distorted my conqueror's coarse features. Then land and sky whirled through my field of vision as I dropped like a plummet towards the trees, far below.
Kara Dea cried out my name as I fell, and I found myself claimed by a profound feeling of regretyea, and of shamethat I had failed her. I was certain that I was hurtling to my death; yet would it be a final ending, or would I awaken again, as from a dream, in another new world?
After what seemed a long time, I crashed through the canopy of the forest. Tumbling between the boles of what were evidently extremely tall trees, I expected at any moment to be dashed against some adamant bough, but instead it was my fate to pass through layer after layer of elastic webbing, which, giving beneath my body, gradually reduced my momentum, until, at length, I was brought to rest, still high above the ground.
Miracle of miracles! I had survived!
Irony of ironies! The cradle in which I lay was no safety net erected for my security, rather was it the web of that scourge of Kanthoran forests, the dread sipperath.
My apparent good fortune had served merely to rob me of the benison of a quick and painless death.
IT IS the habit of the sipperath immediately to rush upon any creature it discovers within its web and, after binding it securely, administer a paralysing bite. Its victim's vital fluids are then slowly drawn from it, even while that victim still clings to lifea fate I desired, most fervently, to avoid.
Moving with the utmost care, I drew my knife from its sheath, and started to saw and slice at the rubbery mesh by which I was suspended. A sipperath is highly sensitive to movement anywhere within its domain, and at first, I worked gently lest I telegraph my position to the sinister creature that, I felt certain, must lie hidden in the foliage near by.
Yet even my most delicate motions set up vibrations of such an alarming amplitude that any hope of my escaping detection seemed forlorn, and I expected to be interrupted, at any moment, by the loathsome architect of my cradle, come to feast upon me. Several minutes passed, however, without my being intruded upon, and thereupon I abandoned stealth for celerity, setting about my task with vigour. Surely, I reasoned, the sipperath would by then have appeared if it were in the vicinity.
Tangled strands of many different thicknesses supported me: from fine filaments of sparkling gossamer, to rubbery ropes as wide as a finger. After I had cut through a number of the thicker cords, I fell through a zone of the thinner threads before my descent was checked, fifteen or twenty feet farther down, by another more substantial layer, and there I set to work again with my blade. As I gravitated towards the ground, I passed through a dozen or so alternating strata, vaguely defined, wherein thinner or thicker strands predominated.
At last, I dropped into the lowest portion of the weba place from which I was afforded a view of the forest's floorand the reason for the non-appearance of the sipperath became apparent: the creature was otherwise engaged, attempting to subdue another of the bestial denizens of the Red Planet.
I was hanging almost directly above the scene of conflict, and, fascinated, I watched the drama play itself out. The sipperath was the size of an Earthly grizzly bear, and it was coated in pale-yellow fur, short and slick. At the end of each of its six sinuous limbs was a bright red hand, disturbingly similar to a human hand, although each possessed six elongated digits, arranged in opposed pairs. The creature was scurrying to and fro, sending, with a series of explosive grunts, strands of mucus stretching from its nozzle-like snout towards the object of its appetite. This substance, when first emitted, will adhere to almost anything; within a few minutes it dries to its familiar rubbery texture.
Entangled in the toils of one of the sipperath's traps, which had been laid across a forest path, was a large animal that I was able to identify as a thastak. Its six legs and underbelly were light blue in colour; its upper body dark orange. Two twisted horns pointed forward from the sides of its long head, while another jutted upward from the end of its snout, above a mouth crammed with sharp and dangerous tusks.
Thastaks, Kara Dea had informed me, perform for Kanthorans the duties that horses performed for Earthly man prior to the coming of steam and oil (although, since the animals are, in general, so much larger and more massive than horses, perhaps it is to the working elephants of Asia that they are most similar).
The trapped thastak was a positively a mastodontic beast, of a wild type not usually pressed into the service of man. Its furious bellowing and the gnashing of its tusks set the forest's fronds atremble, as the mighty muscles of its limbs, straining beneath its copper-coloured hide, fought to sunder the elastic ropes by which it was constrained. Its exertions were in vain, however, serving merely to entangle it further. After a while, they began to wane in intensity, until, at last, they ceased altogether, and the huge creature lay still, as though exhausted.
In response to the apparent weakening of the thastak, the sipperath, keeping its six glittering red eyes fixed upon its would-be victim, approached ever more closely. Finally, it pounced, intending, no doubt, to apply its paralysing bite.
Thastaks are noted upon Kanthor for their sagacitya quality that helps to make them such excellent servants to humankindand I was then witness to a remarkable exhibition of animal intelligence. The enmeshed beast had been but feigning exhaustion: as the sipperath fell upon it, the thastak, employing all its prodigious strength, raised its beweaponed head, snapping a few of the restraining cords and uprooting vegetation, and plunged its nasal horn into the underside of its tormentor.
The spider-bear's horrid screams soon ceased as, again and again, the thastak's spear-sharp horns tore into its body.
The thastak, however, had won only a Pyrrhic victory: in seeking to lure the sipperath to its doom it had allowed its enemy to entangle it beyond the possibility of escape. It continued to struggle for a long while, and to gore the bloody ruin that was the body of its defeated foe, but eventually it grew quiescent once more.
Deeming it safe to descend, I cut away the last of the supporting web and precipitated myself rather suddenly to the leaf-strewn ground.
I rose swiftly, having suffered no injury beyond a few additional cuts and bruises, intending to depart the clearing at once, but when my eyes fell upon the thastak a sympathetic chord was struck within my breast. The great beast had commenced to emit a plaintive whine, and, as it surveyed me, its bright green eyes, which had recently been so filled with hate and fury, seemed to take on a pleading aspect.
I did not delude myself into thinking of the imprisoned behemoth as anything other than a highly dangerous wild animalmyriad and terrible are the carnivores of the Planet of War; something to which its herbivores have responded by developing inordinately bellicose naturesnevertheless, I was aware that had it not been for the thastak I should be losing my life's blood to the sipperath. Taking pity on the beast, I determined that it would be an act of kindness to dispatch it swiftly, rather than to leave it to await the arrival of loathly scavengers such as the feskal or the urrat.
After unscabbarding my sword, I approached the captive creature, seeking a position, away from its well-armed head, from which to deal it a fatal blow. Mindful of the fate of the spider-bear, I held myself ready to spring away should it attempt to strike at me with its horns.
Unblinkingly, the eyes of the thastak followed my advance. Even though I purposed the mitigation of its suffering, I felt rather low as I raised my blade to strike; and, acting upon a sudden humane impulse, I began instead to hack at the tangled bands by which the animal was bound.
When I had cut through what I judged to be enough of the web to give the thastak a sporting chance of freeing itself, I turned and made to quit the scene. I managed only a few paces of my retreat before there came a terrific commotion at my rear. I wheeled, just in time to see the vast animal rise, sundering its remaining bonds, and bear down rapidly upon me, dragging behind it a train of sipperath web and torn undergrowth.
With a toss of its great head, the thastak knocked me on to my back. Then, rearing above me, it let out a ground-shaking bellow. I thought my time had come, that I should be trampled by the brute; but its wide, three-toed feet struck the ground on either side of me, and as suddenly as it had come upon me it turned about and crashed off into the forest.
For a short while, thereafter, I continued to lie prone, taking in great draughts of air. I had had quite a fright and I admit that I launched into the golden forest oaths of a kind never before heard upon Mars.
When my breath was back, I rose to my feet a second time.
I had been an egregious sentimentalist. My freeing of the thastak had been the height of folly, and I resolved to endeavour to fight off any similarly reckless impulses to which I might be subject in the future. If I were to have even the most remote chance of crossing the wilderness, I must guard my life with greater care than had thitherto been my wontfor Kara Dea's sake.
With this, my thoughts turned to dwell upon the Martian maiden's likely fate, and it was then that the hideous import of the day's calamitous events bore in upon me. I reeled as from a hammer's blow; my heart sank within my breast; I buried my face in my hands, and, I confess, I came near to despair.
I sought to draw solace from the fact that her abductors had been heading south, towards Sherpath. Was it possible that they would return her to her father unharmed, perhaps for a reward? Try as I might, however, I could not persuade myself that such an outcome was at all likely: the Kaythe know no mercy and the green man had been a brutish-looking fellow. Surely Kara Dea was irrecoverably lost to me; even should I succeed, against the odds, in reaching Sherpath, I should come there too late to succour herfar, far too late.
Not for long did I linger thus, in vain and futile speculation. Raising my face from my hands and gritting my teeth, I drove from my mind the nightmare visions that had invaded it. Perhaps I should indeed come too late to rescue my beloved, but I should not be too late to avenge her! Should she be beyond rescue, then I would not rest until I had hunted down the fiends who had taken her from me and wroken cruel vengeance upon them.
I caused to be awakened in my mind memories of Mars's most excellent daughter, recalling the sweet perfume of her life's breath, the vital warmth of her body and the steadfast beat of her heart. I would not believe that such as she could cease to be. Even through the darkness of my sorrow these bright reminiscences shone through, encouraging in my bosom the growth of a new and positive sentimenthope.
Thus did my heart transmute leaden dismay into steely determination. I knew not Kara Dea's fate, nor should I presume to know it. All that was certain was that many leagues of cruel Kanthor lay between me and the fulfilment of my duty.
Without further ado, I set forth.
For several hours, thereafter, I marched beneath the forest's leafy roof, gathering nuts and berries as I wentKara Dea had been my tutoress in the art of identifying edible varieties. I remained alert for game, however; a man cannot live by nuts and berries alonehe must have meat!
I had little success in the hunt. The few beasts I encountered, large enough to make a meal, seemed curiously reluctant to allow me to come near enough to bring my sword and dagger to bear upon them. Hoping to alter this unsatisfactory state of affairs, I collected a number of straight branches and flinty stones, from which I planned to manufacture throwing spears.
Early in the evening, the forest gave way at last to an almost treeless, grassy plain, broken by occasional rocky outcrops and ravines. Upon the grassland were many strange creatures, some of which were gathered into great herds.
While among the trees, I had been fortunate not to have attracted the attention of any of the ferocious meat-eaters with which the Red Planet abounds, but my luck was about to change. An hour or so after I had entered upon the plain, I became aware that I was being trailed, and soon thereafter I caught sight of something black and scarlet, darting to cover within a clump of bushes, around half a mile behind me.
Urgently, I scanned my surroundings for a place of safety. My eyes fell upon a steep-sided tor, a dozen or so yards high and a mile or so away, atop a jagged ridge. It seemed to be the only feature of the landscape that, in my estimation, I should be able to climb and the rarnkor should not.
I glanced back, and, at that very moment, the tiger-lizard, a beast fully three times the size of an Earthly tiger, sprang into view and began to lope in my direction. My hand flew to my sword's hilt. Flight is repugnant to my constitution, and I was momentarily tempted to remain and vie for supremacy with the titanic carnivore; but, determined to cleave to my recent determination to eschew temerity, I suppressed the urge.
Turning upon my heels, I sprinted, full tilt, for the up-thrusting stones. As I ran, I looked back only once: the rarnkor, progressing in great leaps and bounds, was closing in upon me with appalling swiftness; it would be close-run thing, but it seemed that not even the combination of my head-start and Earth-tempered muscles would enable me to escape. Racing onwards, I expected, at any moment, to feel my predacious pursuer's talons tear my flesh.
The other creatures upon the plain scattered before mewith one exception. A huge thastak came forth from behind a grassy knoll to stand directly in my path, about half way between me and my goal. No sooner had the mountainous beast's eyes lit upon me, and upon the dread creature at my heels, than it lowered its head and charged.
Caught as between hammer and anvil, I had no choice but to continue my dash towards the tor; were I to slow my pace, even an iota, the rarnkor would most certainly run me down. I did, however, contrive to veer slightly leftwards. It was my assumption that the charging thastak was directing its thundering rush upon the rarnkor at my rear, their two species being by nature deadly enemies. It was my hope that, could I but evade the thastak's horns, the two beasts would do battle with each other, and that I should be afforded the opportunity to make good my escape. Yet, to my horror, the thastak adjusted its course even as I did, and it broke upon me that I, not the rarnkor, was the object of its charge.
When it must, the brain of man can perform its calculations with remarkable rapidity, directing the body to perform remarkable gymnastic feats; and the mental processes that preceded my next action were carried through in a few fugitive fractions of a second.
Even as the horned leviathan bore down upon me, I observed there to be remnants of sipperath web clinging to its hide, marking it the individual I had freed earlier in the day. For the merest instant, I was greatly irked by this discovery. My own rash and soft-hearted action had brought me to a pretty pass indeed: had I dispatched the brute as I had originally planned, it would scarce be thundering towards me, apparently bent upon my destruction.
Then, as if from beyond the moons, a new thought flashed into my mind. Could the thastak be rushing to my rescue?
Doubtless, with more than a moment to weigh the idea, I should have dismissed it. Again I was playing the sentimentalistNature is a harsh mother, and I well understood the cruel process by which she, selecting only the fittest to survive, had, through countless aeons, raised life from the basest crawling thing, to the higher forms, and ultimately to man. Fortunately, I lacked the time to ponderI had time only to act.
The horns of the thastak were almost upon me when, still dashing forwards, I launched myself from the ground. Tumbling and twisting as I flew through the air, I placed my hands upon the beast's great head and vaulted on to its back.
The moment I was seated upon it, the thastak turned about and, as I clung on, its six powerful legs propelled us at a spanking pace away from the rageful demonstrations of the thwarted rarnkor.
The thastak was my faithful companion during the many days it took to cross the wild lands, and I named him after my first Earthly horse. Ours was a long and arduous trek; no day passed without a brush with death, and I could not have done it without him. How it was that he, one of a usually wild and intractable breed, had come to be so fond of the company of man was, and remains, a mystery. Ours a partnership of equals, never did I seek to tether him or direct him against his will. Sometimes I rode upon him; sometimes I walked at his side. When I required meat, we ran it down and I speared it, and when we were imperilled by beasts of prey, together, we faced them down.
Day after day we journeyed on, through landscapes so queer that they beggar description. At one point we rose onto an extensive plateau. There we passed among precariously balanced masses of coloured stone, hundreds of feet high, and skirted dark, smoking shafts of unfathomable depth. Animal and plant life was scarce upon this blasted tableland and our stomachs were seldom filled, consequently, we were greatly relieved when, after many days, we came down at last onto a vast prairie. Here food was plentiful, and ere long our bellies were full again. The grassland seemed interminable, but finally we reached its border: a range of low hills, beyond which lay a region of rusty boulders and fine brick-red sand.
The sight greatly excited me. Prior to our departure from the valley of the Thoons, I had asked Kara Dea to tell me something of the geographical features lying between that place and Sherpath. She had described a desolate strip running along the southern edge of the wilderness; beyond it I could expect to encounter an ancient waterway, the line of which would lead me to Sherpath.
I was certain that the path to my beloved lay across that roseate waste, and I was eager to press on. My beastly companion, however shied away from the sand; try as I might I could not persuade him to enter upon it.
It seemed the time had come for a parting of the ways.
During past days and weeks the flames of adversity had forged a powerful bond of affection between man and thastak. Stroking and patting him, and talking to him in the way a man talks to his horse, I attempted to communicate to him my gratitude, and to explain why I had to carry on. The dear fellow seemed to understand, and, after a while, he turned and lumbered off, back into the hills. At length there came to my ears, from far away, a valedictory bellow.
Over the next few hours, as I trudged onwards, beneath the fizzing sun, through an eerily silent wasteland of yielding dust, utterly devoid of living things, it seemed to me that there was not another creature anywhere in the universe, and I was claimed by a profound emotion of sadness and loss.
That night the sands glittered and glowed with neon-bright colours, and I speculated upon the possibility that they might be rich in radio elements. Perhaps such was indeed the case, for with the dawn I awoke feeling energized and refreshed. That day I made good progress and towards evening my eyes descried a ribbon of light in the far distanceit was the canal, marking the desert's border.
Upon reaching the waterway, I turned right and proceeded along its bank for three more days, after which a range of jagged hills rose in my path. The canal passed into a tunnel beneath the hills, while I climbed to their browa vantage point from which my eyes beheld an extensive city, scarce a handful of miles away, standing in the middle of a fertile, hill-bordered plain.
The Martian metropolis was a splendid sight, the opalescent stone of its construction shone brightly in the sunlight, dazzling my eyes. Through the glare, I observed the city to be enclosed by a massive wall. Within the fortifications rose the spires and domes of palatial edifices, lining broad, radial boulevards; and, in the centre, high on a steep-sided plateau, a dominating citadel whence tall towers, delicate and graceful, reached skyward.
Not even for a moment did I doubt myself to be looking upon bright Sherpath; the city looked almost familiar, so closely did its aspect accord with Kara Dea's descriptions of her home.
In the wilds, I had insulated my mind from the sick horror in my heart by giving myself over almost entirely to the savage state: allowing my primal instincts to come to the fore, I had become man the hunter in harmony with his pitiless dam. Thusly had I conserved my sanity, yet never had I been able entirely to extinguish the smouldering ache in my vitals. Now, with the prospect of the consummation of my odyssey, an urgent and agonizing fire ignited within my breast, and Kara Dea's image, so fraught with loveliness, blazed, painfully bright, before my mind's eye.
Reflecting upon the trials I had undergone and the impediments I had overcome, I found myself consumed by a certain pride in my achievement. I was suddenly quite sure that my Martian love awaited me within Sherpath's adamant ramparts and that, even should it prove necessary to tear down the city, stone by stone, I would find her!
CITY OF THE MARTIANS
SO FORMIDABLE had seemed the obstacles which had lain in my path, that I had given no thought to the question of how I might gain ingress to Sherpath once I had found it. After standing a while in thought, I settled upon a frontal approachI would simply present myself at the gate.
Coming down from the hills, I passed through cultivated landsstrange cereals grew in well-tended fields, exotic fruits ripened in orderly orchards, and herds of un-Earthly beasts grew fat upon golden pastures. Before long, I stepped out onto a wide road and began to stride towards the city's massive gates, which, although fully fifty feet high and twenty feet wide, were dwarfed by its Cyclopean walls.
There was a good deal of other traffic upon the way, going to and coming from the city and the surrounding fields: wagons, loaded with grain, meat, vegetables and fruits; pedestrians; riders, mounted upon thastaks (smaller beasts than my mammoth companion of the wild lands, but similarly coloured; light blue beneath and dark orange on top). Almost all my fellow travellers were of the green race, and my unusual coloration swiftly attracted the notice of some of them. They greeted me with smiles and salutations, and, in answer to my query, confirmed that I did indeed approach Sherpath.
When I drew near to the yawning portal, a company of warriors, uniformed in dark blue, issued from it. Pressing their way through the crowd, they advanced purposefully upon me, naked swords flashing in the sun. Responding to the challenge of their leader, I expressed my wish to be taken to a person of authority. He replied that he and his men would be glad to accommodate me, but only if I gave up my weapons.
Reluctantly, I acquiesced. No sooner had I thrown down my sword and dagger, however, than the soldiers fell upon me, bearing me to the ground and endeavouring to tie my hands behind my back. I struggled, but only half-heartedly; after all it was entry to their city I desired, not escape from it.
So it was that I was taken into Sherpath, the city I had but lately been contemplating the conquest of, a helpless prisoner.
My captors marched me through the mighty gateway, and into a tunnel, tall and wide, leading through the massive wall. Ahead of me, I glimpsed a broad, straight boulevard, thronged with people and rising gradually for a mile or so toward sheer cliffs, from the tops of which reared the high towers of the acropolis.
I was taken into a squat building, nestling in the shadow of the battlements, then into a court, a corridor, and finally into a sparsely furnished office. Near a window at the far end of the room, two men stood in conversation.
One of these closely approached the masculine ideal: tall, erect, well-muscled, his features regular, his bearing soldierly. He was wearing a kilt-like garment of brilliant blue; a stiff leather cuirass, embellished with silvery plates and encrusted with clear gems; a harness, also of leather, from which depended ornate weapons; and under an arm he carried a plumed helmet of bright metal. Straight away, I recognized him to be an officer in the Legion of Sherpath, an elite corps charged with the protection of the upper city and its noble residentsKara Dea had described their uniform to me.
The dazzling raiment of its men might lead an unenlightened observer to suspect the Legion of Sherpath to be a largely ceremonial body, not much good for fighting. Not so: the Legion is renowned for its ferocity in battle and accepts into its ranks only the most accomplished of warriors. It is an aristocracy of merit, recruiting not only from the noble class, but also, upon occasion, men of the right fibre from the lower orders.
The officer of the Legion, noticing that my escorts and I had entered, indicated to the one with whom he was conferring that we should be attended to; only then did the latter deign to notice us. This other was very large man: not my equal in height, but burly and broad of both shoulder and midriff. He too was splendidly trapped, his dress dark blue, and he presented an imposing figure as he approached; I observed, however, that his muscles, although swollen, lacked definition.
"Yes, yes, what is it?" he barked, addressing the leader of my escort in a curiously high-pitched voice, "Can you not see that I have an important visitor?"
He squeezed his vast bulk into a throne-like, wooden chair behind a paper-strewn desk, and, while the circumstances of my arrest were being explained to him, looked me up and down, a sneer upon his thick lips.
It was only after a lengthy pause that he spoke. "A spy, eh?"
I too paused before speaking. "I am no spy," I said firmly, looking straight into his little eyes. "I am Hector Blake, a fighting man, skilled in the arts of war. Hearing of Sherpath's need for warriors, and seeking honour and glory, I have come from a far country to enlist in her service."
I had thought that the best way to deal with a fellow of the large man's type would be to abandon modesty and stake a bold claim; he appeared unimpressed, however, and merely snorted scornfully. Turning, he addressed a comment to the splendid soldier in silver and blue, who was still standing before the window.
"A master swordsman? Methinks he more closely resembles a wandering beggar!" This remark was followed by a coarse laugh, from which I inferred that it was intended to be a drollery. It did evoke a little unenthusiastic laughter from his minions, but the one at whom it had been directed watched impassively and vouchsafed no mirth.
The hulking Kanthoran returned his attention to me. "I am Garn Vag, Master of the Tyrack Gate," quoth he. "You must answer all my questions, and, know this, I hold your life in my palm." He raised a great hand to illustrate his point. "Never before have I seen a man of your strange colourwhence have you come?"
"From England," I replied.
"I know not of such a place," said Garn Vag, his brow furrowing. "Where is it?"
I commenced to elucidate. Yet I was only a little way through my description of the solar system when I became aware that my remarks were having an unsettling effect upon the Master of the Tyrack Gate: he was breathing heavily, and his little eyes were bulging from a darkening visage.
"Impossible!" he spat. "Any more lies and it shall be the mines for you!"
That Garn Vag should view my claims with a degree of scepticism was perhaps understandable: I did not look my best, being battered and bloodied and naked but for the tattered hide about my loins; and mine was certainly an extraordinary story. Yet still the fellow's attitude annoyed meI had not forced my way across numberless miles of inhospitable wilderness, facing terrors undreamt-of by Earthly man, to be baulked by such as he.
"I have spoken the truth," I made answer. "It is evident, however, that you lack the mental capacity to comprehend my words."
For a time thereafter the Master of the Tyrack Gate, clearly a fellow of splenetic humour, remained seated, his mouth opening and closing like that of a recently-landed fish, his bulbous frame aquiver with rage.
"Feskal!" he squealed at last. "Although you deserve to suffer beneath the lash, I shall grant you a quick death!" With these words he surged to his feet and came for me, sliding his sword from its scabbard as he rounded his desk.
My future looked pretty black: I was weaponless, my arms were tied behind my back and the man-mountain bearing down upon me was in a homicidal rage. Perforce, I took to my heels.
Garn Vag proceeded to chase me around the room; his face flushed with fury, bizarre Kanthoran imprecations flying from his foam-flecked lips. He was oblivious to aught save the object of his ire, and the others who were there were almost as endangered by his wild sword swings as was I.
On to and over the furniture I leaped and capered in my attempts to evade the lumbering brute, but, after several circuits of his office, he finally cornered me. Gripping his heavy sword two-handed, he raised it high above his head, his evident intention being to bring it down upon me in a vertical arc; and had its edge struck me it would have cleft me in twain from crown to groin.
Garn Vag should have chosen a less spectacular cut. Even as he held his weapon aloft, I sprang forwards and threw my shoulder against his breast with all my strength. Impelled by my shove, he went crashing backwards to the stone floor.
Again I sprang forwards, ready to employ the means necessary to prevent my antagonist from rising again. But he lay unmoving: he had hit his head upon the floor's unyielding flags.
The danger, however, was not passed. After overcoming their consternation, several of those present drew their weapons and advanced menacingly upon me.
Then the man in silver and blue stepped forwards.
"Enough!" he declared in peremptory tones. "This man is to be interrogated by the Legion in High Sherpath. I, Thandor Kas, command it!"
The soldiers hesitated at his words, but, before they could demur, my saviour conducted me from the room. Soon we were back on the street, and there he drew a bejewelled dagger from his belt and with it cut my bonds.
"I must apologize," said the one named Thandor Kas. "Our ruler has been ill-advised of late, and some of the worst sort have been appointed to positions of power and responsibility. It was fortunate for you that, by dint of a recently issued edict, even those of the noble class must notify the Masters of the Gates of their comings and goings; had I not been performing that irksome duty things might have gone badly for you." He paused, his eyes appraising me, then added with a laugh: "Or perhaps not: the ease with which you bested Garn Vag testifies to the truth of your claim to be a fighting man. Yet can it really be that you have come from another world?"
I assured Thandor Kas that I was indeed of extra-Kanthoran origin, and in response, after exacting from me a promise to tell him more of my story, he invited me to accompany him to the upper city as his guest; an invitation I was delighted to accept.
Thandor Kas disappeared for a minute or so into a neighbouring court, whence he re-emerged a few moments later leading a thastak by the bridle. After he had mounted the creature, he reached down and hoisted me up behind him: the body of a thastak is so long and its constitution so powerful that two (or three) can comfortably be carried.
Thereafter, we progressed at a stately pace along the broad avenue, passing splendid buildings, luxuriant parks and imposing monuments; my attention, however, was for the most part drawn to the inhabitants of the city. I observed the people of Sherpath to be, with only a few exceptions, of a strikingly good-looking racethe men handsome and clean-limbed, the women pretty and slim-waisted. The richness of their attire, crafted from diverse materials and decorated with gleaming metal and flashing stone, presented my eyes with a glorious riot of colour.
The male Sherpathians were clothed in skirtlike garments of robust material, extending from waist to kneesuperficially similar to a kilt, but lacking the pleats characteristic of Scotch dressa cuirass of plain or metal-plated leather, and a leather harness. Many of the men were in uniform, and almost all bore arms.
I was already somewhat familiar with Pathtaran women's wear: a long, slightly flared skirt, of very light fabric, reaching from waist to ankle, and a fitted bodice or corset, extending from beneath the bosom to the waist. The women were highly ornamented: armlets of precious metals were clasped about their otherwise naked limbs, jewel necklaces dangled between their breasts, and many elegant and extravagant examples of the millinerial art crowned their heads.
Both sexes wear a braided cord about the waist, the tasselled ends of which hang down at the frontto mid-thigh in man, to the knees in woman. Among the men these girdles were largely obscured by their sword belts, but around the women's middles they were knotted into many complex patterns.
The adornments of the Pathtaran female, I was to discover, serve a primarily decorative purpose, while those of the male are primarily symbolic, indicating rank or designationan arrangement not dissimilar to that which obtains upon the Earth. Men and women are by tradition prescribed differing roles within Pathtaran societythe agitation for sexual equivalence that has so dominated the political life of the advanced nations of the Earth being quite unknown upon Kanthornevertheless, the women are educated to a high standard (in appropriate subjects) and are by no means hidden away or excluded from all public affairs.
Also upon the streets of Sherpath were representatives of other Kanthoran races, some of which I had not previously encountered or even heard tell of. Present in large numbers were Kaythethe citizenry hurried past the black-furred, one-eyed mercenaries, averting their eyes from them, and, from the first, I gained the impression that they were considered more an army of occupation than a protective garrison.
Before very long our mount began to ascend the steep incline leading to the huge stone gates that guard one of four entrances to the upper city.
The citadel (I had learned from Kara Dea) rests upon the summit of a volcanic cone, which had been levelled off in ancient times to create a flat, irregularly-shaped area of around a square mile, separated by perpendicular cliffs from the lower city. Tall, slender buildings crowd onto this artificial plateau, and a wall, high and thick, runs around its brink, making of it both a city within a city and a fortress within a fortress.
The beauty of the buildings of Low Sherpath lies in their grandeur and massiveness. Their architectural lines are alien, but there is something in their severe simplicity and harmonious proportion that is redolent of the best Grecian style. The structures of High Sherpath are of a different but, to my eye, equally delightful character. Slender, flat-topped towers reach for the sky, their surfaces decorated with elaborate carvings and meanders of coloured stone. At frequent intervals the spaces between these lofty edifices are spanned, high above the ground, by slender metal walkways.
After Thandor Kas had stabled his thastak, we made our way through a veritable forest of tall and graceful towers, along marble pavements polished through the ages by countless footsteps, before finally entering a particularly imposing structure.
Once within the Sherpathian's splendidly appointed apartments, I was afforded the opportunity to bathe. My host detailed two of his servants to assist me, and I was initially a little disconcerted to discover these helpers to be young women of exquisite beautytheir otherworldly loveliness curiously enhanced by their closely-cropped hair. The girls told me that it was in no way unusual for a nobleman to possess female body-servants. I could only assume that the man's code of honour and the innate virtue of the women of Sherpath's servant caste must be, in combination, sufficient to guard against the dangers inherent in such an arrangement.
My misgivings were soon forgotten, however, as the maidservants' ministrations soothed away the aches and pains of my travailseven their candid expressions of admiration for my form did not discompose me. It was my first hot bath upon Kanthor, and for the duration of my submersionin a great bowl of polished blue stoneall was well with the universe.
It was the aroma of food being prepared that finally lured me from the tub. Fresh apparel and weapons had been laid out for me, and the maids, after anointing me with perfumed unguents, helped me to don kilt, cuirass and harness. In the tying of my waistband their assistance was invaluable.
My ablutions complete, I had been again reborn.
"You have cleaned up well," observed Thandor Kas, as I entered the dining room. "I knew you for a gentleman straight away."
I nodded in agreement with his remark. It does seem that, even when the populations of two worlds are separated by never less than thirty-five million miles of freezing vacuum, there is still some clearly-evident common factor that marks out the man of noble type. From the first I had known Thandor Kas to be one such.
Luncheon was most enjoyable. While we atelounging upon couches strewn with fursthe women sang, the sweetness of their song perfectly complementing the savour of the food. After months of simple Thoonian fare, followed in the wilderness by meals of still greater austerity, my palate was somewhat startled to experience the delights of Pathtaran haute cuisine. I found that country's wine excellent too; it is made not from fruit, but from the tubers of a certain plant, the cultivation of which has a long history comparable in its complexity with Earthly viticulture.
It had been Thandor Kas's curiosity about my strange story that had caused him to intervene on my behalf, and, after thanking him, I began to tell him of my Earthly life and to recount the adventures that had befallen me since my advent upon Kanthor. I omitted mention of Kara Dea, however, for, while I was fast developing a high regard for the Sherpathian nobleman whose hospitality I had accepted, I deemed it best to remain circumspect until I had learned more of the state of affairs within his cityand during our conversation, I did indeed gather two particularly striking items of information.
The first such gleaning was that Korval Dax, the Kerrador of Pathtar, was missing, presumed dead. Back in the valley of the Thoons, Kara Dea had told me that, at the time of her forced flight from Sherpath, the king had been leading his armies against a rebellion in the southern part of his domain. Now I learned from Thandor Kas that, even before the enemy's last bastion had been reduced, the kerrador had, for reasons unknown, precipitously departed his encampment, bound for Sherpath. He had not reached the city, however, nor was aught known of his fate. Consequently, the Prince of Urpath, Baytor Thag, still ruled.
The second was that a royal wedding was in the offing. The aforementioned Urpathian was due to marry the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath. A ceremony marking their betrothal was to take place that very evening and the nuptial rite itself in three days. I had, by then, gained sufficient knowledge of the ways of the green race of Kanthor to be able to perceive the consequence of this impending union: that sooner or later Baytor Thag would become Kerrador of Pathtarsooner, most probably, for although search parties still sought Korval Dax, hope of finding him was all but lost.
The throne of Pathtar descends from a deceased king to his successor through the medium of his eldest daughterknown as the 'Excellent' Kerraja. The choosing of a husbandand future Kerrador of Pathtaris, therefore, a crown princess's paramount duty, and in the making of her choice she has absolute discretion.
None had expected the current Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath to choose Baytor Thag of Urpath. It had been widely thought that the Sherpathian princess was ill-disposed toward the Urpathian princeindeed, Kara Dea had implied to me that she too possessed just such a beliefyet, it seemed that the fellow had eventually succeeded in winning the girl's affections.
It was evident, however, from the demeanour of Thandor Kas that he viewed the imminent connubium with extreme disfavour, and it was toward the absent Kerrador of Pathtar and to his daughter, the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, not to the Kerrad of Urpath, that he directed his post-prandial oaths of loyalty.
Soon thereafter, we were interrupted by the arrival of a messenger. Thandor Kas of the Legion and his guest (a garbled version of my own name was given) were summoned to attend upon Baytor Thag in the Hall of Thrones, at once.
"Come then, Hector Blake," said Thandor Kas, speaking gravely as he rose to his feet. "Doubtless this concerns the recent events at the Tyrack Gate." He cast a meaning look upon the borrowed sword hanging at my side. "I hope and expect that you can ply that blade with the skill you have claimed, for I do not doubt that your proficiency with it will be tested, ere the moons have come."
"TO THE DEATH!"
THANDOR KAS and I set off at once, soon coming upon a spacious plaza within which splendid ornamental gardens had been laid out: un-Earthly flowers bloomed among glossy, golden leaves and cool fountains danced in the fierce light of the diminutive sun. Around this square rose the tall, slender towers of the royal palace complex and the great dome of a temple dedicated to the moons of Mars, fabled residences of the Dath Kor.
After we had presented ourselves at the palace gate, we were conducted through a series of suites and corridors, coming, at last, to an imposing set of double-doors, highly decorated and apparently cast in solid silver.
Before the shining portal stood two guards. One of them, after a brief exchange with our escort, struck three resounding blows upon one of the doors with the pommel of his sword.
In response, the doors were swung open from within. A strange sense of wonder claimed me as I gazed into the royal audience chamber within which the monarchs of Pathtar have held court for nigh on a dozen millennia.
Thandor Kas and I advanced along a wide central aisle, passing through shards of bright sunlight, streaming in through tall windows of coloured glass, and over a polished mosaic floor, whereon the meandering motifs characteristic of Pathtaran art had been rendered in tiny tiles of semi-precious stone. Along either side of the hall were several tiers of benches, carved from fine woods (it was an arrangement not entirely dissimilar to that within the Earthly parliamentary chamber I had, upon occasion, attended). In niches behind the rearmost rank of benches stood superb statues fashioned in dark stone, the salient features of which were picked out in ivory and noble metal.
At the far end of the hall we halted before a flight of seven, wide steps of polished stone, leading up to a platform upon which rested two ornate silver thrones, one slightly higher than the other. A few yards behind the thrones, covering the rearmost wall of the chamber, were hung colourful tapestries of exquisite design.
The Hall of Thrones appeared capable of accommodating over a thousand people, but upon this occasion it was almost empty. Half a dozen men, including a black-furred Kaythe, were standing upon various of the steps below the thrones, and a score more were sitting near by, upon the front rank of benches. Among this latter group was Garn Vag; his head swathed in a bandage.
Lolling upon the silken upholstery of the smaller of the two sterling chairs was a man. His features, I observed, were not unhandsome, yet there was a reptilian coldness in his narrow eyes, and the hauteur of his thin-lipped mouth bespoke the existence in his character of a vein of cruelty. Furthermore, he was more richly decorated than any man I had yet seen upon Kanthor, something that lent him a voluptuous air. This then must be Baytor Thag, acting ruler of Pathtar, until the actual king should return (or should Korval Dax be forever lost, at least until his daughter should marry).
After the necessary formal salutations had been performed, one of those standing upon the steps below the dais addressed himself to Thandor Kas.
"The Master of the Tyrack Gate has laid a serious charge against you, O Thandor Kas of the Legion," said he; there was a certain edge to his voice as he enunciated the last two words of his statement. This fellow, I later ascertained, was Vargis Toth, one of Baytor Thag's most trusted lieutenants, recently installed as leader of the Urpathian Guard, a warrior corps fiercely loyal to the royal line of Urpath. He was resplendent in the Guard's uniform of copper and green, but was otherwise unremarkable in appearance, except perhaps for a certain hardness around his eyes.
Vargis Toth signalled to Garn Vag, and the latter raised his gross form and came forward. His eyes passed straight over me, seemingly without recognition, and alighted upon Thandor Kas.
"I charge that this lord is harbouring a fugitive spy and condemned criminal," the big man said thickly: "a madman claiming to be from another world, who assaulted me while I carried out the duties to which the noble Baytor Thag has appointed me."
Rejoined Thandor Kas: "I vouch that the one to whom the Master of the Tyrack Gate refers is no spy, nor is he a madman; he is a fighting man from a foreign land come to pledge his blade to the defence of the Silver Thrones."
"Thandor Kas of the Legion, have you brought forth this fellow, as commanded," said Vargis Toth, "that the truth may be determined?"
At this point, I stepped forwards. "I am he," I declared.
The Prince of Urpath shifted upon his throne. For a moment his icy gaze rested upon me, then he turned again to Garn Vag. With cold menace, he raised an eyebrow; thus was further comment requested from the Master of the Tyrack Gate.
Garn Vag eyed me with evident bewilderment. When last we had met I had been rather the worse for wear; since which time I had undergone something of a metamorphosis. Although I may have been guilty of a certain vainglory, I could not help but feel that I cut a splendid figure in the fine array of a Pathtaran gentleman, my hand resting jauntily upon the highly-worked pommel of the sword at my hip.
At last recognition dawned upon Garn Vag. "It is the same man, but…" His voice trailed off.
It was I who broke the strained silence that ensued, introducing myself and giving my version of the events at the gate. Briefly, I digressed to explain my Earthly origin and outline the course of my Kanthoran life; but, awake to the need for caution, I did not speak of Kara Dea.
Directing my words at Baytor Thag, I naturally chose to inflect them in the manner of one addressing a person of a similar rank. The grammar of the Kanthoran language is frightfully complex, and its inflexions vary according to whether one's converse is with an inferior, an equal, or a superior. Although my Martian station still remained to be established and the world of my birth was many millions of miles away through the star-strewn void, I sought to establish from the first that I expected to be treated with the respect due to my Earthly position.
I was allowed to complete my tale without interruption, and scornful laughter greeted the part wherein I described my overcoming of Garn Vag.
Following the end my speech, Baytor Thag addressed me directly. I noted that he inflected his words as one speaking to a gentleman, yet still there was a certain undertone in his voice that I did not like.
Said he: "Hector Blake of Earth, are you, as you claim, a warrior nobleman from beyond the moons; or are you, as the Master of the Tyrack Gate claims, a madman? There is but one way to establish the truth." His baleful gaze passed to Garn Vag. "Master of the Tyrack Gate, you have come hither this day to demand this fellow's deathkill him then if you can."
The skin of Garn Vag grew pale, and I detected a transient trembling of his upper lipthe memory of what I had achieved against him when bound and unarmed must have been fresh in his mindand it was plain to see that nowhere within his great belly was there stomach for the fight. Garn Vag, like all bullies, was a craven at heart.
Perceiving the large man's pusillanimity, Baytor Thag added: "Should either man refuse to fight he shall suffer the punishment reserved for cowards."
I knew not aught of what this threat entailed, but it proved most effective in encouraging Garn Vag. Without warning, before I could draw my own weapon, he snatched his sword from its scabbard and jabbed its point at me. His was a clumsy prod, but had I not stepped back smartly I should have been spitted upon his point.
Reluctantly, I drew. I do not like to unsheathe my steel for the amusement of others; nor am I one to take my deathblow like an ox.
The Master of the Tyrack Gate set about me furiously, but, although I was a little unfamiliar with my new weapon, I parried his attacks with ease. His wild thrusts and swings left him vulnerable to a riposte; indeed, so inept a swordsman was he that I could have killed him at almost any time. Instead, I feinted, luring him into a lunge, and, twisting my blade against his, sent his weapon flying across the chamber. Even before his sword had clattered to the prettily patterned floor, my own sword's narrow tip was pressed to his broad throat.
I felt that I had made my point, and keeping my weapon poised under my adversary's chin, I turned my eyes to Baytor Thag'sthey were met by a basilisk's stare.
"To the death!" he hissed.
In truth, I was somewhat disinclined to obey. It was not that I felt the slightest scintilla of pity for Garn Vag; after all he had done his best to do away with me. Nor was it that I scruple in principle to killI am a fighting man and, obedient to the stern commands of Necessity, I have taken the lives of many menbut in all my past battles, I have killed only in accordance with the warrior's code.
Must I now do murder at a tyrant's whim?
Yet, I was keenly cognizant that the fate of Kara Dea might depend upon how I acquitted myself. Doubtless, defiance of Baytor Thag would put my life in the utmost jeopardy and I could scarcely prosecute my mission from beyond the grave. It seemed I could further the girl's cause only at the expense of my honourand what is a man without honour?
Then there came an unexpected intervention.
A man took a step forwards from his place among the half dozen standing upon the steps of the dais. The Kerrad of Urpath turned to rebuke the fellow for daring to interrupt the proceedings, but the interloper, evincing scant respect for the prince, met his gaze full-square. Baytor Thag's words died upon his lips and an unmistakable twitch of fear discomposed his countenance.
He who had advanced was an imposing figure, his frame stocky and exceedingly muscular; it was as though he had been roughly hewn from stone. An almost palpable aura of menace surrounded him; and the vicious malignity of his nature was writ large upon his coarse, scowling featuresfeatures I recognized!
In my preoccupation, I had failed to note the presence upon the steps of the very same green man who had led the Kaythish abductors of Kara Dea and had precipitated me from my snaroth.
Said he, in guttural tones: "This man has shown himself to be an adequate swordsman. Doubtless his skills are sufficient to win him a high place in the Legion or perhaps even the Guard, but they would scarce gain him the right to fight alongside the Kaythe."
"Is this a challenge, Pedror Ull?" said Baytor Thag, recovering himself. "Has the 'Master Swordsman of Kanthor' seen something in this fellow's display against which he wishes to test his own mettle?"
The one named Pedror Ull responded to the prince's words by sliding his sword from its scabbard. Evidently my trial was not over: I would have to fight again, and against the man who was, or so it had been averred, the Planet of War's most formidable warrior.
Later I came to know more of Pedror Ull. He was a Sherpathian who, lacking the moral strength essential for command, had been refused a commission in the Legion. Thereafter he had, through the might of his sword-arm, fought his way to the vice-chieftaincy of the particular cohort of Kaythe that was being employed by Baytor Thag to shore up Sherpath's defences. While it is true that the Kaythish hordes are largely made up of the black Kanthorans, their ranks are augmented by a few warriors of other racesmen who relish battle and care naught for the cause in which they fight. None had risen so far as Pedror Ull.
I lowered my point from Garn Vag's throat, and Baytor Thag, with a curt command and a casual wave of a glittering hand, pronounced his doomand he who had been the Master of the Tyrack Gate was dragged whimpering from the chamber.
Then the Kerrad of Urpath turned his attention to the coming bout. "Do not kill him, Pedror Ull," he ordered: "the fellow interests me, let the contest be to first blood only."
After stripping to the waist, Pedror Ull and I fell to it.
So unexpected was the violent intensity of his attack that I was almost undone in the first few instants of the encounter. He launched at me a murderous straight thrust, which, had I not parried by sheer instinct, would have pierced my heart. Defending myself with all my skill, I broke ground before him, and it was only after I had retreated half a dozen steps along the wide aisle that I was able to check his rush.
Pedror Ull had vouchsafed me no sign of recognition, and I knew not whether he was motivated by anything more than the desire to measure his prowess against mine, but it was apparent to me from that moment that, notwithstanding the explicit injunction issued by his employer, he desired my death. He wore a spiteful smile upon his lips, and his eyes were aglint with malice.
Hot blood leapt in my veins as the warrior ghost of my heredity sought to possess me. Yet I strove to resist its power. I knew that I must not kill my adversary (even assuming that it lay within my power to do so), for it had been Pedror Ull who had stolen Kara Dea from me, and he must remain alive long enough to reveal her fateonly then would he pay for his crime in blood.
My opponent was a wondrous swordsman, the most accomplished I had ever faced, and I could well appreciate how it was that no man had been able to stand against him. Yet, although it was hot work, I succeeded in staving off his point.
Yet, after the fabulous chamber had rung with the cadence of our combat for the best part of an hour, I found myself caught upon the horns of a dilemma.
Although my antagonist had not torn asunder the shimmering web of sharp-edged metal that I was spinning between us, he had several times come very close to so doingmuch closer than I had come to violating his own defence. I was handicapped by my enforced solicitude for his health, and was fighting an almost entirely defensive bout, while he, careless of my safety, was free to aim at me any number of potentially deadly swings, cuts and thrusts. Were we to continue in such a fashion victory for Pedror Ull seemed inevitable, and were I to perish upon his blade I could neither learn anything of Kara Dea, nor do aught to succour her.
I commenced to wonder, therefore, whether it might not be better to take the fight to my enemy, even in the knowledge that I might destroy the only man who could reveal to me what had become of her I served.
Fortunately, Pedror Ull disclosed himself to be a still less patient man than I. By then he was showing signs of tiring: his breath was coming in rasping gasps, his skin was slick with moisture, and his predatory smile had been replaced by a pained and baffled expressionhe simply could not believe that he was not my master with the blade. Evincing a telling lack of mental as well as physical stamina, he surrendered to his frustration, waxing angry at the waning of his strength. Grunting and snarling like a wild beast, he summoned all his remaining power and threw himself forwards, endeavouring to beat down my blade with the sheer force of his rage.
Yet my thews had remained staunch, my breath still came steadily, and I gave not an inch.
Such was the extremity of my would-be assassin's mad fury that he rather lost his poise, his style becoming somewhat ragged, and at last my chance came. For the merest instant his breast was exposed and, like lightning, I struck. I could have killed him, but I allowed my tip only to puncture his skin, a little above his heart.
Victory was mine, and I stepped back, still on guard.
For a time Pedror Ull stood as though frozen, gazing down in astonishment at the tiny wound in his breast, from which was trickling a thin rivulet of blood, wending its way down over the muscles of his heaving torso.
When, at last, he raised his face to mine, his eyes were narrow with hatred, his lips taut. I thought for a moment that he was going to come at me again, but he did not.
Instead he spoke. "I will kill you," he said, his voice a low growl.
Then, his grim prognostication resonating in my mind, I watched as Pedror Ull stalked from the chamber.
It broke in upon me quite suddenly that those who had spectated upon the engagement were rattling their swords in appreciation of my triumph. I turned to accept their acclaim, and some of them came forwards to congratulate me. I was to discover that I had earned great esteem in their eyesindeed, there is but one thing more valued upon the Red Planet than martial prowess in man, and that is beauty in woman.
Among those who greeted me was the Kaythe; his name, he told me, was Ravor Klath, and he was the Warlord of the band currently resident in Sherpath. Baytor Thag, the Kerrad of Urpath and Vargis Toth, his chief lieutenant, were among those who remained aloof.
After a few minutes the Urpathian prince called for silence.
"Hector Blake of Earth," said he, speaking from his seat, "it must be so that you have come from another world, for never before has a blade been wielded so puissantly upon Kanthor. But know this: you lack the killer's instinct, and I shall brook no further hesitation in the carrying out of my commands." Evidently he had noted my reluctance to slaughter the unarmed Garn Vag. "I want strong-willed men in my service, and I demand from them instant, unquestioning obedience."
Resisting the temptation to cavil, I merely nodded as though in acquiescence, for, despite his reproof, the Kerrad of Urpath's demeanour toward me appeared essentially favourable. It had pleased him to see Pedror Ull discomfitedclearly some animus lay between the twoand he expressed himself intrigued by my strange story. He went on to speculate, even as the august Sithak, the late Kerrador of the Thoons, had done, that my epiphany might be evidence of an intervention by the Dath Kor into affairs of men. That the very gods might be interested in them seems to be of peculiar moment to kings and would-be kings.
Said Baytor Thag: "You have fought well today, Hector Blake, proving yourself worthy of entering my service. Rest assured that ere long you shall be given opportunities aplenty by which to demonstrate your fidelity. This is a time of changes for Pathtar, and the hour will soon come when I must determine whom to honour and whom to destroy.
"In the meantime quarters will be allotted to you within the palace. It is my command that you hold yourself in readiness therein, and await my summons. I, Your Kerrad, have spoken."
And with these words the audience was terminated.
TRUTH AND BEAUTY
OUTSIDE THE Hall of Thrones, Thandor Kas complimented me upon my accomplishment. That I had been able to render a satisfactory account of myself, he said, had but vindicated his estimation of me.
"The Dath Kor have smiled upon you, Hector Blake," he added: "this day the Kerrad of Urpath was in uncommonly good humour."
Recalling the spiteful conduct of Baytor Thag and the nearness of my brush with death, I remarked: "The prospect of appearing before the fellow when he is in a peevish vein is scarcely to be relished."
Two servitors appeared. After making the necessary obeisance, they placed themselves at my service and offered to conduct us to the guest apartments that had been allocated to me. Following their lead, we passed along labyrinthine passages, which had been decorated with enchanting murals, and over airy walkways high above the ground, from which I glimpsed rooftop gardens bright with vivid blooms.
Before very long we came to a suite of rooms, in a part of the palace high above the vertiginous rampart of High Sherpath's outer wall. I was most favourably impressed by their splendid appointmentstruly were they fit for a 'warrior nobleman from beyond the moons'little did I imagine, however, that I was not destined to spend my first night in Sherpath slumbering in comfort beneath sleek furs and smooth silks.
After a short tour of inspection, Thandor Kas and I stepped out onto a private terrace, from where we were afforded a breathtaking view of Low Sherpath spread out far beneath us, its stately buildings and wide, radial boulevards bathed in the rosy glow of an occidental sun.
Turning to me, Thandor Kas observed that the streets below were quieter than usual; this despite the fact that with the proclamation of the impending royal marriage the populace had been enjoined to make merryit was as though a dark pall of dismay had descended upon bright Sherpath.
I recalled that Thandor Kas had already made mention of a ceremony, due to take place later that evening, that would mark the formal engagement of the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath to the Kerrad of Urpath. In response to a question from me, he explained that the appearance of an affianced couple before witnesses, three days before the set time of their nuptials, serves as a public declaration of their intention to marry. Afterward the pair retire separately to commune with their ancestors and contemplate the meaning of the promises they are to make.
Unprompted, the noble officer of the Legion proceeded to descant upon the subject of Sherpath's Excellent Kerraja, to whom he applied a number of charming appellations. Sherpathians, I was coming to know, possess a peculiar fondness for their princess, fairly worshipping herfor many years the kerrador and his kerrajina had been childless, and when at last their union had been blessed with a daughter the city had gone quite mad with joy. My Kanthoran friend was no exception; his voice earnest and passionate, he was unstinting in his praise, lauding, among many other things, the kerraja's regal grace, high intelligence, good character, and matchless beauty.
I did not doubt the words of Thandor Kas in the matter of his princess's being a devilish fine girl, and lovely to look upon; it was when he claimed her to be the loveliest of all women that I disbelieved him. When he spoke thus, a vision of Kara Dea arose to dazzle my inner eye.
At length the Sherpathian nobleman announced that he must take his leave of mehis duties calledand I went with him to the door.
"I am in your debt, O Thandor Kas of the Legion," I said as we parted. "Know that I shall not rest until I have found a way of repaying you for your kindness."
He smiled and inclined his head slightly by way of acknowledgement. "May the Dath Kor guide you, O Hector Blake of Earth."
After his departure I returned to the terracethere to think.
During Thandor Kas's speech, I had gained the distinct impression that he did not believe that the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, she whom he had called the Jewel of Pathtar, would willingly enter into connubial union with Baytor Thag of Urpath. The princess, however, was incommunicado; immured deep within the palace, supposedly mourning the loss of her father, her quarters guarded by warriors of the Urpathian Guard.
Knowing but little of the most recent developments within Sherpath, I was in no position to judge the truth of the matterthat is, whether the princess might be in the clutches of an enemy or under the protection of a loverand I could not help but wonder if the belief I imputed to Thandor Kas was based by him upon a purely objective assessment of the facts.
Are not the choices made by those of the fair sex, particularly in matters of the heart, oftentimes marked by perversity? I, myself, have witnessed otherwise intelligent and practical girls succumb to the advances of dissembling flatterers whose sole purpose is seduction. In addition, although I had conceived no liking for Baytor Thag, I could not help but feel a certain admiration for his pertinacity of purpose in pressing his suit if he had indeed succeeded in winning over the girl.
Nevertheless, despite a certain reluctance to involve myself in the political intrigues of Sherpath (I had hoped to devote my every capacity to my imperative duty, the rescuing or avenging of Kara Dea), I was conscious of the great debt I owed to Thandor Kas. I resolved, therefore, that his belief that his princess's honour was imperilled must be good enough for me. Besides, even were I not under an obligation, my code would scarcely allow me to stand idly by and see a woman wronged.
I would to do my best to uncover the truth.
It seemed I now had two missions; yet for the moment I could prosecute neither one of them. When I had bidden my friend farewell, I had noted the presence of two men of the Urpathian Guard at the end of the corridor. Possibly sentinels were routinely posted there; possibly they were there to watch over me. Whichever were the case, it had been Baytor Thag's clearly expressed wish that I remain in my quarters until summoned. To disobey would be to court disaster. I knew not when word would come, or what dire task I would be required to perform. In the meantime I was little more than a captivealbeit one in a gilded cage.
My exertions against Pedror Ull had left me in need of refreshment, and so I sought to kill time by bathing againthis time refusing all offers of assistanceand by eating a light meal.
Thereafter, I returned to the terracethere to fret.
Scarcely more than an hour had gone by, and the bloody sun was only a little nearer the jagged western hills that bordered the plain. My thoughts, as they were (and ever will be) wont to do, turned to Kara Dea. I had found her abductor and before long I would know her fate. Would my hopes be fulfilled, or my fears realized? I shuddered as sundry hideous possibilities paraded through my brain.
Gods! How I chafed at my enforced inactivity. Although weeks had passed since my Kanthoran love had been taken from me, and it might be thought unlikely that a few more days would make a difference, I was only too acutely aware of the possibility that I might find her an hour, a minute, or even a second too late.
Battle raged within my breast as I strove to rein in my innate tendency toward audacity. An inner voice warned me that I must do nothing to jeopardize the promising, but precarious, position to which my good luck and good work had carried me; even as another such voice kept insisting that Kara Dea was in immediate danger and that only I could save her.
Yet, even if I were to surrender to the impatient urgings of the temerarious voice, along which avenue should I begin my search?
The realization hit me that I possessed little knowledge of the captivating extraterrestrial to whom I had lost my heart. I knew her father to be a Sherpathian nobleman, but I knew not the family name, or of the existence of other kin. Had she sisters, brothers, oran unsettling thoughta lover?
When I cast back my mind over the period of our acquaintance, I formed the impression that whenever the subject of our conversations had entered upon matters pertaining to Kara Dea's personal relations the girl had deflected it to another area. This had been easy enough for her to accomplish, requiring nothing more than a graceful gesture, a pretty smile, and a query about the Earth or myself.
I, of course, had had a great deal to say upon both these subjects. How I had loved to feel her eyes upon me, lambent with wonder, when I had recounted stories of my planet of origin. And what man does not like to talk about himself? Yes indeed, I had held forth at length upon that theme, telling her almost everything there is to know of my past life, and of my hopes and dreamsonly one secret had I sought to keep from her.
Upon more general topics Kara Dea had been most informative. I had become well acquainted with the life-stories of great figures of Pathtaran history: Korath Dar who had led the First Legion against the Pleen; Narbor the Great at The Bridge; treacherous Hintar Ghul; and, of course, Shining Thagbax.
I also knew something of the present era: of Baytor Thag, the Urpathian; of Korval Dax, the Kerrador, and of his daughter, the Excellent Kerrajaindeed it seemed to me that Kara Dea had spoken more often of the so-called Jewel of Pathtar than she had of herself.
What then did I know of my Martian girl?only that I loved her.
The call came sooner than I had dared hope. The sun was yet to drop from the sky when a servitor appeared. He announced that I had been summoned to attend the betrothal ceremony in the Hall of Thrones.
The cause of the unexpected invitation, it transpired, was the mysterious disappearance of Pedror Ullnone could find him. Baytor Thag, greatly displeased, had responded to the apparent insult by requiring me, the one who was the cause of the mercenary chieftain's chagrin, to be present in his stead.
Upon my arrival at the Hall of Thrones, which was half full of green-skinned men and women attired in their finery, I was conducted towards the base of the throne platform at its far end. Baytor Thag stood alone upon it (tradition dictates that the female party make her appearance later). The prince and I acknowledged each other, but he did not descend.
When I turned from the Urpathian many of the others who were there swarmed about me, introducing themselves and commenting upon my victory over Pedror Ull. It was evident that my feat with the blade had made me a personage of renown; in addition, it had become known that I claimed to have come from another world, and a rumour was spreading that I was on a mission from the gods.
The men were Baytor Thag's creatures: Urpathians for the most part, although there were some among them from other Pathtaran cities, even a few Sherpathians. They were low types, the sort from which no society, no matter how it strives, can rid itself, and they were most eager to ingratiate themselves with merather too eager for my taste.
The ladies, however, were charming. A high proportion of the women of the green race of Kanthor would be considered beautiful by Earthly standards, and many of those present were lovely indeed.
I cast an eager eye over the women, for it was not impossible that Kara Dea might be among them; but of her for whom I quested there was no sign. An urgent pang speared my heart. Where was she? And where was Pedror Ull? Was he sulking in his tent, or making good his escape? I resolved to brook no further delay: after the ceremony, I would seek him out and wrest the truth from him.
Scanning the women's faces, I noticed the eyes of many of them to be upon me; their interest, I assumed, attracted by my celebrity and, to them, unusual appearance. Each time my eyes met those of a Pathtaran lady I smiled, and most often I received a smile in return. From a number of them, however, my gaze provoked an additional response: before lowering their eyes, they briefly fluttered their lashes. A signal the significance of which I was at a loss to comprehend.
I was the focus of other eyes than the women's. Peering intently at me from between the tapestries that adorned the wall at the rear of the throne platform, was the wrinkled face of an old man; the first green Kanthoran I had seen to exhibit the signs of advanced age. So piercing were his darkly glittering eyes, shining forth from beneath a grotesquely bulbous forehead, that I experienced an unsettling feeling of pressure behind my brows, and the hairs upon the nape of my neck commenced to prickle. It was as though he were endeavouring to peep into the house of my mind through the windows of my eyes. Scarce for a moment did his gaze meet mine, before his head was pulled back behind the drapery.
Before long the time came for us to take our places; my seat, being that of Pedror Ull, was a place of high honour upon the front rank of benches, to the left, not far from the dais upon which rested the thrones.
A troupe of youthful musicians and dancers entered. At first their song and the accompanying dance seemed to be nothing more than a series of repetitions, but each time the theme and the steps recurred they were elaborated until a bewilderingly complex pattern of cycles, large and small, flowed back and forth through the music and the movement. So hypnotic was the performance that I quite forgot my impatience.
A gong crashed!
The performers exited at once. The congregation rose and, as custom demanded, all eyes were lowered to the floor. Then, preceded by three novice priestesses who, walking backwards, strewed a fine gravel of gems onto the mosaic floor, the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath entered the aisle.
A frisson passed through me as the princess passed my place. I found myself prey to an almost overwhelming desire to look up and behold this feminine paragon, accounted by all who had gazed upon her to be the fairest of her sex.
I resisted temptation, seeing only the royal feet as they went by. Very pretty feet they were tooshod in dainty sandals that sparkled with rubiesand I was forced to concede the Jewel of Pathtar to be, from the ankles down at least, most comely.
When the journey to the podium was complete the gong sounded again, and we were permitted to look up. A hearty cheer of salutation was voiced by all gathered thereall save one. My own cry died in my throat and only a half-swallowed gasp of wonder escaped my lips as my eyes focused upon the figure now standing at the front of the platform, to the left of Baytor Thag, her left hand resting palm down upon his right hand, held palm up.
It had broken upon me that I had been mistaken in my belief that the Sherpathian princess's beauty could not possibly match that of Kara Deashe was, in fact, quite as beautiful.
My marvelling orbs widened that they might collect more of the splendid light reflected from the divine symmetry of the princess's face, the fine features of which were framed by long, straight hair so black that it defied illumination, seeming to absorb the flickering torchlight and the last bloody rays of the dying sun.
She was wearing a fitted bodice, plated with intricately wrought gold, extending from beneath her bosom to her waist. An elaborately knotted cord girdled her slender middle, and a dazzling petticoat of scarlet gauze, in the folds of which tiny rubies, carnelians and garnets sparkled, flowed down over the elegant curve of her hips, all the way to her shapely, sandal-shod feet. And she was further decorated with various brilliant ornaments of noble metal, studded with precious stones.
With the sight, my heart commenced to pulsate powerfully. It was as though it sought to beat its way out of my breast that it might hurl itself at the feet of the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath.
Yet my excited organ was no traitor to Kara Dea: the sublime vision provoking its throbbing was of the Martian maid to whom it had been forever pledged; the glorious countenance upon which I was gazing in awed admiration was the selfsame one the radiance of which had drawn me thither across the wilderness.
The supernova of truth exploded in my mind: the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, latest of a scared line, and Kara Dea, the mistress of my heart, were one and the same!
Yet my heart, which had been swept to the heights of joy by the revelation that my Kanthoran love still lived, soon fell, plummet-like, into the depths of anguishsuch are the vicissitudes to which the lover's heart is proneas the ceremony, which was continuing to unfold before my astonished eyes, assumed a ghastly significance.
What did it all mean? Why had Kara Dea not disclosed to me the whole truth of her identity? And could it really be that I had lost her to the Prince of Urpath?
Casting back my thoughts, I remembered Kara Dea's speaking of how she had fled Sherpath in order to escape the advances of a powerful nobleman. Her unwelcome suitor, I now realized, could have been no other then Baytor Thag. In that past time the girl had expressed her dislike of the Urpathian in no uncertain terms. Surely she could not have altered her opinion so completely in the time since I had seen her last.
But why not? Is it unknown for one of her sex to change her mind? I would scarce be the first fellow to despair at the frailty of woman, or the first to ponder in vain regret how it could be that the object of his affection could fall for one so patently unworthy of her.
No! I banished all such unkind thoughts from my brain; and there took form within my mind the conviction, firm and fixed, that a girl such as Kara Dea could never love a man such as Baytor Thag.
Intently my eyes scrutinized her, seeking a confirmatory sign in her demeanour or the lineaments of her face that she was acting under duress. There did seem to be a degree of tension and stiffness in her bearing. Her face, for all its beauty, was set and drawn; her lips were taut; her eyes, fixed upon a distant point seemingly beyond the far wall of the splendid room, were emptyempty of aught save despair.
Yes! I was utterly certain of it. Although I knew not the nature of the power he wielded over her, somehow Baytor Thag was compelling Kara Dea's participation in the rite.
My hand crept to the bejewelled hilt of my sword. Momentarily, although the great hall was filled with armed men, I was possessed by the urge to launch myself onto the dais, to strike down Baytor Thag and any other who stood in my path, and attempt to carry off the object of my adoration. Fortunately, a recess of my mind remained conscious of the futility of such a course. And so, paralysed and powerless, I watched the horrid scene play out.
One by one, the high nobles and dignitaries standing along the front rank of benches approached the rostrum, at the front of which stood Kara Dea and Baytor Thag. Each of them climbed to the third stair and there saluted in the Pathtaran fashion before retreating. Thuswise did he formally acknowledge the couple's betrothal.
My turn camefor I had inherited not only Pedror Ull's place, but also his part. As though in a dream, I advanced upon the podium and mounted the steps.
The Sherpathian princess had disdained even to glance at those who had gone before me, she had continued to gaze straight ahead, her attention focused upon a distant point, seemingly beyond the far wall of the splendid room, but when I came before her she seemed to sense my presenceperhaps she heard my heart's calland she lowered her face.
When they met mine, a weird light came into her eyes; and a strange half-smile took form upon her lips. Reaching out her free hand, she took a halting step towards me, and for a moment she swayed at the very brink of the dais.
Then, giving a sigh, the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath swooned and fell forwards into my arms.
A PRISONER IN THE PIT
I LIFTED Kara Dea into my arms and carried her up onto the rostrum. While I held her thus, the silence was utter, and all the others there stood stone-still; almost it seemed that I could have carried her back to the valley of the Thoons without let.
When I placed my lovely burden down upon the soft upholstery within the slightly larger of the argentine thrones, the spell broke quite suddenly: noblemen and noblewomen crowded forwards up the steps, courtiers and warriors ran hither and thither. The Pathtaran princess was soon surrounded by her handmaidens, and, in their eagerness to attend their mistress, they pushed me a little away from her.
There I stood, an island in the stream, my eyes fixed upon Kara Dea, overcome by anxiety for her health and still dazed by the recent revelation of her identity.
I was broken from my momentary amaze by the sudden appearance of the queer old man I had glimpsed a little earlier. He stepped out from behind one of the hangings at the rear of the crowded platform, not far from me, and made his way towards where Baytor Thag was standing. As he passed me by, his beady eyes, aglow with an eerie inner light, lit upon me for an instant, and again my skin crawled.
A few seconds later the voice of the Prince of Urpath rose above the din, ordering all, save those attending upon the stricken Princess of Sherpath, to depart the chamber.
I was loath to leave, and so, unnoticed in the confusion and hoping that it would be assumed that I had withdrawn with the throng, I stepped to the rear of the thrones and slipped behind a silken tapestry, into the place from which the elderly Kanthoran had so recently come.
I found myself in a dark space, a yard or so wide and of an as yet unknown depth. By pressing my face to the semi-transparent stuff of the concealing curtain, I was able to gain a fairly clear view of the hall.
By thenI was relieved to seethe princess had awoken. Waving away her attendants, she stood up and gazed after the departing crowd. She was still a little unsteady on her feet, and, before long, she was prevailed upon to sit down again. Soon a litter was brought up; she was helped onto it and then carried from the hall.
I wanted very much to follow, but I could not. I mouthed a curseeffectively I had trapped myself.
Within a few minutes only Baytor Thag, standing next to his borrowed throne, and the old man, standing near by, remained. The latter presented to my eyes a singularly unlovely aspect: wrinkly, yellow-green, skin clung loosely to a shrunken frame that appeared quite out of proportion to a head that was swollen like a grotesque fungal fruit.
"It is done, Rath Klinsor!" exclaimed Baytor Thag, turning to his freakish companion. "Pathtar's Jewel shall soon be minemine I say!"
"And with the Precious Link comes the throne," added the one called Rath Klinsor. His voice was thin and high, yet it was fraught with menace and power.
Baytor Thag's hands had clutched the air as he had spoken, and his thin lips had parted in a leer of expectation. In the darkness of my hiding place, my hand clutched for the hilt of my sword and I too smiled mirthlessly. Wordlessly, I called upon the Dath Kor to grant me the opportunity to mete out to the Urpathian due punishment for the heinous crime I was certain he planned to perpetrate.
"My Kerrad," said Rath Klinsor, "what of the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath's sudden collapse? And what of the role played in it by the master swordsman of another world?"
"Think you then that she was not simply overcome by excitement?" said Baytor Thag. "Her condition provoked by the imminence of her joining with me?"
"Perhaps," rejoined he that was full of years, "but was it not when her eyes met those of the newcomer that she was smitten?"
Baytor Thag stood a while in thought, reviewing the events of the past few minutes, then he nodded. "Perhaps you are right, old one. I shall have Hector Blake of Earth brought before me forthwith. Too much about him remains mysterious; and I shall have answers from himone way or another."
"Very good, My Kerrad, but first does not another matter require resolution?" Rath Klinsor spoke in a quiet voice, nodding his head but keeping his eyes fixed upon those of Baytor Thag. "While the prisoner lives, he remains a threat to your plans."
After a further brief pause, the Urpathian prince spoke. "The matter is finely balanced, but as ever your counsel is sound. By her conduct this evening the Jewel of Pathtar has proven herself true to her word. I too have made a promise, but he who would wield power over the common herd and guide the course of nations must be unfettered by the precepts that bind lesser mortalshis code must be of a transcendent order. Therefore, although I have sworn otherwise, the time has come for the captive to die. I, Your Kerrad, have spoken."
Rath Klinsor's strange nutations increased in frequency. "Yes, yes, My Kerrad; as you will it, so shall it be."
Having thus spoken, the old man bowed stiffly to the prince, turned from him, and approached the very tapestry behind which I was hiding.
Pressing myself against the wall, I drew in my breath and prepared to draw out my sword. There seemed little hope of my being able to evade immediate discovery; and I well knew that, were my presence there to be disclosed, words would avail me naughtI should be compelled to give an account of myself with a tongue of steel!
Fickle Fortune, however, chose to shed her favour upon me: as Rath Klinsor drew aside the curtain, I was concealed in its folds. All unknowing, he passed me by and entered upon what was evidently a corridor leading away into the darkness.
I breathed again.
The chance for which I had besought the gods of Kanthor had come quickly: the Prince of Urpath was momentarily alone in the Hall of Thrones. Doubtless, his bodyguards were near at hand; but even so, had it not been for the fact that his proposed marriage was not due to take place for three days, the Urpathian prince would have faced my righteous blade then and there. As it was, I turned to follow Rath Klinsor; I had been seized by the conviction that the answer to the riddle of how Baytor Thag purposed to extort vows of marriage from the lips of Kara Dea lay with him.
After I had advanced for a few score yards into the gloom of a narrow, twisting passage, light flared ahead of me. Peeping around a corner, I saw Rath Klinsor, standing no more than a dozen feet from me, before a blank wall, the apparent end of the passage. He was carrying a newly-lighted torch in one hand, evidently taken from a metal bracket upon the wall, which contained several other similar, but unburning, tightly wrapped bundles of twigs. Such torches, commonly employed upon Kanthor, are made from the readily inflammable wood of a certain kind of tree; when alight, they glow rather than blaze, giving off a shimmering, coppery light and the occasional burst of bright sparks.
Briefly, Rath Klinsor ran his hand over the surface of the wall. Then, having found that for which he searcheda release mechanism of some kindhe pushed, causing a wooden panel to swing inwards, forming a dark aperture large enough to admit a man. Through this opening he stepped, without a backward glance.
The secret doorfor such it wasbegan to swing shut, motivated by a hidden counterweight; and it was only by dashing forwards and throwing forth a hand that I was able to forestall its closure. Before passing through, I seized, from the bracket by the door, an unlit torch. I possessed the means to light itamong the articles habitually carried by a Kanthoran warrior is the means to make firebut I did not. Instead I stuck it through my belt.
A veritable maze of secret passages runs within the walls and under the floors of the buildings of High Sherpath, constructed in antiquity for the purposes of espionage, assassination, and amorous assignation. Some of these tunnels connect with old mine workings that riddle the ground beneath the city. In past times the upper reaches of these latter excavations were much used as workshops, storage rooms and dungeons; in the present age, however, they are shunned, and mining is carried out only by condemned prisoners. It is said that, long ago, the deepest burrowings caused the awakening of things buried long ago beneath the debris of an ancient cataclysm; things that were remnants of an age when the very godsand their adversariesstalked the surface of Kanthor; things that should have been left to slumber. Efforts have been made to block off the nethermost regions of the pits, but still, upon occasion, creatures, nameless and dreadful, rise up from the depths in search of prey.
As I stole through along narrow, winding passages and down precipitous staircases, cut from living rock, led ever deeper underground by the dim light of Rath Klinsor's torch, I knew little of such matters. At my approach pallid, many-legged creatures scurried away into the darkness; hideous and uncanny they were, but I came upon nothing larger or less timorous than a cat.
In order to avoid detection by the one whose footsteps I dogged, it was necessary for me to hang well back. In the gloom, negotiation of the increasingly moisture-slick and uneven tunnels was fraught with peril. Disaster struck when I tripped over a stone projection in my path. I tumbled to the floor, the metal of my accoutrements clattering loudly.
With pent breath, I lay quite still.
Rath Klinsor, who had disappeared around a sharp leftward turn in the passage, reappeared. Raising his eerily glowing brand high above his bloated head, he peered back up the tunnel toward me. For a seeming eternity he remained there, still as a statuea grotesque gargoyle such as might be the product of a crazed stonemason.
At last, having apparently convinced himself that the sound he had heard had signified nothing, he turned away and disappeared once more from view. The afterglow of his torch faded quickly; by the time I had regained my feet the darkness was utter.
I advanced as rapidly as was compatible with the need for stealth. Not long after turning the corner, I ran into an obstructing wall. Groping with my fingers, I detected openings to either side: evidently I had come upon a fork in the passagebut which way would lead me to my quarry?
After a moment of peering intently into the dark, I glimpsedor thought I glimpsedout of the corner of an eye, a glimmer of light along the left-hand branch. I sprang forwards, but had taken fewer than two score hurried strides in that direction before I stepped out into nothingnessbeneath my feet was naught but a fathomless void!
Even as I began to fall, I threw myself backwards, twisting my body, catlike. My arms fell against the invisible threshold over which I had stepped, and for several seconds my hands clawed for purchase upon its slippery stones. Somehow, seemingly by the strength of my fingertips alone, I succeeded in drawing myself back over the brink.
Scarce pausing for breathif I were to recover the trail of Rath Klinsor, within that dark and hateful labyrinth, I could not delayI rose and hastened back to the parting of the ways. As I turned to take the rightward passage a cold sweat broke out upon my body; I had had a close encounter with death and knew that, at any moment, I might plunge to my destruction over the edge of some other dark shaft of unguessable profundity.
It was, therefore, with a heartfelt sense of relief that I soon discerned, faint but definite, the glow of torchlight ahead. Going forwards more slowly, I came upon the narrow entrance to a large, irregular cavern, its ceiling, lost in shadow, supported by rough-hewn columns of stone.
Rath Klinsor was within. He was standing at the edge of a circular, metal grating in the floor, which was about a dozen yards in diameter. Affixed to the uneven, rocky wall near him was an array of levers and winches from which several heavy chains ran up into the darkness above and down again to the rim of the grating.
Lifting his torch, the antique Martian spoke down into what was evidently a cavity beneath the horizontal grid at his feet.
"Tal-kar, accursed one!" he exclaimed, his shrill voice resounding amid the naked rocks. "Not one word have I offered you upon my previous visits; but now at last I am free to speak, for I have come to grant you releasethe release of death!"
He gave forth a cackling laugh. "And it pleases me to despatch you to the dismal domain of the Dath Shador with the knowledge that, come the next conjunction, the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath shall be wife to the Kerrad of Urpath."
"No!" cried a man's voice, deep and resonant, from below the grating. "It cannot be, never would she consent to marry such a man as he isnever would she betray the True Line."
"Yes, yes, but it is true," insisted Rath Klinsor, nodding furiously. "And I think it so that Baytor Thag takes greater delight in the prospect of possessing her than he does the throne. Indeed, he lacked the ambition to be aught but Kerrad of Urpath until his eyes fell upon the Jewel of Pathtar. Only then was old Rath Klinsor able to spur him to his destiny."
Demanded the voice from the pit: "Knows she that I am imprisoned here?"
"Ha! I know what you suspect," Rath Klinsor replied: "that it is for love of you that she has promised herself to Baytor Thag. You wonder whether her conduct be evidence of base treachery or noble sacrifice?"
He cackled again. "Ah, but I shall not allow you the peace of such knowledgeyour fate shall be to die a most hideous death, alone in the dark, unsure if you have been betrayed, but certain that the Blessed Daughter is Baytor Thag's!"
His words still echoing, Rath Klinsor turned, jammed his torch into a cranny, and commenced to work certain of the levers and winches upon the wall near him. Soon, in response to his labours, there came the clank of chains and the rasp of metal moving upon stone.
Taking advantage of Rath Klinsor's preoccupation, I
crept forwards and concealed myself behind a rock column. From my new position, I was able to see down through the grating in the floor, into the circular pit, about ten feet deep, that lay beneath. I could not see the prisoner (my view was partially obscured by the curving rim of his prison), but in the inconstant light shed by Rath Klinsor's torch I was able to make out the existence of a rectangular opening in the far side of the pit, at its floor level. Blocking this opening, which was perhaps six feet wide and almost as high, was a metal portcullis, which, in response to the old man's activities, was rising slowly.
When he was done, Rath Klinsor recovered his torch and addressed himself once more to the occupant of the pit. "That which waits beyond the door is shy of the light, but when I have departed it will come forth to devour you, for doubtless it hungers. Would that I might linger to witness your destruction, but even I, too old to fear the dark, would not willingly look upon a thing so abominable. When next I come hither, no trace of you shall remain. Deep is the enmity I bear your houseat last vengeance is mine!"
"Cease your prating," growled the voice from the pit. "I know not who you are, nor do I desire to know, I crave only the chance to close my fingers about your throat."
Answering the prisoner's defiant words only with gloating laughter, Rath Klinsor exited the cavern.
The oldster's parting remarks had been designed to cause suffering to the captive in the pit; they evoked an additional pang within my own breast. The Crown Princess of Sherpath's love for the prisoner? Was he then a rival for Kara Dea's affections? No, scarcely that; rather did he appear to be one who had already succeeded in winning her heart.
Not for long did I linger in speculation. With the departure of Rath Klinsor, total darkness and utter silence had descended upon the subterranean chamber; but, presently, my eyes detected a faint, greenish glow emanating from the pit, and there came to my ears a sound akin to a heavy dead-weight being dragged over stone.
My duty was plain.
I plucked the torch from my belt and, manipulating the contents of my unseen tinderbox by touch alone, caused it to ignite. Then I advanced to the edge of the opening in the floor.
Already something was emerging from the mouth of the aperture at the foot of the pit; my brain received only the most vague impression of its formnumerous undulating tentacles, pale, phosphorescent flesh, and what might have been a pair of plate-like eyes aglow with cold firebefore, discomforted by the light of my torch, the thing shuffled back into the darkness, emitting a loud and high-pitched twittering as it went.
Wincing against the brain-searing sound, I turned, rammed the end of my torch into a crack in the wall, and fought furiously with the several levers and winches arrayed there, seeking the mechanism that governed the lifting and lowering of the heavy grille covering the pit. Before very long my efforts met with a degree of success: I succeeded in raising the near side of the grating a foot or so above floor levelbut after this it would move no farther.
Abandoning my efforts, I sprang to the edge of the pit. After throwing myself to the ground, I reached down towards its human-appearing inmate, who was dimly visible in the green-tinted shadows a few feet below me.
"Quickly!" I cried, shouting above the continuing din emanating from the darkness just beyond the aperture. "Take my hand!"
Even as the captive jumped up to clasp my hand, his would-be cell-mate, emboldened by the prospect of the escape of its meal, came forwards again, sending forth a whip-like tentacle to coil about his ankle.
It was a near thing, but, grasping the rim of the partially suspended grille with my free hand and straining every sinew, I managed to win the ensuing tug of war and haul the man up, over the lip of the pit and on to the floor of the chamber.
Just in time! No sooner was he out of the pit than the grating crashed back into place above it; the single chain holding it up, under pressure and imperfectly secured, had slipped upon its ratchet.
We both scrambled to our feet and, after I had freed my torch, made to quit the cavern. Before passing out, I threw the briefest of glances over my shoulderfully a score of uncannily glowing tentacles, writhing rhythmically, had risen up between the bars above the pit.
Beyond the exit, we had not gone far before he whom I had succoured halted in his tracks and gave out a gasp of disgust. Reaching down to his ankle, he tore from about it a foot-long length of rubbery tentacle, which, with a shudder, he cast to the ground. For a moment the fleshy tube lay where it had fallen, pulsing obscenely, pumping thick, colourless ichor from its ragged endthen I brought my foot down upon it and ground it beneath my heel.
"Thanks be to the Dath Kor," exclaimed the Kanthoran, "and thanks be to you, O warrior." Stepping forwards, he placed his hands upon my shoulders and scrutinized my face.
"I am Hector Blake of Earth," I said in answer to his unspoken question. "Who are you?"
"You do not know me?"
I studied him for a moment. Before me, illuminated in the wavering light of my torch, stood a well-set-up fellow of the green race of Kanthor. He appeared to be around my age, perhaps a year or two older; his carriage that of a trained fighting man. I was certain I had not encountered him before, yet strangely there did seem to be something familiar about his lineaments, which were, I observed, of a noble cast.
"No," I replied. "I know you not."
"Then please allow me to introduce myself," said the erstwhile prisoner in the pit. "I am Korval Dax, and I am Kerrador of Pathtar."
UP FROM THE DEPTHS
I STOOD aghast as the corollary of the former captive's pronouncement bore in upon me: the love for which I supposed Kara Dea to be sacrificing herself was filial; before me was no obstacle to my fond ambition, but rather the one from whose loins my beloved had sprung.
Yet how might such a thing be? To my Earthly eyes Korval Dax's aspect was that of a man my own age: he stood straight and tall, his powerful frame befitting his reputation as a fighting monarch.
The answer came to me in a flash. Momentarily, I had forgotten that upon Kanthor men age more slowly than they do upon the Earth. The King of Pathtar had indeed reached an age that upon my birth-world would have brought the onset of senile decaybut upon the Red Planet he remained quite unwithered by the passing years.
Recovering from my surprise, I accorded Korval Dax the royal salute; he acknowledged it and without further ado we departed the underground vault. The return to the surface was more easily accomplished than I had expectedby the light of my torch Korval Dax was able to decipher ancient directional symbols, inscribed at intersections and ramifications. We saw no sign of Rath Klinsor: evidently he had taken another route to the surface, hastening to inform Baytor Thag of the demise of their kingly prisoner.
"Spoke that old wretch the truth?" said the Kanthoran ruler as we made our way up from the depths. "Can the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath and Baytor Thag of Urpath really be plighted?"
Grimly I confirmed the awful truth of it.
"I have seen no man like you, Hector Blake of Earth," said the king; "tell me, if you will, how you came to be my saviour."
That he might comprehend my story's end, I began at the beginning, speaking of my Earthly origin, of my encountering of Kara Dea in the wilderness, of my journey to Sherpath in search of her, and finally of my coming to be on the trail of Rath Klinsor.
Several times, during those segments of my tale in which I made reference to the various services I had had the honour of rendering his daughter, Korval Dax interrupted me to express his gratitude. A profound emotion claimed him at the thought of the horrid fate she had escaped. Nor do I consider that this ill became his manhood: may a man not be at once stern in public affairs and compassionate in the personal realm?
When I was done with my story, and Korval Dax was done with his thanks, he revealed to me how he had come to be a prisoner in the pit.
Immediately upon receiving word of his daughter's disappearance from Sherpath (when she had fled the unwelcome advances of a powerful nobleman: Baytor Thag, I was sure), Korval Dax and a small escort had departed their encampment in the battle zone and headed for the city. Soon thereafter, it had been their ill luck to be set upon by a Quorrite raiding partyill luck indeed, for by then the city of Quorr had been reduced and its armies overcome.
The kerrador's men were slain and he was made prisoner. The Quorrites, however, were a long way from their sloughy homeland and were harried by Pathtaran forces at every turn. Weeks went by, and the rebel band, which had been over three score strong, was reduced to barely a dozen men. The king, taking advantage of his captors' tribulations, escaped.
Alone, Korval Dax journeyed north, passing through the perilous Harpathian forest. Eventually he encountered a Pathtaran patrol. Unfortunately, it was a patrol made up of troops of the Urpathian Guard, commanded by an ambitious minor nobleman, close to Baytor Thag. This officer, knowing of the extent to which the Kerrad of Urpath's own ambitions had waxed in recent times, saw an opportunity to gain rapid advancement and dispatched a message to his prince by fast snaroth.
Before long an airborne force, commanded by Baytor Thag himself, made rendezvous with them. The prince was explicit in his treason, openly flouting the king; the latter, indeed, was surprised not to be given short shrift. Instead he was transported in secret to Sherpath.
Nor did the commander of the Urpathian patrol receive the treatment he had anticipated: to ensure that the imprisonment of the Kerrador of Pathtar in the pits beneath his own palace remained a secret he and his men were slaughtered. And who can say how many others had had to die that the secret might be kept?
Korval Dax shuddered. "For two or perhaps three days have I been a captive in the darkness. Many times did I have cause to give thanks for the sturdiness of my prison as the beast in the adjoining chamber strove to gain ingress." With a wry smile he added: "It is a wonder that I managed to retain my sanity."
In view of the visceral fear that the very thought of the creatures that dwell underground inspires in the hearts of most Kanthorans it was indeed a tribute to Korval Dax's strength of character that his mind had not taken refuge in madness.
"It was my hope," he remarked in vehement tones, "that the appointment of Baytor Thag to rule in Sherpath while I secured the south would cement the unity of our nation. I now recognize that I made a grievous error." He struck his palm with his fist. "I regret that it shall now be necessary to take harsh measures finally to extinguish the treacherous Urpathian line and its adherents."
At length, we emerged from behind a cleverly disguised panel into a storeroom containing haphazardly stacked weaponry.
After conferring briefly we determined our best course to lie in our attempting to make contact with one of those in whom the kerrador felt he could place his trust.
Acting upon our design, Korval Dax and I exited the storeroom. Proceeding with the utmost stealth, we were passing along a dimly illuminated corridor not far from the Hall of Thrones when we almost ran into a party of servitors, going about their allotted tasks. Swiftly, we took cover in an alcove. The king's face was a mask of frustrated furyoh, to be compelled to skulk thus within his own palace!
We were not discovered, and, when the coast seemed clear, I stepped from the shadows. Even as I did so, however, a warrior, garbed in silver and blue, appeared from an intersecting corridor and strode rapidly in my direction. His suspicions would have been aroused by my turning about abruptly, and so, affecting a nonchalant air, I carried on towards him, my hand resting in readiness upon the pommel of my sword.
As he drew near, I recognized the fellow.
"Thandor Kas!" I exclaimedfor it was he.
"Hector Blake!" Thandor Kas cried out in answer, a smile lighting his face. His expression, however, suddenly darkened, and, to my great surprise, his sword flashed into his handin an instant its point was at my breast.
"Know this, Hector Blake: scarce a minute ago I received the order for your arrest," said Thandor Kas; "yet, although it came directly from the lips of Baytor Thag, I confess myself loath to obey it."
Thandor Kas's words came as no surprise. I well knew that the Kerrad of Urpath required from me an explanation of my part in the dramatic conclusion of the ceremony that had marked his betrothal to the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, and, doubtless, that I was absent from my quarters had deepened his suspicions.
"Allow me to resolve your dilemma, O Thandor Kas of the Legion." The speaker was Korval Dax.
"My Kerrador!" Thandor Kas cried in wonder as his liege lord came forth from hiding.
There followed an exchange of formal greetings and brief explanations; then the three of us repaired to a nearby storage chamberthere to conspire.
Said Thandor Kas: "Most of the warriors currently within Sherpath are Urpathian or Kaythish. The highest of the Urpathian officers have been selected not for their leadership qualities but for the loyalty they bear to Baytor Thag above all others. The disposition of the Kaythe in the event of civil conflict is more difficult to determine; it will depend upon whether their warlord's contract is with the person of Baytor Thag or with the institution of the throne."
The noble officer of the Legion of Sherpath went on to explain that the vastly preponderant part of the Pathtaran army was encamped several days' march to the southdespite its victory over the Quorrites, Baytor Thag had forbidden its return to the environs of Sherpath, for with the soldiery would come their leaders: prominent nobles who were, for the most part, enemies of his house.
"What of Skanth?" asked the king.
"Intelligence from within the realm of the Prime is scant, O My Kerrador," said Thandor Kas. "There have been vague reports of the assembling of a mighty host of Slithians near our north-eastern borders, yet there are other rumours that suggest lands adjoining distant parts of Skanth's far-flung dominions are next to be attacked. Whichever should prove true the threat, while great, is not immediate, we shall certainly receive many days' warning of the approach of a force large enough to endanger Sherpath."
"True," agreed Korval Dax, "but I like it not; our warriors should be already deployed to meet any attack."
Thandor Kas nodded. "In the city only the Legion and what remains of the garrison can be depended uponnever would they truckle to an Urpathian. Reinforcements of sufficient strength to ensure victory for the True Line are days away. Were you to raise your standard here and now, we could not hold even High Sherpath until their coming. Therefore, I must urge you, O My Kerrador, to quit Sherpath with the utmost celerity; to gather your forces and then return in strength. I further advise that, in order to delay Baytor Thag's moving against your followers here in the city, as few people as possible should know that you live till the time has come to strike."
The wisdom of Thandor Kas's counsel was plain to see; but still Korval Dax's every fibre rebelled against the thought of his leaving Sherpath while his daughter remained in the clutches of Baytor Thag. We three, knowing the princess's constant and virtuous character, concurred that there could be no other explanation for her seeming acceptance of the suit of the Urpathian prince than that she had been aware of her father's imprisonment.
The Excellent Kerraja of Sherpathno traitress she!
It was true, nonetheless, that the loyal troops inside the city lacked the numerical strength to wrest the princess from her captors. For the king to remain would be pointless: he could do naught to succour her, and his own life would be in extreme jeopardy.
I addressed the Kanthoran sovereign. "Hear me, O Kerrador of Pathtar. Might not one man be able to accomplish what many may not? Grant me leave to attempt to reach the kerraja, to alert her to your escape and perhaps effect a rescue. I am a stranger in Sherpath and should I be captured or killed suspicion will fall upon no other."
Thandor Kas added: "The Blessed Daughter is safe until the next conjunction. Should Hector Blake fail, then shall the Legion strike, striving with might and main to hold out until relieved."
For a while thereafter, as the battle between duty and love continued to rage within his breast, the focus of Korval Dax's gaze alternated between my eyes and those of Thandor Kas. Finally, a decision was made.
"Very well," the king said to me, a grim smile upon his lips. "I shall entrust to you the deliverance of my daughter. Already have you achieved the impossible in your labours on her behalf, and I know that if there be a man who can save her, Hector Blake of Earth is he."
Korval Dax placed his hands upon my shoulders and, again in the grip of a strong sentiment, leaned forwards to kiss me upon both cheeks.
Expedition was of the essence, and there was no time to seek an explanation of the significance of the king's action. It was only later that I came to understand that he had indicated that I had earned his highest esteem, and had given notice of his intention to raise me to a lofty position among his followers. In truth I was made a little uncomfortable by the royal praise; after all, notwithstanding the depth of my affection for his daughter, I had merely been doing my dutyany man would have done the same.
A little later I departed the storeroom, leaving to Thandor Kas the task of facilitating Korval Dax's secret egress from Sherpath. Before our parting, the Kerrador of Pathtar had described to me the route to the Tower of Graalgone of two tall towers, each dedicated to a Kanthoran satellite, that rise from the circumference of the great dome of the Temple of the Moons, and the place to which, by time-honoured tradition, a newly affianced member of Sherpath's royal house retires in order to commune with his or her forebears.
Outside, it was as dark as it ever gets in Sherpath: the moons had not yet come, but light was being shed upon the city by the shimmering celestial vault and by the fires raging within the mighty pharos that thrusts skyward from the centre of the acropolis, its glow a beacon to airborne travellers.
Some four fifths of the way up the Tower of Graalg an elevated walkway of bright metal connects it to a nearby structure. Moving stealthily, I succeeded in reaching the near end of this bridge without let, but further progress, across it, was prevented by the presence of at least four Urpathian warriors, guarding the portal at its far end.
Pausing, I surveyed the alien city, my eyes passing over the rooftops and gardens and climbing to the crown of the slender, cylindrical tower opposite me, dark against the night sky's glimmerings. Before long I had set my mind upon a course of action: where my eyes had climbed so must I climb. It was my hope and expectation that, given the relatively feeble pull exerted by the Red Planet, the decorative carvings and encrustations of ruddy gems that adorned the surface of the rearing edifice would support my weight.
It would be a perilous ascent, I well knew, but I was assailed by no qualm. Momentarily, I felt myself the hero of a scientific romanceand like the Deathless Virginian of literature I would win my princess!
Seizing a moment when the guards' eyes appeared to be elsewhere, I stepped from the shadows, sprang over the railing, and climbed down to dangle, high above the ground, from the struts supporting the span. Had I been seen? Breathlessly, I listened: the murmur of the sentries' conversation remained constantevidently I had not.
Monkey-like, I proceeded along the footbridge's under-frame until I was beneath the guards; then I picked my way, slowly and carefully, to my left around the curve of the Tower of Graalg. The shifting shadows of the Martian night made judgement of the precise location and size of handholds and footholds fraught with uncertainty, but, eventually, I reached a protruding balcony, ninety degrees around the tower, over the parapet of which I clambered.
Beyond double doors, windowed with coloured glass, was an untenanted chamber. The doors were locked and even had I desired to force them I could not have done so without making rather too much noise. Above me two other balconies, similar to the one upon which I stood jutted out from the tower; and below me were eleven more. I had, by my estimation, a hundred feet to climb and six hundred feet to fall.
Undaunted, I started upwards.
Such an ascent would have been impossible upon my own heavy world, and even against Kanthor's light tug my muscular strength was sorely taxed. Nevertheless, clinging on by the tips of my fingers and toes, I drew myself higher and higher, until, at last, I attained the penultimate balcony. There I paused to gather myself, flexing my digits, and filling my lungs with the cool and spicy air. Then I began the final stage of my rise.
When I was halfway towards my ultimate goal, the sky was suddenly blotted out by three, huge, dark shapes.
So startled was I by the unanticipated appearance of the great lizard-hawks that I almost lost my grip; but I clung on, buffeted by the down-drafts from their beating wings. Fortunately, they hovered above me for no more than a few seconds before swooping away as abruptly as they had come.
That some new danger threatened the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, I did not doubt, and, abandoning stealth, I scrambled upwards, my scabbard and the metal of my trappings clattering against the tower.
Even as my left hand reached up to clasp one of the elegantly wrought metal banisters that edged the balcony, a fierce face, black and bristling, was thrust over the rail above me; a single, great, golden eye, oval, multifaceted and rimmed with red, glared down at me hatefully; and a great slit of a mouth opened in a cruel grimace to reveal sharp, yellow teeth.
A warrior of the Kaythe!
The dark mercenary made no soundI knew it not, but his mission was as clandestine as my ownand for an instant we remained frozen in mutually inspired consternation.
Then came lightning-fast action. The Kaythe's right hand rose high and the sharp blade it held glinted in a stellar ray. Simultaneously, my own right hand shot upwards and its fingers fastened upon the leather of the black fellow's harness. My other hand still maintained a firm grasp of the banister, and, before my foe could to aught to stay himself, employing all my might, I wrenched him bodily over the rail.
After releasing my grip upon him, I watched the Kaythe's death-plunge in horrified fascination. Upon the Red Planet falling bodies are accelerated at a lesser rate than they would be upon my mother-world, but still he built up a terrific momentum during his long drop. In eerie silence he fellit is not the Kaythish way to cry out in the face of destructionbut the sickening sound of his impact upon the handsomely paved courtyard, far, far below came clearly to my ears.
The doom of my foe brought home to me the end that awaited me should I lose my grip. My heart leapt into my mouth in delayed reaction to the shock of the encounter, and, closing my eyes, I hugged the metalwork.
The wave of vertigo soon ebbed, and I was able to climb on to the final balcony. The doors to the adjoining room were wide open, but I could not see within: vivid curtains lay across the entrance.
Although I had reached relative safety, as I stood there, upon the threshold of the chamber within which might be found the haven of my hopes, my pulse commenced to race and my knees to tremble.
Yes, I, Hector Blake, Rarnkor Slayer, Chieftain among the Thoons, and 'Master Swordsman of Another World', was unnerved by the prospect of coming again into the presence of the cynosure of my heart.
Firming my resolve, I drew aside the drapery.
To the queer appointments of the torchlit moon chapel, I gave scant regard; my attention was, straight away, riveted upon the two figures standing at its centre: a man and a woman locked in an apparently passionate embrace. He had his back to me, but her features I could see clearly.
She was Kara Dea.
IN THE TOWER AND AFTER
ALL OF a sudden the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath twisted free of the man's embrace and struck him across the face with her bejewelled forearm. Giving a surprised bellow, he fell back. The gem-studded metal of the girl's bangles had torn his flesh, and when he turned from her to wipe the blood from his cheek with the back of his hand, I saw, from my place part-hidden behind the curtains, the fierce face of Pedror Ull, the green chieftain of the Kaythe, illuminated in shimmering torchlight.
"No man might strike Pedror Ull with impunity," he growled; "such a blow would warrant his death, but you, O Jewel of Pathtar, have enslaved me. I thought myself strong enough to resist your allure; I thought I could be content with the riches and high position with which I knew Baytor Thag would reward me for returning you to him; but yours is the power to drive men mad, and a passion has grown upon me until I can think of naught else than possessing you."
Kara Deaaltogether beautiful in an ankle-length petticoat, seemingly spun of gold, and a bodice of soft, dark-brown suede, trimmed with dappled, buff furdid not deign to respond in words. She drew herself to her full height, and, holding high her chin, regarded Pedror Ull warily.
"Sherpath is doomed," the man continued hotly, "for soon the Slithians shall come. At my signal two swift snaroths will be brought to your balcony. Come away with me and I shall carve out for you a new empire. You would want for nothing: gold, diamonds, servitors. Forget your love for Baytor Thagbe mine!"
"Think you that the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath could love such as is the Kerrad of Urpath?" said the Martian princess, her voice level, her bright eyes flashing with anger not fear. "Think you that she could feel aught but loathing for the would-be usurper of Pathtar? Nor is she for such as you arehe whom she loves is to Pedror Ull as is Korath Dar to a Slithian."
My heart leapt. I had had heard what I had known I should hear: Kara Dea did not love Baytor Thag. But upon the identity of this other of whom she had spoken I dared not speculate.
Although my every sinew ached for battle I hung back; time was short and I could scarcely afford to waste an hour in another duel royal with Pedror Ull. It was my hope that, having had his proposal rejected in such forthright terms, he would depart. Unfortunately, he was nothing if not tenacious in his wooing.
The mercenary leader, unable to withstand Kara Dea's fatal emanationsa force of nature before which I am as helpless as any other manwas risking all. For him there could be no turning back: he was betraying the prime precept of the Kaythe, which is absolute loyalty to their current master until the fulfilment of their contract; there is no crime of war the mercenary hordes will not commit, but to this law they cleave absolutely. Were his perfidy to be discovered it would become the duty of every man of the Kaythe to hunt him down, and then to kill him in as fiendish a fashion as might be conceived of.
Enraged by Kara Dea's disdain, Pedror Ull spoke harshly: "Kerraja of Sherpath, I am Pedror Ull and I will have youeither as wife or servitress!"
Then the man advanced upon the girl again, grasping her arm.
I had seen and heard enough; and I leapt into the room, my sword hissing from its sheath.
"Unhand her, you cur!" I commanded.
Pedror Ull wheeled to face me. "Dath Shador!" he gasped. "You!"
"I indeed, Pedror Ull," I responded with a grim smile.
Without further ado Pedror Ull threw Kara Dea roughly to the floor and, snatching his sword from its scabbard, rushed upon me, a savage grimace contorting his visage.
Stepping forwards and raising my steel to fend off that of my attacker, I glanced beyond him to where the girl lay, her face bright with hope and relief, her hands clasped between her breasts. The divine object of my long quest was almost within reach, only Pedror Ull stood between us, and such was the acme of martial wizardry to which I was raised by the proximity of Kara Dea that a thousand Pedror Ulls could not have resisted my advance.
Unlike upon the previous occasion when our swords had crossed, I was unconstrained by any wish to keep my antagonist aliveindeed it was my earnest desire to dispatch him with dispatch! I fought as a man possessed, battering his puny blade hither and thither, seeking the opening that would seal his fate. Within mere moments he was bleeding from a dozen wounds, and I think he knew almost from the first that his death was at hand.
But, although his eyes burned with the awful knowledge of his imminent demise, Pedror Ull was no coward. Before long he resorted to the tactic he had employed in the latter stages of our earlier engagementall out attack.
An uncouth cry breaking from his throat, he threw himself forwards. I was ready for him, and, stepping back, I swung a horizontal cut at his neck. The swords of Mars are notable for their acuity and Pedror Ull's head was struck cleanly from his shoulders. The grisly thing was sent spinning through the air in a terrific shower of blood.
Without pausing, I threw aside my ensanguined blade, vaulted the tumbled corpse of the man once accounted the Planet of War's mightiest swordsman, and sped to where Sherpath's estimable princess was lying.
Kneeling at her side, I took her hand in mine and pressed its fingers to my lips.
"Kara Dea!" I gave forth joyfully.
"My Earth-man," she breathed. "You have come for me."
Encircling her lovely shoulders with one arm and reaching beneath her charming knees with the other, I lifted the girl from the floor and set her upon her pretty feet.
We stood face to face, our bodies gently touching, and the warmth of Kara Dea's skin and the perfume of her hair caused my heart to pound and my passion to rise upI am, after all, but a man of flesh and blood.
When I cast a look of intense longing and adoration into the fathomless oceans of loveliness that were her eyes, it seemed to me that I glimpsed, sparkling therein, a cognate emotion, and, taking her face between my hands, I kissed her full upon the mouth. For just a momentor so it might have beenshe surrendered to my lips, but then, with a deep shuddering sigh, she gently pushed me away.
Kara Dea's eyes were brilliant, her cheeks flushed, her lips aglow; and her bosom rose and fell rapidly as her breath came in short gasps.
I read hurt and sorrow in those signs.
I had been about to make a candid declaration of my feelings, but a tidal wave of regret crashed in upon me, sweeping the words from my lips. I had proven myself no better than Pedror Ull: the Kanthoran princess was beset upon all sides by enemies, and far from lightening her burden I had added to itor so I believed.
"Forgive me, O My Kerraja," I said huskily. Somehow it no longer seemed appropriate to call her by her namea name I had heard no other useshe had, all of a sudden, been transmuted into a veritable goddess.
Gods! Of all the girls in space and time, that I should lose my heart to an unattainable divinity!
Looking deeply into the Martian princess's refulgent eyes, I said: "Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, please allow me to remain your friend. My fondest wish is to further your cause, to fight for you and, if necessary, to die for you."
She favoured me with a wan smile, but still she trembled.
"Dear friend…" she began, but her voice quavered, a look of utter desperation came upon her face, and a few seconds went by before she was again mistress of her emotions. "Dear friend, I had thought you dead. Even when I saw you in the Hall of Thrones I feared that I had experienced only a baseless vision sent by the Dath Shador to torment me. Oh, Hector Blake, how did you -?"
"There is no time," I interjected, placing a finger to her lips. "Quickly, we must away."
"I cannot go!" she cried, a sobbing gasp racking her frame. "I have seen my father, the Kerrador, imprisoned in this very citadel. Baytor Thag demands my hand as the price of his freedom, and I have promised myself to the Urpathian, for although I know him to be a base dissembler, I still have this."
She produced a slim dagger from her corset; it was the weapon I had given her in the wilderness.
Said she: "What better place for an assassin to strike than the bridal chamber? And should my blade fail to penetrate Baytor Thag's corrupt breast, then shall it enter here." She indicated her own fragrant bosom.
Laughing, I took her hands in mine.
"Korval Dax is free!" I exclaimed, and briefly I explained the circumstances of his rescue.
"Truly were you sent by the Dath Kor," sighed the princess. "I am yours to command; lead and I shall follow."
In truth, I had formulated no plan of rescue, having been driven to that place by the incessant urgings of an organ other than my brain. It had been my heart's hope that, after I had alerted its captress to the escape of her father, we might, together, be able to work out a means of ensuring her safety.
Before I could speak, the princess placed her hand upon my chest, her touch sending a flame through me. A glad smile was upon her lips.
"My Earth-man, I -" Kara Dea commenced, her voice low; but her expression of an additional sentiment was interrupted by the unmistakable sounds of the approach of a body of armed men from without the chamber.
We had tarried too long, and only one avenue of escape remained. Hurriedly, we barred the heavy wooden door to the chapel and, after I had recovered my sword, dashed to the balcony.
Outside, Sherpath's supereminent princess shrank back a little from the brink. The moons had come, their glamour staining the alien city crimson, and in the courtyard, far, far below, could be seen the body of the Kaythe I had precipitated to his doom.
At first I hesitated to allow the girl to essay the descent, but she quickly overcame her qualm, and expressed herself determined to escape the power of Baytor Thag, or die trying. And who was I to gainsay her? She the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath; I naught but a nameless traveller from another world.
It was necessary to abbreviate Kara Dea's nether garment so that her legs would not become entangled as she climbed down, and, whipping out my dagger, I assisted her in cutting the diaphanous golden gauze to thigh-length. Meanwhile, those beyond the outer door of the moon chapel had begun to batter upon itthere was no time to lose.
Swiftly, I climbed over the rail and began to make my way down, and a moment later the girl stepped out above me.
"Courage, My Kerraja," I called up to her. "Should you fall I shall catch you."
My words were intended to steady her nerve. While I hoped that, were she to lose her grip, I should indeed be able to arrest her descent, in truth, so uncertain was my own hold upon the ornamental encrustations of the tower that I doubted whether even the alliance of my Earth-nurtured strength and the puny attractive power of the Red Planet would enable me to do so. The most likely result of such an unhappy eventuality would be our hurtling together to our deaths.
My worries proved unfounded: Kara Dea's well-formed legs and arms and her youthful strength were more than adequate to the task.
When I had gained the second most lofty balcony, I
leaned out beneath the king's daughter and, gripping the rail firmly with one hand and, reaching up with the other, encircled her slim waist and drew her down to safety.
Even as we embraced, there came from above us the sound of shattering wood, followed by exclamations of surpriseevidently the corpse of the mercenary chieftain and the disappearance of the princess had been discovered. Seconds later there came a sharp cry from overhead. Glancing up, I saw an Urpathian Guardsman gazing down upon us from the topmost balcony. For a moment the fellow was dumbfounded, but then he called out again to his comrades.
Releasing the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, I vaulted over the rail, and commenced the next stage of the descent. But, in my desperate haste, I trod too hard upon a decorative prominence; it crumbled beneath my foot, my hands were torn from their holds, and I fell.
As I hurtled down towards the balcony for which I had been making, I threw out my arms towards its balustrade. I managed to catch hold; for a second or two, I clung there, shaken but heartily relieved, before hauling myself up and over the rail.
Only to find a sword at my throat!
There was no escape. Half a dozen men of the Urpathian Guard stood before me, having come out on to the balcony from the adjoining room. My arms were seizedtwo burly warriors pinned them behind my back, none too gentlyand my weapons were stripped from me.
Kara Dea had cried out as I had fallen and, as I was being hustled into the tower, I raised my face to the higher balcony. She was gazing down upon me forlornly, arms down-stretched, head and upper body outlined darkly against the sparkling sky.
"Endure!" I cried. "I shall come for you!"
For a short period, I was held within the tower. Then Baytor Thag entered, with him were Vargis Toth, Master of the Guard, and a splendidly trapped Kaythe.
The cold eyes of the Prince of Urpath lit upon me.
"So, man of another world," said he, "it was you that slew Pedror Ull. I was alerted to his treachery by Ravor Klath, Warlord of the Kaythe." He gestured to the gem-bedizened, black warrior, standing at his side, whom I then recognized to be the one I had encountered earlier in the Hall of Thrones. "But the warning came too late; had it not been for your intervention, Pedror Ull's scheme to abduct the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath would have succeeded.
"I am, therefore, indebted to you; make a satisfactory accounting of yourself and you will be richly rewarded, fail to satisfy me and you shall die."
I was in no mood to explain: before me stood the villain who would wrong my princess, and I was aquiver with rage. The bellicose daemon of my breed had seized hold of me, and I had given myself over to its power more completely than ever before.
The intensity of my fury gifted me superhuman strength, and I broke free of the two who held me, throwing them across the chamber as though they were children. Then, emitting a rageful howl, I fell upon the Kerrad of Urpath.
Before any could act to thwart me, my right hand closed about Baytor Thag's windpipe. His hands beat ineffectually against my arm as, gripping his throat, I lifted him bodily from the ground, and when my fingers commenced to squeeze, his eyes bulged and his face grew black.
Yet, before I could wring out the Urpathian's worthless life, he was dragged from my grasp. I went down beneath a wave of assailants, and many blows crashed in upon me. I remember little more, save the prince's infuriated words, spoken when a dozen hands held each of my arms.
"Man of Earth," he croaked, pressing his face close to mine, "for your crimes you shall suffer the Writhing Death; and the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, as my bride, will be among the witnesses as you beg for release from life!"
Then, even while the Kerrad of Urpath's dire prediction rang in my ears, blackness claimed me.
I was cast into a dark dungeon somewhere beneath bright Sherpath; and from the very first I concentrated my every faculty upon a single objectiveescape!
For hour upon hour, I hauled at the heavy chain by which I was fettered to the wall, focusing my entire might upon its linkseven my frontal lobes throbbed as I sought to bring to bear the strange power of psychokinesis possessed by those who abide upon the Red Planet.
I persisted with my exertions until exhausted, then I hurled myself on to the stone floor of my prison and subsided into a period of fitful, dream-racked sleep.
Upon awakening, I began my struggles anew.
So it continued. I lost all but the most nebulous sense of the passage of time, knowing only that days were going by, not mere hours.
During the period of my captivity, I confess to suffering considerable mental strain. The primary source of my torment was not the awful, Stygian darkness; nor was it even the hideous prospect of death by slow torture: no, I was driven to the brink of madness by the extremity of my concern for the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath.
The sole buttress of my tottering reason was the hope that Kara Dea would be safe at least until the planned time of her weddingthree days from the start of my incarceration. I could only pray that she had exhibited the presence of mind to feign ignorance of Korval Dax's release; for only thus could the moment when she must defend her honour be delayed.
What of Korval Dax? Had he made good his escape? Was he even now returning to Sherpath at the head of a vindictive army?
What of Thandor Kas? Had he rallied the Legion? Were he and his comrades even now laying their plans for rescue?
Isolated in the unrelieved dark and the timeless silence, I commenced to find difficulty granting reality to the universe without my prison. It came to seem no more than a mental figment that, beyond its unseen walls, the crimson moons of Mars were whirling in their courses, and that beneath them people were striving, loving, and dying.
As I strained my muscles seemingly in vain, my spirits reached a low ebb and I gave in to bitter reflection. Surely it could be naught but a monstrous vanity to imagine my affectionate sentiments were, or ever could be, requited by Kanthor's nonpareil princess, a divine blossom upon a family tree beside which my own, although august by Earthly standards, was a mere sapling.
The gunshot sound of the breaking of the chain broke me from my futile reveries.
Victory was mine! Hot muscle and sinew had finally triumphed over cold metal. Nor, in the joyful moment of my success, did I doubt that other victories would follow.
In truth, however, although unconstrained, I was scarcely freer than before. But, as I groped my way around my cell, discovering it to be no more than ten feet square, a plan of the utmost shrewdness took shape within my brain; so cunning was it that it was utterly certain to be awarded Nike's palmsuch, at least, was the belief of my fevered mind.
Half a dozen times thitherto, a guard had brought me food and water. (During none of his visitations had he answered any of the fusillade of questions I had fired at him; each time he had vouchsafed me naught but a hollow laugh. The refreshments he had brought had, however, been of adequate quantity and quality; doubtless Baytor Thag did not wish my senses dulled by hunger or thirst, that I might better suffer the excruciations he had in store for me.)
I had observed it to be the habit of my gaoler to peer into my cell after sliding two bowls, one of food, one of water, under the door; each time, the light of his torch had dazzled me when he had brought it near the door's grille.
What if, when he came again, I hid myself? Might it not be that, thinking me escaped, he would enter in order to inspect the cell? And were he to do so, would I not be provided with the opportunity to overcome him and make a break for liberty?
Unknown hours crawled by while I waited in an agony of expectationalready it might be too late, already the body of my beloved might be growing cold in deathuntil, at last, the sound of footsteps came to my ears and the glow of torchlight to my eyes.
Pressing my fingers and toes into the spaces between the ill-fitting blocks of stone of my cell's construction, I climbed swiftly to a place above the door, near the ceiling, and there I clung like a giant spiderwaiting.
Almost straight away my expectations were confounded. As before, my custodian slid the bowls of food and water under the door, but he did not pause to glance through its grille. Straight away, his footfalls receded, his light faded, and I found myself again enveloped in grave-like silence and darkness.
Relaxing my hold, I dropped heavily to the floor. My disappointment was almost overwhelmingall my hopes had been invested in my mad schemeand for a while I wavered at the edge of despair.
As I struggled to call from within myself the qualities I should need to survive, my fingers groped for refreshment.
The keys were in the water bowl.
IN THE TEMPLE AND BEFORE
I WORKED feverishly with the slender, notched cylinders I had discovered in the bowl, soon succeeding in removing the metal band from about my ankle and opening the door to my prison. Arms outstretched, I made my way through the inky darkness beyond. Before long, my eyes descried light ahead, and a moment later, I came upon an unoccupied guardroom, illuminated by the glow of a burning torch.
Some way away, another torch burned, relieving the gloom at the end of a long, straight corridor. Then, after I had advanced to this second torch, I espied another.
As I made my way along labyrinthine passages and up spiralling staircases, seeking the glimmer of torchlight, it broke upon me that I was following a trail of deliberately placed beacons. A trail that would, I surmised, lead me to the lair of my unknown saviour or saviours.
I encountered no one on my journey and, at length, I came to a dull, metal door. The door was ajar, and above it two torches flaredevidently I had arrived at my destination.
Pushing open the portal, I entered a large, dimly lighted chamber, which was furnished with a jumble of chests, cabinets and tables. Upon the tables were many strange instruments and devices; upon shelves, all around the walls, were row upon row of glass jars, each containing a brainthe cerebra of humans, or humanoids, by the look of themimmersed in a preservative fluid. So many jars and brains were there that I was put in mind of the skull-lined caverns of the Thoons.
In the centre of the room, upon a marmoraceous slab, raised about a yard from the floor, was the body of a man of the green race. I advanced; closer inspection of the corpse revealed that portions of its skull had been cut away, exposing the brain. Numerous papers, marked with notes and diagrams in a spidery script, were strewn hither and thither upon the slab, and some were spattered with gore.
The dead man was securely strapped down, and from this I drew the disquieting inference that the poor devil had been alive when the operations upon him were begun. His dead eyes were agleam with horror, and a silent scream was frozen upon his dead lips.
Even as I was gazing at that Hellish sight, the hairs commenced to stand up on the nape of my neck and I developed the feeling that there were malevolent eyes upon me. I looked up, and there, standing in a doorway opposite the one by which I had entered, was the bent figure of Rath Klinsor.
"Ah, Hector Blake of Earth, I have been expecting you," the old man croaked. "Excuse the disorder: my collection has but recently arrived from Urpath."
"Then it was you who arranged my escape?" I exclaimed.
"Yes, yes, it was I," he replied, nodding. "Indulge me, and I shall explain."
My skin crawled as the aged Kanthoran approached, and I had to fight the urge to hide my face from him. Yet if he had indeed been the cause of my liberation, I felt bound to allow him to speak his piece.
"I am a philosopher," he said, gesturing toward the body on the slab with a claw-like hand. "A philosopher I say! Not a sentimentalist!
"I am called Rath Klinsor, although when last I dwelt in Sherpath I went by another name. In those long-ago days the then kerrador was unable to comprehend the importance of my work, or the necessity for my experiments; many humiliations did I suffer at his hands, but barely did I escape with my life.
He tapped his swollen head with a gnarled finger. "For countless years have I devoted myself to the study of the brain, succeeding in unlocking many of its secrets and in developing my mentality to an unprecedented degree. So forceful has my intellect grown that I have come to be able to project my will into the minds of others. As yet, I cannot assume total control of a subject's centre of volition; I can merely awaken or suppress the most primitive emotions within him, such as anger, lust, envy, and fearyes, fear is the easiest of all to evoke. Yet, are not such passions the primary motivations of man?"
I nodded as though in agreement: the old fellow was plainly quite insane, and I thought it best to humour him.
"But the mind is a fragile thing," Rath Klinsor went on, warming to his theme, "and in the main my power must be applied with precision and delicacy. So much does Baytor Thag desire your death that I can do little to mollify himthe mental pressure required to effect so fundamental a change in his pattern of thought would crush his mind. It was simple enough, though, to kindle his smouldering ambition, especially given the heat of his desire for the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpathnot at all did I have to stoke that fire."
The macrocephalic Martian's mention of Kara Dea provoked from me an urgent interjection. "The Excellent Kerraja lives?"
Rath Klinsor raised a quizzical brow. "But of course. I chose this morn to free you because I knew the attention of all Sherpath would be upon the Temple of the Moons wherein, within the hour, she is to marry the Kerrad of Urpath."
My heat leaptKara Dea still lived! Yet she remained in peril and precious little time remained for me to save her.
Oblivious to my excitement, Rath Klinsor continued to dwell freely. "Ah, the Jewel of Pathtar," he mused: "to be so perfectly formed a female is to possess great power. Yet, in truth, feminine beauty is an unwieldy weapon, as dangerous to its possessor as to any other: after all, she could do naught to prevent her charm arousing the ardour of Baytor Thag or provoking the passion of Pedror Ull." A further thought struck him. "And yet, I presume, it was her allure that drew you to her aid."
Rath Klinsor had made a rather interesting point, one that at another time and place might be worthy of discussion, but with his speaking of Kara Dea an urgent sense had swept upon me and I was in no mood to philosophize.
"Enough," I ordered. "What is it that you require of me?"
The mummy's face of Rath Klinsor grew dark. "Why your brain, of course," was his reply, "to add to my collection. I know not if you have indeed come from another world, but certainly your mind is different from any other I have probed."
"Are you quite mad?"
"Admittedly, the dissection procedure will be accompanied by a certain degree of discomfortit is essential that the subject remain alive for as long as possible, that his mental functions may be studiedbut consider the fate that would have been yours but for my intervention. Not for you a man's ending in the arena; rather would you have suffered the Writhing Death, that most fiendish creation of man's imaginings. From that dread doom have I preserved you, and your life is mine."
I found Rath Klinsor's argument insufficiently cogent. "Out of my way!" I commanded; and, balling my fists, I advanced upon him.
The senescent Kanthoran drew back his lips to expose his rotting, snaggle-teeth. "To resist is futile, Hector Blake," he hissed, his ghoulish orbs suddenly ablaze with a baleful light.
It was then that I was subjected to the reality of Rath Klinsor's uncanny mental power. A shell of fear burst in my brain, and I was suddenly afraid: afraid to approach him, afraid even to stand before him. I fell to my knees and, momentarily, my mind teetered at the brink of collapse; it seemed that the only escape from the hideous terror by which I had been consumed was in madness; it seemed that only in the dark pit of insanity could I find refuge.
That I was able to resist the lure of the abyss may in part have been due to a quirk of the psychic make-up of Earth-men, or to the fact that, knowing fear to be alien to my nature, a recess of my mind remained aware that the emotion came from without, not from within. It is my firm belief, however, that the primary cause of my triumph was the profundity of my solicitude for the Kanthoran princess into whose service I had pledged myselffor Kara Dea's sake, I was constrained to conquer.
Steeling my will and commanding my trembling limbs to obey me, I rose from my knees and lifted my face to that of Rath Klinsor. Thereafter, halting step by halting step, I forged forwards through a storm-tossed ocean of dread, fathomless and cold. The room faded from view until I could see naught but my antagonist's Death's-head visage.
As he strove, through mental means, to check my slow but relentless advance, the throbbing of Rath Klinsor's cerebral lobes became visible upon the taut skin of his unnaturally enlarged craniumthrobbing that grew ever more violent and rapid. Soon his glittering eyes commenced to bulge forth from their sockets and a red-black ichor to seep from behind them.
His efforts were in vain; he could do naught to stay me. Even as my hands, trembling and claw-like, were reaching for his throat, the attenuated and aged bones of his skull gave way under the intense pressure of the pulses of thought-energy that were being emitted by his brain. His malign life-force exploded outwards in a psychokinetic blast so energetic that it knocked me backwards to the floor.
My head swimming, I struggled back to my feet. For a while thereafter, I stood unsteadily, gazing in sick horror at the shattered ruin that was my vanquished foe. Victory was mine, but I experienced no elation; instead a wave of nausea crashed upon me, drenching me in a cold sweat.
Shivering and shaking, I exited the room via the doorway through which the late Martian mastermind had entered. Beyond was a lengthy spiral staircase, at the head of which lay his living quarters.
Straight away I went to stand before a tall window. Outside it was a glorious Kanthoran morning, and the soft, peach-coloured light of the sun, low in the lilac sky, warmed my skin and gladdened my heart.
I found myself to be upon the second storey of the royal palace, looking out upon the gardens and fountains of the great square, which was thronged with richly caparisoned peoplenobles and their women, priestesses, and soldiersall of them making their way into the imposing edifice I knew to be the Temple of the Moons.
Then it was true! The connubial rite that would join the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath to the Kerrad of Urpath for all eternity was about to commence.
As I waited for the crowd to disperse, I took the opportunity to cleanse myself of the grime of my imprisonment and the blood of my battles; and afterwards, to arm myself with weapons from Rath Klinsor's fine array.
When the time was right, I made once more for the Tower of Graalg, which rises, with its twin, from the periphery of the temple's mighty dome. I reached my destination with relative ease and soon stood again upon the high, metal walkway that led to the glittering, ruby-encrusted moon-tower. This time, the portal at the far end of the bridge was unguarded. Doubtless, the perimeter of the palace complex was patrolled, but, by good fortune, I had found myself within the cordon.
From my lofty vantage point, I once again gave my eyes to the plaza: it was, by then, almost deserted, with only a detachment of around a dozen Urpathian Guardsmen abroad upon it. The soldiers were marching rapidly away from the temple, the sunlight flashing upon their burnished helms. Whither went they so hurriedly? Could it be that word had come of the approach of Korval Dax's army?
Stealthily, I entered the Tower of Graalg. After making my way down the stairs within, and passing through a series of chambers, I came out onto a colonnaded gallery, circling the upper reaches of the temple's immense inner hall.
From above, the great dome, fashioned from translucent, blood-red stone, shed upon me a fiery radiance. Painted in silver upon its inner surface were representations of the constellations and the paths of Kanthor's wandering satellites. Upon the upper reaches of the wall, immediately below the dome, were delightful frescoes, depicting green-skinned men and women performing nameless rites.
Giving but cursory attention to such splendours, I directed my eyes downwards to the lower portion of the vast room, which was brilliantly illuminated by shards of sparkling light, entering through tall windows of iridescent glass. Surrounding a circular, mosaic floor were curving, tiered benches, filled with hundreds of people. An honour guard comprising some two score Urpathian Guardsmen stood, regularly spaced, in front of the innermost rank of seats. In the centre of the floor, upon a podium, before an altar carved from a single giant ruby, were gathered six people: the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, the Kerrad of Urpath and four othersthese last, robed in scarlet and gold, I took to be the High Priestess of the cult of the Dath Kor and three of her acolytes.
The marriage ceremony was already underway!
Kara Dea brightened the temple with her glamour. She was clad in an elaborately flounced, ankle-length skirt of the deepest violet and a bodice plated with polished copper, the upper border of which was trimmed, all around, with little, downy feather-scales plucked from the golden ruffs of snaroths.
From the princess's presence there, I surmised that, hoping for rescue, she was still pretending to believe that the prince held her father, the king, a prisoner. Time, however, was running out. The atmosphere in the hall was tense and expectant, and I fell prey to the conviction that the crux of the ritual was already near at hand.
I knew not quite how near: already the priestesses had sung their song; already the High Priestess had blessed the sword of Korath Dar and offered the blade to Baytor Thag and the scabbard to Kara Dea; already the man had made his vows; already it was time for the woman to speak her part. After she had done so, and after the man had sheathed his sword, the couple would be united in matrimony, their union dissoluble only in death; all else of the ceremony that might follow would be the mere celebration of an accomplished fact.
Of the imminent arrival of Korval Dax and his followers, or Thandor Kas and the men of the Legion, there was no sign, and it was clear to me that I alone must act if the impending consummation were to be averted.
Yet what could one man do against so many?
Just then, the voice of Kara Dea, ringing among the sliver stars upon the vast concavity above my head, came clearly to my ears. Nor (it was instantly evident) was she giving tongue to the words traditionally prescribed.
She spoke thus: "Know, O Nobles, Moonswomen, and fighting men of Pathtar: Korval Dax lives! Rise up and throw down Baytor Thag of Urpath, for he would usurp the throne!"
My heart swelled in admiration of Sherpath's peerless princess. Knowing that she could continue with her pretence no longer, she had seized the opportunity to lay the truth before her people. And so momentous and unexpected were her words that for a pregnant period her audience was stunned into inactivity.
Then, quite suddenly, there was movement.
Baytor Thag, enraged and seeking to forestall any further utterances, turned upon his intended bride and, raising his hand, made to strike her.
The aimed blow did not connect.
Always am I prompt in thought and action. Upon that occasion, as though alerted by some sixth sense, I had hurled myself from the gallery even before the Urpathian had made his move.
Notwithstanding Kanthor's diminished gravity, a jump from such a height was fraught with danger, but I landed safely. Then, before any could do aught to stop me, a rarnkor-like bound brought me to the dais whereon stood the divine princess and the devilish prince.
"Silence!" he hissed to her, his hand descending. "So commands Baytor Thag of Urpath!"
"Hold!" I cried to him, grasping his wrist. "So commands Hector Blake of Earth!"
A sweep of my arm sent Baytor Thag staggering back across the platform. With drawn sword, I pounced upon him, but instead of raising the weapon he held, he threw aside Korath Dar's famous blade, and, sinking to his knees, commenced to cower before me.
The fellow was naught but an arrant cowardthe sort who when not at one's throat is at one's feetand so sickened was I by his abject display that I was sorely tempted to make a final riddance of him. Yet, although he whimpered like a whipped cur, I scrupled to kill him like a dog. With a muttered exclamation of contempt, I turned away from him and returned my eager steel to its scabbard.
Gods! Would that I had sheathed it in his scabby heart!
The focus of my devotion, stood scarce a step away, a joyful smile upon her lips, her arms outstretched to me. In an instant I was at her side, and she clung to me as I lay a protective arm across her shoulders.
"Is there no miracle beyond the power of Earth-men?" Kara Dea breathed, gazing up at me in wonder.
"Not beyond the power of this Earth-man should ever there be a threat to you," I replied.
The events I have described seemed to take place against a frozen tableau. When time began to flow again it became evident that the princess had judged well the stuff of which her people are made. Many rose from their seats, and a cry went up, which soon echoed all around the Temple of the Moons: "To the death for the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath!"
Even many of those who might have been expected to espouse the cause of Baytor Thag joined in the chant or remained silentthey had heard what they had heard and seen what they had seen, and knew that no coward could sit upon the throne of Pathtar. There were others, however, who had no option but to cleave to their prince, so double-dyed in villainy were they, so heinous were the crimes they had committed under his rule. They too rose and started to cheer for the Urpathian Line.
Before long, the shouting and jostling would descend into actual fighting.
Meanwhile, Baytor Thag had crept from the podium to take refuge among the nearest Urpathian warriors. Foam flecked his thin lips as he issued to them bloodcurdling instructions concerning my doom.
I observed there to be undisguised expressions of disgust upon the faces of many of the officers and soldiers of the Urpathian Guardevidently men of honour existed within the ranks of that distinguished corps, and their kerrad's conduct had shamed themyet, so steeped were the copper and green clad warriors in the tradition of loyalty to the house of Ghul that, in response to Baytor Thag's frenzied exhortations, half a dozen or so of them drew their swords and advanced menacingly up the steps of the platform.
Although most of those within the temple appeared to be inclined against Baytor Thag, Kara Dea and I were in a pretty predicament, isolated in the centre of the hall. Yet, even as the grim-faced warriors approached, intending to plunge their sharp steel into my flesh, a curious feeling of detachment swept upon me. I was quite loath to tear myself from the girl's embrace; for those few fleeting fractions of a second there was nothing else in all the worlds save the one whose smooth, jade skin was pressed tightly against my own rough, bronze hide.
Gods! How I yearned to snatch from her another kiss.
And so I might have done had not the spell by which I was enchanted been broken by matters taking what appeared to be a still worse turn: the mighty doors of the temple were thrown open and a dozen more warriors of the Urpathian guard surged in.
Determined to sell my life dearly, I took a firm grip upon the hilt of my sword and slid the weapon from its sheath.
Then the voice of the leader of the newcomers rang out above the clamour. "To arms, Pathtarans! To arms!" he cried. "The hordes of Skanth are come!"
THE ENTRY of the Urpathian Guardsmen into the Temple of the Moons was followed, moments later, by that of a score of Sherpathian Legionaries. In the van of the latter force was my friend Thandor Kas.
The warriors in silver and blue shouldered their way through the throng to the altar dais; and there they and I formed a protective cordon around the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, ringing her about with a bristling barrier of steel.
Taking advantage of the confusion, we moved to withdraw. None sought to impede our exit. Baytor Thag appeared to have been unmanned by the blows of the Fates: he merely stood among his soldiers, his thin-lipped mouth agape. Briefly, his narrow eyes met mine, and for a moment they burned with cold hatred; but under the challenge of my own gaze they were soon cast down.
From the temple, we made straight for the palace. As we hurried across the great square, all eyes were drawn to a sky that was blackened by a terrific swarm of snaroths. The lizard-hawks were swooping low, and their Slithian riders were casting missiles upon Sherpath's defenders who, in answer to the blare of trumpets and the crash of gongs, were issuing from guardrooms and barracks.
Within the Hall of Thrones, Kara Dea mounted the platform and took her place upon the greatest of the sterling chairs. For several minutes thereafter messengers, courtiers and warriors rushed hither and thither, bringing reports and taking orders.
Then a tall, handsomely caparisoned Legion officer approached the throne. He (it soon became apparent to me) was Riganor Vos, the Master of the Legion of Sherpath, a personage of whom I had heard tell. An inspiring leader and an excellent tactician, he had commanded the Legion for nigh on fifty Earthly years; yet, defying the onward march of time, he stood ramrod straight, the only indication of his advanced age being a slight greying of his hair at the temples. It was upon his august shoulders that responsibility for the defence of the city lay.
After saluting the daughter of Korval Dax's queen in the Pathtaran fashion and receiving from her the appropriate royal acknowledgement, Riganor Vos stepped onto the lowest stair of the podium and spoke. "Grave news, O My Kerraja: the situation is still somewhat confused, but it appears that a mighty host of Slithians is assembling upon the eastern hills. The full weight of their attack is expected to fall upon us within the hour."
"How were our enemies able to come upon us without warning?" demanded the princess.
"Reports indicate the enemy force to be made up entirely of snaroth-borne warriors," came the reply.
It had long been anticipated that the Prime of Skanth would strike, but none had guessed him to be capable of employing such a stratagem. Never before had such a huge number of lizard-hawks been amassedthe fact that they had been was indicative of the immensity of the resources at the command of the would-be conqueror of all Kanthor.
"Master of the Legion," said Kara Dea, "unity in the face of our enemies is of paramount importance. Previous enmities must be set aside until the battle is won; Sherpathians, Urpathians and the men of the other cities, towns and estates of Pathtar must come together against the common foe. Therefore, it is my wish that the commanders of all the defenders of Sherpath be summoned here, including the lords of Urpath and their kerrad. I, Your Kerraja, have spoken."
Riganor Vos bowed and retreated from the step. "Very good, O Preciousas you command so shall it be."
Although I too perceived the wisdom of Kara Dea's words, I liked not the thought of Baytor Thag's being again at her side. Therefore, a little later on, I was gladdened that, while most of the Urpathian leaders responded to the call of their princess, there were a few eminent absenteeseminent, that is, in villainyamong them Baytor Thag. It was reported that the mind of the Kerrad of Urpath had become deranged by the darkness of his future prospects, and that, broken and fearful, he had taken refuge in an unknown bolt-hole. My concerns were eased by these tidings and I dismissed the fellow from my thoughts, concentrating my attention upon more clear and present dangers.
While waiting for those that had been summoned to come thither, Thandor Kas and I had exchanged stories.
"After helping the Kerrador of Pathtar to exit Sherpath," the noble officer of the Legion had revealed, "I remained behind that I might inform Riganor Vos of Baytor Thag's treachery. Plans were then laid for the Legion to attempt to rescue the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath from the coils of the Urpathian, and you from your prison. But within the past hour, even as we prepared to attack, we became cognizant of the approach of the Slithians and were compelled to abort our strike and make common cause with the Guard."
I had already met some of the high nobles and military leaders that gathered before the silver thrones in response to Kara Dea's summons, and Thandor Kas introduced me to those among them whom I had not. All of them seemed already to know of my exploits. Ravor Klath, the Warlord of the Kaythe, saluted me with particular warmth: placing his hands upon my shoulders, he thanked me formally for my killing of Pedror Ullthe green mercenary's death had removed the blot of his betrayal from the escutcheon of the hordeand as a further earnest of his esteem he extended to me a standing invitation to join his cohort.
A fierce light glistered in the black Kanthoran's great golden eye, enkindled therein by the prospect of the battle to come. To be outnumbered is, for a Kaythe, a source of great joy: such an eventuality brings with it not only a profusion of enemies to kill, but also an increase in the chance that he himself will die the warrior's death he craves, for it is his belief that such an ending ensures his rebirth as a Kaythe.
When all who were coming were come, there followed a hurried laying of plans for the defence of the city, deliberations over which, in the absence of the Prince of Urpath, the Princess of Sherpath presided alone. At her request, I stood at her side upon the platform; I knew not the full significance of this position, but surmised that I had been done a signal honour.
The deep respect and love felt by her people for their princess was clearly evidenced; having become fully aware of the perfidious actions of their prince, the Urpathian nobles who were in attendance came forwards and made obeisance to her. Baytor Thag's conduct was anathema to them and, one by one, they gave voice to the shame and regret the knowledge of it engendered in their hearts.
Despite the chagrin of the Urpathians the prevailing mood was one of hopeful determination. We were outnumbered and ill-prepared, but my fellows were heartened by the news that Korval Dax was alive, and that a relieving army, headed by the king, might arrive more quickly than the foe had bargained for. Not all were as gay as Ravor Klath, but all were eager for the fray.
Before long, the call-to-arms sounded: the enemy assault had commenced in earnest. Those assembled took their leave of their princess, and, having done so, hastened from the room to join their men.
Riganor Vos and I remained until last. Said he: "Hector Blake of Earth, will you stand with the Legion?"
"It would be an honour," I said.
Wordlessly, I turned to the bright-eyed princess and bowed. Careless of form, I reached forth, took her hand in mine and pressed her dainty fingers to my lips. She favoured me with the briefest, yet the sweetest, of smiles: naught else disturbed the majesty of her queenly poise.
No sooner had I, and the detachment of Legionaries at whose side I was to fight, stepped out upon the battlements of the outer wall of High Sherpath, atop sheer cliffs, overlooking the lower city far beneath, than we were hotly engaged.
At once I faced the reckless onrush of two Slithian fighters. My sword flew into my hand and, an instant later, I plunged its point into the guts of one of my assailants. Then, after I had torn the blade free, I swung it high and drove it down through the collarbone of the other, cleaving his trunk to the heart.
All across the city, Sherpath's would-be violators were diving down, leaping from their mounts and hurling themselves with violent fury upon her protectors; and ever more of them, riding two or three to a snaroth, were sweeping in from the jagged hilltops bordering the east plain.
While almost all the enemy were Slithians, perhaps one in a hundred of them were of the tall, gold-skinned race, a representative of which I had encountered menacing Kara Dea within the tower of stone, near the valley of the Thoons.
It was they who appeared to be in command of the attacking force. Each of them was splendidly accoutred, especially when compared with the almost naked Slithians: a skirtlike garment of black chain-mail; a cuirass of dark leather, inlaid with precious metal; a short, purple cloak; and affixed to the brow, a fantastic crimson gem. For a weapon each brandished a thin, jewel-pointed rod of gold; yet they took little part in the actual fighting, seeming content, for the most part, to supervise and direct the progress of the battle. They were, however, defended with fanatic devotion by the red men.
Over the ensuing hours, the tides of battle swept me to almost every part of High Sherpath; for, to deny the invaders space in which to assemble, it was essential that every rooftop, every tower, every court, and every garden be defended.
Fiercely and bravely fought the Legion, the Guard, and the noble citizens of High Sherpath. Men of all ages, fighting for the lives of their women and children, wielded weaponsswords, spears, bows, and great engines capable of shooting arrows as large as javelinsfrom youths who had scarcely left boyhood to doughty oldsters a hundred and fifty Earth years old.
The women also played their part: practising their medicinal skills and singing their battle song. The eerie ululations of the latter had a disconcerting effect upon the attackers and emboldened the defenders. I too drew strength from the uncanny sound, knowing that somewhere in that feminine chorus was the voice of my princess.
My memories of the battle are fragmentary. I recall the frightful din: the clash of metal upon metal, the shouts and roars of the triumphant, and the howls and moans of the vanquished. I remember my muscles working and my heart pounding, as I hacked and hewed at my enemies, countless of whom went down before my keen Martian blade.
For the invaders there was no retreat: after they had abandoned their mounts it was conquer or die, and a terrible toll was taken of them. Sherpath's beautiful gardens and elegant plazas became charnel yards, inches deep in gore; the gutters ran with blood, and the playful fountains gushed crimson.
Gods! But it was a pretty fight!
As the morning wore on our ranks were augmented by increasing numbers of common warriors and Kaythe from below the acropolis. These reinforcements were most welcome, but their appearance indicated that the fight in Low Sherpath was going against us. There, the enemy had quickly been able to establish footholds in the spacious parks and wide squares.
In war, however, it is oftentimes in the management of withdrawal that defeat is staved off and the foundations for ultimate victory laid. Although Low Sherpath's champions were driven back they were not routed; the Skanthians' lack of cavalry told against them, and thastak-mounted Pathtaran and Kaythish troops held the line while an orderly retreat took place. Their fortitude enabled the greatly preponderant part of the lower city's populace to be brought safely into the upper city. Many scores of thousands of warriors, women and children came in through the four main entrances and through underground thoroughfares.
The rageful sun was a little past its zenith when the great stone gates to High Sherpath were finally closed; simultaneously a series of tremors shook the ground, indicating that the subterranean routes too had been blocked off in order to deny their use to the enemy.
Then there came a pause in the fighting, during which the servants of the Prime of Skanth consolidated their hold upon Low Sherpath, secured the outer wall, and girded themselves to attack our last redoubt. We within the citadel used the respite to take refreshment and whet our bruised weapons.
Most who had dwelt below had found sanctuary, but thousands had been excluded, and from a vantage point high upon the battlements, I watched in horror as the last pockets of resistance, cut off from retreat, were destroyed. Many fires burnedthe Slithians were preparing a macabre luncheonand under the resultant pall of smoke an uncanny quiet descended upon the scene. Only the occasional scream, brought upon an acrid gust, bespoke the orgy of killing that was taking place below.
All too soon the unkind flock rose again into the air, and the Slithians fell upon us once more; in even greater numbers and with even greater ferocity than they had in the forenoon.
Such slaughter! We slew them in their tens of thousands and cast their bodies, punctured and broken, from the wall. So many did we kill that it seemed that the time must come when our enemies could dispense with their sky-steeds and reach the battlements of High Sherpath by scaling the grisly mounds of their dead that grew apace at the foot of the cliffs.
Wave after wave crashed upon us, but like rugged rocks defying the stormy surf, we stood firm. Yet, we too were losing men, and so great was the numerical preponderance of the foe that the cruel arithmetic of war dictated that he must eventually prevail, even as the relentless ocean will, in time, wash away the most adamant stack of stone.
Late in the afternoon, I chanced to be fighting upon the southern ramparts, leading a desperate charge that sought to dislodge a knot of Slithians from a charming ornamental garden, when I became aware of the sound of cheering above the tumult.
My antagonists slain, I rushed to the wall's edge and, after wiping the sweat from my eyes, peered into the distance, out across the golden fields. Through the shimmering heat haze, I descried the approach of an immense army. As they advanced, the innumerable helmet-plumes of the soldiers waved and tossedsome red, some yellow, some green, some blue, some white, some blackand countless sparks of vespertine sunlight flashed from their headpieces, cuirasses, harnesses, kilt-straps, spear-points and sword-sheaths.
Could it be that Korval Dax, the rightful kerrador, drew near?
The answer was not long in coming: like vultures startled by the approach of lions, a portion of the invading force rose from the body of Low Sherpath and flew south to harry the newcomers.
Briefly battle raged in the livid skyall too briefly.
Most of the advancing multitude was made up of infantry and thastak cavalry, and so great was the number of snaroths at the disposal of the foe that he was able to retain control of the air with ease.
Nevertheless, undaunted by the aerial bombardment to which it was thereafter subjected, Korval Dax's army (for such indeed it was) continued to come on, its men roaring out deep-throated challenges and rattling their weapons.
Meanwhile, the enemy assault upon High Sherpath had continued unabated; it was only when our comrades' own attack upon Low Sherpath's lofty outer wall was well underway that its intensity lessened sufficiently to allow us, the defenders of the citadel, to pay more than momentary attention to the progress of the struggle taking place below.
There was fighting along a wide section of Sherpath's perimeter. It was at its fiercest around the Rarnkor Gate, a mile and a half to the south of my position, at the far end of a wide, straight boulevard called the Avenue of Rarnkors. If only the gate could be captured, and the heavy, armoured thastaks allowed to enter, then would the lightly armed Slithians find themselves sorely beset.
The relieving army, however, lacked large siege engines; when it had decamped, it had done so hurriedly, scarce expecting to encounter a full-scale invasion. The men of Pathtar possessed only ladders, and precious few of them, with which to attempt to scale the mighty exterior wall their ancient ancestors had built. Even so, they outnumbered their red foes and so forceful was their onslaught that it seemed they must prevail.
But they did not.
Potential breaches in the Skanthian defence were rapidly reinforced by fighters drawn from other, less threatened sectors. Never had I witnessed such a smoothly operating chain of command; it was as though a single malign will directed the enemy army, simultaneously observing all parts of the battle as through a myriad eyes, making of each Slithian warrior a single cell within a single protean organism.
Scarcely able to credit the testimony of my eyes, I watched in horror as our would-be saviours were thrown back from the wall and the gate. Doubtless, Korval Dax would launch another attack before nightfall, but, in truth, there seemed little prospect if its meeting greater success.
Where before I had been energized by hopeful expectation, I found myself suddenly enervated by the failure of our brothers-in-arms; and, all along the nearby section of High Sherpath's wall, I could see from the exhausted attitudes and anguished expressions of my comrades that they had been similarly affected.
Riganor Vos, the Master of the Legion, grim-visaged and blood-bespattered, was standing not far from me. Sensing my eyes upon him, he turned and approached.
"Hector Blake," said he, laying a steady hand upon my shoulder, "I thank you for all you have done for Pathtar; never have I seen a sword plied so mightily, but it seems that even your great strength and skill cannot save us. We cannot long resist them now, and when we fall all shall be lost."
Nor was Riganor Vos mistaken in his estimation of the meaning of defeat. Should High Sherpath be conquered, then would those without the lower city's walls be forced to retreat. It would avail Korval Dax naught to lay siege to a murdered city, devoid of inhabitants, awaiting the inevitable appearance of multitudinous enemy reinforcements.
Until that moment I had not allowed myself even to consider the possibility of failure, or its dread consequences: Slithian depravity knows no bounds and all within Sherpath faced a hideous doom.
Momentarily my thoughts focused upon the likely fate of the girl in whose service I had fought my way across the Planet of War, and it was then that I found myself jolted by a powerful charge of renewed determination.
Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito!
We could not hold our ground, nor could we retreat; but still another course remained to us.
We could attack!
LOVE AND DEATH
BRANDISHING MY bloody blade, I pointed to the south.
"Master of the Legion," I cried, "shall we await our fate, or shall we act to change it? Victory can still be ours. Might we not, with one gallant rush, win through to the Rarnkor Gate and admit our comrades?"
There came shouts of support for my words from those near enough to have heard them.
Riganor Vos turned to gaze in the direction I had indicated, his brow furrowed in thought. "There is some merit in your suggestion, Hector Blake," he responded after a moment, "but, although it is scarce half a league to the gate, any sortie in force would be bound to fail: the Skanthian host would swiftly become aware of our purpose, and we should be overwhelmed long before we could achieve our goal."
"But could not a mounted force succeed in reaching the gate before the enemy could act to thwart them?" I insisted. "At a gallop the distance might be covered within a few minutes, and there must be close on a thousand thastaks within High Sherpath."
A resolute light commenced to burn in Riganor Vos's eyes. "So shall it be!" he exclaimed. "The Dath Kor have granted us the opportunity to write another page of glory in the annals of Pathtar; it shall be an exploit to rank alongside that of the Immortals at The Bridge!"
Within the hour, almost a thousand of Pathtar's finest warriorsthe few in whose hands lay the destiny of the nationwere assembled within a covered court, hidden from the enemy's view, not far from the great stone gates leading to the Avenue of Rarnkors, waiting for Korval Dax to recommence his attack upon Low Sherpath's outer wall. Riganor Vos had supervised their selection from the many who had stepped forward in the hope of claiming a place.
I had been the first to volunteer: doubtless, there were more experienced thastakmen than I, but it had been my suggestion that had inspired the venture, and I could countenance naught else than that I should play a full part in it.
Not only was I indeed among those chosen by Riganor Vos, but also he had bestowed upon me the honour of asking me to lead the charge. "Hector Blake of Earth," he had stated, "you have exhibited a remarkable mastery of the arts of war, and the moral strength essential for command."
At first, I had been somewhat taken aback by the distinction. The Legion Master's choice had been heartily acclaimed, however, and, upon reflection, I concluded that it should have come as no surprise. Although I had borne no official military rank, throughout the day warriors, Pathtaran and Kaythish, had rallied to me. Some men, it seems, are born to command: from time's dawn have my forefathers been leaders of men, and in full measure had the requisite qualities been bequeathed to menaturally did I lead, and naturally was I followed.
In accordance with my honorary position as leader, I was arrayed in the panoply of a lord of the Legion of Sherpatha shining helm of silver, plumed with vivid scale-feathers; a kilt of cerulean; a leather cuirass, inlayed with scintillant gems and plated with bright metal. Of the others there, a little over half were similarly accoutred; most of the remainder were Urpathian, resplendent in the copper and green of the Guard; the rest were splendid fellows from other Pathtaran corps.
From all about us the clash of arms resounded. The Slithians, at the command of their nameless gold-skinned masters, were once again assailing High Sherpath. Although I chafed at being unable to join the battle, I knew our time would soon come and feared not for the ability of the citadel's defenders to resist. Once our audacious plan of attack had become generally known, the flame of hope had reignited within their hearts, firing formerly strengthless limbs. Such is the power of the spirit to spur the body into one last supreme effort to claim victorythe proudest prize!
The demeanour of my fellow Chosen was similarly steadfast, and their sinews were further stiffened by the appearance of the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, whom Riganor Vos and I escorted among them.
The princess was glorious in a bodice plated with silver and trimmed with white fur, below which flowed a flared white skirt, adorned with pearl-like gems, dazzling even in the lengthening shadows of evening. Armlets of precious metal were clasped about her otherwise naked limbs, a necklace of diamonds dangled between her breasts; and more diamonds and pearls flashed and gleamed from the deep darkness of her elegant and gravity-defying coiffure.
All were greatly enthused by their living goddess's visitation and she was greeted with hearty cheers. In the person of the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath is symbolized the very essence of Pathtar: she is the Precious Link to twelve thousand years of history, an emblem around which can coalesce the national will.
To me she was more than that: she was Kara Dea, the woman I loved and always shall love.
After a while, I, together with an escort of her personal attendants, accompanied the princess back to the relative safety of the royal apartments, adjoining the Hall of Thrones.
While, silently, we proceeded along elegant arcades, past marvellous statues and splendid murals, I strove to make sense of the host of thoughts that was thronging my brain. The fateful and desperate ride to come would be into the very jaws of Death, and that the moment of his destruction may be nigh sets a fellow to thinking.
It was not, however, the prospect of my death, as such, that was the focus of my cerebrations. Death is not to be feared, it comes to all; a fighting man can but strive to ensure that he die with honour: and, if I were soon to perish, mine would indeed be a noble ending, for I should be dying in defence of the woman I loved. Rather did my mental unrest centre upon the prospect of my facing my doom without having expressed to Kara Dea the nature and depth of my feelings for her, and without having learned from her whether my love might be mirrored in her own heart.
Should the battle be won my duty would be done. My promise to the girl I had found in the Kanthoran wilderness would be fulfilled: she would be safe under the loving protection of her father. Should the battle be lost all would be dead, and past caring. The time had come, therefore, wherein I might, with honour, lay my heart at her feet.
An unwonted qualm assailed me. What if she loved me not? What then?
My first thought was that, should she spurn me, I would go away from Sherpathwhither I knew not aught, but it must be far. After all, I had a whole new world to exploreto conquer! Or might I not seek to go farther still, ascending the mystic mountain, seeking out the Dath Kor, and perhaps discovering a way home to the blue skies and green fields of Earth?
Yet every fibre of my being recoiled from the idea of separation from her I loved so dearly, and I knew that flight would be futile: the magnificent affection I entertained for the Kanthoran princess could not be extenuated by distance, nor was it conditional upon its reciprocation, and the prospect of a life without her, anywhere in space or time, was hateful in the extreme.
Should my love not be returned then perhaps it were best that I not return from the Rarnkor Gate. What meaning has a man's life without the companionship of the one for whom he cares the most? Might he not just as well be dead as alive?
Our party reached the entrance to the princess's privy chambers.
She turned to me and would perhaps have spoken had I not done so first.
"O My Kerraja, I would speak with you," I said.
She nodded and smiled a strange smile, and together we entered a splendidly appointed, high-ceilinged room, brightly lighted by the oblique rays of the sun.
After a brace of servitresses had been waved away, we were quite alone, at last. My beloved stood close at hand, her sparkling eyes fixed upon me expectantly, yet, for a moment, I could not find my voicemy heart was too full for speech.
Gods! How that organ swelled in adoration of its conqueress.
Then, under the influence of an attraction, strange and irresistible, I stepped forwards, fell to my knees at the feet of the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath and raised the impearled hem of her nether garment to my lips.
At this the Kanthoran princess drew in her breath. Reaching down, she drew me to my feet. Her arms went about my neck, and a sobbing gasp racked her lissom frame as she raised her eager mouth to mine.
For a long time thereafter our trembling bodies clung together in a kissour two hearts beating as one. When, by and by, drew a little apart, tears were trickling from the girl's kohl-ringed eyes, and, when I lifted my hand to her smooth cheek to wipe them away, I do not fear to say that my eyes too grew misty.
Presently, I found my voice. "My Kerraja -"
The princess placed her fingers to my lips. "Please, Hector Blake, will you not call me by my name?"
"Kara Dea," I whispered, and I was rewarded with a radiant smile, "I love youcan it be that you return my love?"
Gazing up at my face, the girl placed her hand upon my breast.
"How might I not love thee, O Hector Blake of Earth?" she replied. "How might I not love this noble heart, throbbing beneath my palm, from which had come only love for me? How might I not love this warm mouth, I now kiss, from which has come only words of kindness and concern? How might I not love this virile body which, animated by an indomitable spirit, has performed in my cause feats beyond the power of lesser men? How might I not love these arms which have vanquished my enemies by their strength, yet which embrace me so tenderly? How might a true daughter of Kanthor not love such a man as thou?"
Taking my right hand, she pressed it to her bosom. Beneath the softness of her flesh, I could feel her heart's rapid beats.
"Yours for ever," she breathed.
I consider myself more a man of action than of words, yet, although the girl's cheeks were flushed and glowing, although her eyes were aglitter, although her lips were half parted, an insistent question forced its way to the forefront of my consciousness. "But, my darling, why, in the caves of the Thoons, did you not tell me who you are?"
"I did tell you," she made answer; "I am Kara Dea. Although I have many titles, a strange impulse made me tell you my true name, that which is used only by my intimate family, few but they even know it."
She lowered her eyes, and a maidenly blush darkened her cheeks. "It excited me to hear you, a stranger and a man, speak my name. At first I knew not why this should be, but ere long I came to know that it was because I loved you.
"Yet I knew also that it is not for the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath to fall in loveher mate will be the sire of kerrajinas and he must be chosen for reasons other than love alonebut fall in love I did. In the caves of the Thoons, although danger was ever present, with you there to protect me, I felt secure and free, and I let slip the bonds of my station. I knew that the time would come when I would have to reveal everything to you, but I delayed, wanting to be simply your Kara Dea for as long as I mighta woman not a divinity."
Feminine reasoning, it seems, is everywhere mysterious; in all places and at all times operating upon principles inscrutable to the masculine minddoubtless, the women of hot Mercury and those of cold Neptune are the same. Nevertheless, I possessed, at last, the answer to the riddle of why Kara Dea had kept hidden from me the whole truth of her identityit had been because she loved me!
"Before I could open myself to you completely," the girl continued, an earnest expression coming upon her face, "I was snatched from your side by Pedror Ull and his Kaythish band. My heart lay shattered in the wilderness where I thought your broken body lay. Often in the night, I dreamed that somehow you might still come for me, even from beyond the door of Death, but I knew, or thought I knew, that you could not. Not caring to live, I promised myself to Baytor Thag as ransom for my father's life, vowing to kill the traitor, or die in the attempt." She smiled. "Yet you did come."
"Kara Dea," I whispered; "if ever again we are parted by the Fates' whim, always remember that I shall come for you."
Sighing contentedly at my words, the Jewel of Pathtar raised her mouth to mine. It was at the very moment of the touching of our lips that the blast of war soundedthe recommencement of the assault by Korval Dax's army upon the outer wall was imminent.
"I must go," I said quietly.
And with a brief kiss, I took my leave of Kara Dea, the dear, sweet friend who, I now knew, loved me even as I loved her. There was much more I desired to say and do, but the time for love was gone and the time for war was come.
I reached the compound, within which were assembled the Chosen of Pathtar, just as grooms were bringing out our gargantuan, orange-backed, blue-bellied steeds. Without delay, we mounted and rode out. Before very long we had formed up in a narrow court behind the gates that led to the Avenue of Rarnkors.
Almost straight away, the great stone doors began to open, the crack between them widening rapidly. Soon the entire length of the broad, straight road became visible, sloping, steeply at first and then more gradually, down toward Sherpath's towering perimeter wall. At the road's far end, a mile and a half away, could be seen our objective: the dark entrance to the tunnel that gave passage through the wall to the gate.
No barricades had been erected along the way, and there was little traffic, only a few red warriors running to and fro. Most of the invaders were marshalled in larger open spaces, or were manning the wall. I was sure, however, that hostile eyes must have observed the opening of the gates, and that the enemy, upon awakening to our purpose, would move swiftly.
We thousand had armed ourselves not with the lances most often carried by thastakmen, but with long-handled maces, metal-headed and wickedly spikedspeed would be vital and with these weapons we hoped to be able better to batter aside our foes.
Commending my fate to the providence of the gods of Kanthor, I raised my mace above my head and filled my lungs with airthe moment of destiny had come: the next few minutes would bring victory or death.
"Forward!" I cried.
Howling like furies, we began our charge, streaming from the yawning portal, pouring down the steep incline and surging onto the Avenue of Rarnkors, our mounts' hoofless feet beating an ever-faster rhythm upon the road.
Spears, in increasing numbers, were cast upon us from above, from the side and from in front. Yet most of the Slithians who sought to intercept us, after rushing in from intersecting streets and adjacent gardens, did not pause even to launch their weapons. Instead, evincing a remarkable degree of dedication to their cause, they hurled themselves bodily into our path.
The thastak of Kanthor, despite its relatively great bulk, is capable of speeds far in excess of those attainable by the Earthly horse, and, initially, our enemies' desperate tactic had little effectsuch was the momentum of the hurtling mountains of flesh and bone we rode that the red men were simply tossed aside or crushedbut soon, as ever more of them crowded onto the road ahead of us, our pace began to slow and our formation to lose its cohesion. Soon the drumming of our thastaks' feet was all but drowned out by the frightful battle-cries of the enemy.
In the end, scarce half our number survived to reach our goal. War is ever a game of chance, and it was Fortune's decree that Death not draw my lot.
The mighty outer wall rose up before me quite suddenly, and I had quite a struggle to bring my thastak up short; it reared up onto its hindmost legs, bellowing and tossing its horned head, almost throwing me from the saddle.
Even as I was mastering my maddened beast, those of my comrades who had been detailed to capture and open the Rarnkor Gate sprang from their mounts, drew their swords and dashed into the tunnel through the wall.
The remainder of us turned back upon the enemy; our mission being to hold them back from the wall for as long as we might, to win the precious seconds necessary for the accomplishment of our fellows' design.
By then the broad boulevard down which we had galloped was thronged with many thousands of red men; already a great wave of them, coloured like lava, was breaking upon us.
As I urged my thastak forwards into the oncoming Slithians' close-packed ranks, the fighting madness came upon me. Swinging the jagged head of my weapon left and right, I advanced through a drenching, bloody spray, crushing skulls and breaking bodies.
Yet, although I wroke terrible havoc, my spree was soon ended. I was a Cnut, striving in vain to hold back a tide, and soon I was an island in a billowing sea of Slithians. It was not long before my mace was wrenched from my grip by many hands. Then, weaponless, I was torn from the back of my stumbling thastak and pulled down into the churning mass of my enemies. It was as though I had plunged into a seething pit of tar: the darkness was utter and the cacophony of battle was quite blotted out.
Calling upon every iota of strength at my command, I tore at the writhing tangle of bodies that had engulfed me. Luckily, my feet found something against which to brace themselves and I rose up, breaking the surface. The awful din crashed again upon my ears: a deafening roar of mingled terror and rage that was being torn from the throats of berserk men and blood-mad beasts.
So forceful had been my upward surge that I found myself standing upon the shoulders and heads of the dense Slithian throng, the living and the dead; it was as though I rode upon the back of a single many-headed, multi-limbed monster.
Skeletal Slithian hands wriggled free from the maelstrom beneath my feet, clutching for me, and a few of the red devils, treading down their fellows, succeeded in clambering up to grapple me. Bare-handed, I fought as I had never fought before, but against odds so frightful that even my perfected muscles could not forever hold out.
Then, from my precarious vantage point, I glimpsed a glad sight: mounted Pathtarans were flooding in through the tunnel's mouth. Foremost among them, astride a huge, white thastak, was a splendid figure: he was Korval Dax, the Kerrador of Pathtar, and everywhere the myrmidons of the Prime of Skanth were falling back before his onslaught.
The gate was open! Victory would be ours!
Yet, even as the green king and his men were hacking their way towards me, their sword-blades flaming in the last glimmerings of the dying sun, I was once more drawn down into the blackness and the quiet.
Again I struggled to surface, clawing with desperate strength at the unseen flesh enveloping mebut this time to no avail.
For a while I was subjected to terrible, bone-grinding, lung-bursting pressure, but then the medium in which I was submerged seemed to lose its form, to become ever more rarefiedto become nothingness.
Abruptly, blazing points of light ignited all about me, and as I twisted slowly, seemingly suspended at the edge of space, a mighty red world passed into sight beneath me.
As I continued to turn, my eyes, scanning the stars, fixated upon a tiny blue orb, far, far away.
It was the Earthand I could hear her call.
Abruptly, a myriad of flaming motes burst from that distant, azure globe; a shower of hurtling meteors that bore down upon me until, in no time, they were swirling all around, making me the centre of a vortex of light, blurring my view of the ruddy planet below.
Unknown (perhaps unknowable) forces were seeking to wrest me from the influence of Mars. Desperately, twisted my face away and reached out to the Red Planet, beseeching, with all my heart, whatever power controlled my destiny not to banish me from its orbit.
But was there any to hear my plea? Or was I isolated in a cold and meaningless universe that neither knew aught of, nor cared aught for, the fate of any man?
I OPENED my eyes and gazed in wonder at the sight that met them. Upon me was shining the dear face of the woman I love. At the very instant of my awakening, Kara Dea, standing, leaning over my recumbent form, had touched her lips to mine, and with that contact a vivifying spark of energy had seemed to crackle between us.
It was night, and I lay upon a bed of sleek furs and smooth silks within a splendid chamber, illuminated by glowing torches and rays of ruddy moons-light entering through tall windows. Besides Kara Dea, three other women were gathered about my couch, the gold and scarlet of their dress marking them priestesses.
At my abrupt return to consciousness, the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpathloose-haired and utterly lovely in a simple flared skirt of glowing white gauze and an unadorned corset of scintillant black lizard-skinintook her breath sharply and stood back from me in evident fright.
I rose swiftly to my feet and, seeking to alleviate her alarm, took her trembling frame into my arms and cradled her head against my breast. She commenced to sob gently, and, I admit, my eyes too grew bleary with emotion.
It was a little while before I could speak. "My love," I murmured, "what has happened? The battle -?"
"The battle is won, Hector Blake; you are the saviour of Sherpath," said Kara Dea, lifting her face and smiling up at me through her tears. "The invaders were overwhelmed after the gate was taken and the wall breached. The survivors fledonly their dead remain."
Raising a slender hand to my face, the girl traced with her fingertips the outline of my features. "Oh, my Earth-man, I feared you too were dead."
I felt very much alive; indeed my body was atingle with energy. Upon Kanthor I had found myself to be the possessor of almost inexhaustible stamina and recuperative powers far beyond those that had been mine in Earthly life. Yet this alone could not account for my condition. Had I somehow been regenerated and reinvigorated by a brush with the Cosmic Power?
Regarding myself, I observed that I wore fresh clothing (a light tunic of dark gold); that my body had been cleansed and anointed with scented unguents, and that my several, minor injuries, sustained in the fighting, had been dressed with medicinal ointments made, their fragrance told me, from the same type of herb with which Kara Dea had treated me in the wilds, a seeming eternity ago.
"It was the Kerrador of Pathtar who found you," the princess said. "Seeing you fall, he cut his way towards you, and, as the red men fell back before him, you were revealed lying atop a great mound of the slain. But you were comatose, and for hours you lay as though in death. The Moon Sisters tended your wounds, but were unable to account for your condition or revive you. Then, when circumstances allowed, just a little while ago, your body was brought here to my private chambers.
"It was a miracle! No sooner did my lips touch yours, than you awoke." She smiled and added with a gentle laugh: "Perhaps with that kiss I have repaid a little of the great debt of gratitude I owe you."
Kara Dea's latter words were spoken in jest, but I hold them to be quite true: it was her kiss that had drawn me back from the brink of the void.
The princess turned to the three priestesses and, after offering them her thanks for their care of me, dismissed them. While they were withdrawing, her eyes, half shadowed by free-flowing sable locks, shone upon me, and a pert half-smile played upon her lips.
When we were alone, her smile broadened into a grin; she came forward and, placing her arms about my neck, pushed me down onto the silks and furs of my divan.
For a while we talked and kissedas lovers doand with the passage of time there came to be ever fewer words and ever more kisses. My senses were entirely engaged by the girl in my armsthe warmth of her body, the perfume of her skin and hair, the loveliness of her face and figure, the sweetness of her lips, the whisper of her breathingand I awoke to the danger too late.
Before I could react, Kara Dea was torn from my embrace. I jumped to my feet, only to find a sword at my breast.
There were six of them, two of whom I recognized: Vargis Toth, the Master of the Urpathian Guard, held the weapon by which I was menaced; and standing a few steps behind him was the archfiend himself, Baytor Thag.
The eyes of the Urpathian prince blazed with a ravening light as the Sherpathian princess was brought to him.
Quoth he, in feverish tones: "O Jewel of Pathtar, I wanted you as my kerrajina, yet you scorned me; now shall vengeance be mine!" He raised a tremulous hand to her cheek. "This radiant face, which I had hoped would one day look upon me with adoration, shall soon be disfigured by suffering." His fingers passed down over her shoulders to her bosom. "This lovely body, which I had hoped would one day worship me with passionate caresses, shall soon writhe in agony and mortification." Lower still travelled his touch. "Ere you die, I shall commit upon you enormities beyond the imaginings of lesser men. Eternally shall the name Baytor Thag be spoken in hushed whispers; unto the end of time shall Sherpathians shudder in bitter sorrow and shame when they hear it."
Then the dastardly prince began to laugh, throwing back his head and grasping the empty air with his handsit was evident that he had quite lost his hold upon sanity.
Kara Dea had not flinched from Baytor Thag's pretty speech, or from his fond caress; nor did his quaint mirth discompose her. Deigning no verbal response, she tossed back her head and cast upon him, from beneath the fine curves of her brows, so scathing a look that he soon fell silent and shrank back from her, shrivelling like a creeping thing caught in the sun's light.
The Kerrad of Urpath turned his narrow eyes upon me.
"Hector Blake of Earth," he spat, his thin lips twisted into a sneer, "would that I could leave you alive to dwell upon the doom of the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpathin view of the tender scene that greeted our coming here I doubt not that such reflections would be poignant indeedbut such cannot be. You more than any other have been the cause of my undoing, and for your crimes you must die."
Without further ado, Baytor Thag signalled to Vargis Toth, and the latter drew back his sword and struck. As his point hurtled towards my unprotected breast, Kara Dea cried out my name and the mocking laugh of Baytor Thag rang again in my ears.
There was no way to avoid Vargis Toth's savage thrust, but even as his blade tore into my flesh, I balled my fist and hurled myself forwards to deal the Guard Master a terrific blow between the eyes. I felt and heard his bones break beneath the impact of my knuckles, and he went down like a felled ox.
With what might have been its final beats, my heart sent boiling blood surging through my veins; my sole wish was to remain alive long enough to tear out Baytor Thag's black heart! But the flagitious prince took refuge behind his remaining four henchmen, three of whom held me at bay for a moment with their swords. Then, after snatching the struggling princess from the grasp of the one who had held her, he scurried from the chamber, clutching her to him.
My four remaining antagonists waved their weapons at me, but hesitated to press forward with their attack.
Looking down, I observed that my would-be executioner's sword was protruding from my body. At a glance, I might appear to be mortally wounded, yet frail Fortune had chosen to favour me. The sword's point had been aimed at my heart, but as I had drawn back my right arm and twisted my torso, in order to aim the blow that had accounted for Vargis Toth, the blade had travelled only though the layer of flesh along the outside of my ribs, emerging below my right shoulder. An actor, affecting to kill another upon the stage, will sometimes thrust his sword between the chest and arm of his fellow, and, except that the blade had pierced my skin, the effect was similar.
After plucking the weapon from its living sheath, I advanced upon my enemies. Naked fear was writ large upon their countenances, and I thought, for a moment, that they were going to break and run. Doubtless, I presented to their eyes a marvellous and bewildering vision: that I flourished the very steel which should have killed me must have seemed proof positive that I was, as I had been rumoured to be, more than human. And perhaps at that moment I was, for I find that when danger threatens my princess I become a veritable superman.
Yet the poor fools who sought to hinder my advance stood their ground; it is a rare Kanthoran who will flee from combat, and these men were moral, rather than physical, cowards. Seeking reassurance, they smiled from one to another, as if to say: "We are four and he is but one; we have him trapped."
Within seconds of battle being joined, however, their smiles had turned to taught-lipped grimaces of horror as it broke upon them that it was not I who was trapped with them, but rather they who were trapped with me.
In a violent frenzy, I put paid to them all, my sword's tip cutting deeply into the throat of the last of them. There was no time to grant him the coup de grâce, and so, leaving him writhing upon the floor, choking upon his own blood, I dashed from the room.
Beyond the door was a brightly lighted corridor. Precious moments had been lost, and Baytor Thag and his captive were nowhere to be seen. Madly, I charged along the passageway, hurdling the bodies of the princess's guards, treacherously slain by the Urpathians. In reality, I covered the ground in prodigious bounds, yet it seemed to me that I moved with painful slowness, as in a dream.
Reaching an intersection, I halted. Should I go straight on, left, or right? I gave an anguished groan, keenly cognizant of the possibility that along none of these avenues would I find those I sought: perhaps Baytor Thag had already taken refuge in one of the secret passages that riddle the walls of High Sherpath, for, doubtless, it was his knowledge of these that had enabled him and his followers to violate Kara Dea's sanctum.
Then, out of the corner of an eye, I saw something glinting in the torchlight, a little way along the left-hand corridor. I turned, and my eyes fell upon that which at once provided the solution to my quandary and caused my heart to freeze in horror.
Lying near the passageway's rightward wall was the dagger I had given to Kara Dea when first I had come upon her. Also visible upon the polished tessellae of the floor were numerous crimson drops.
Blood! But was it the blood of my beloved, or that of her abductor?
I sprang forwards. The rubious spoor did not continue along the corridor, and I knew at once that I must be standing before the entrance to a hidden passage. I was unable to detect a door's frame against the meanderings of the wall's decorative scheme, but when I rapped upon the wall with my sword's pommel, the resulting hollow sound confirmed my conjecture.
Throwing my unwounded shoulder against the wall, I caused the plaster-covered panel that was blocking the aperture to shatter into myriads of tiny pieces. Ahead of me was a twisting tunnel, narrow and low, along which I hastened.
It soon became utterly dark, and I upbraided myself for not having had the presence of mind to seize a light from the corridor I had recently quitted. Fortunately, my oversight proved a blessing: in the gloom my eyes were soon able to make out, on my right, the faint outline of another secret doorslightly ajar.
After pushing open the door, I emerged into a moons-lit corridor and advanced to a staircase, which spiralled down toward the bowels of the palace and up into a tower. Visible in the dim red light, was a trail of sanguine splashes and smears on the stairs and walls, leading upward. One of those whom I was following had commenced to bleed profusely, and I took the steep, tightly winding steps three at a time, dreading at any moment to come upon the lifeless body of my princess.
I rose up through the core of what proved to be a watchtower, tall and narrow. Near the crown of the structure, I came upon a many-widowed, circular room, some twenty feet in diameter. To the sparse furnishings of what was evidently a lookout station, I gave but scant regard. The stairway continued, in a tight iron spiral, up through the ceiling, and, without slackening my pace, I carried on up, coming out, at last, onto the flat, round roof of the thrusting shaft, hundreds of feet above the ground.
The platform was entirely empty of people; in one place, however, near the low, metal parapet, there was much blood. After darting to the bloody patch, I travelled completely around the circumference of the tower, fighting both to regain my breath and to decipher the meaning of what I could see.
The view was breathtaking.
Below me, in the parks and plazas of the lower city great pyres blazed; upon them were being burned the bodies of the invaders. Many of Sherpath's people, bearing glowing brands, were parading through the darkened streets, celebrating their victory and commemorating their dead.
Above me, speeding through the night sky's glimmering vault, span the crimson moons of Mars. They seemed very nearthe shadows of their mountains and valleys were clearly visibleit seemed almost that I could have reached out and touched them.
But of Baytor Thag and Kara Dea I saw no sign.
She was gone! Stolen from me in my hour of joy and triumph.
An agonized groan escaped my lips, and I lifted my open hands to the firmament. Would my labours be forever Sisyphean? Would they never be crowned with aught but temporary success? Would I be forever tantalized by apparent victory only to have my Martian love wrested from me by a cruel freak of circumstance? No sooner was one obstacle surmounted than was another erected in my path. I felt myself to be a mere marionette; the plaything of a malign puppet master.
Gods! How I cursed the imagined author of my misfortunes.
So intense was my chagrin that, for a moment, even the proud motto of my house sounded hollow to my inner ear.
It was with that thought that I rallied. No matter what, I would not yield to my misfortunes; come what may, I would advance all the more boldly against them.
Then there came a slight sound from behind meperhaps the rustle of cloth, perhaps the taking in of a breath.
Sword at the ready, I wheeledonly for the weapon to clatter to the floor, released by suddenly nerveless fingers.
I have crossed the sea of suns, seeing sights undreamed-of by Earthbound man, but none could compare, for wonder, with the glorious vision my eyes then beheld.
At the head of the staircase, scarce ten feet from me, stood the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath, spot-lit in a moonbeam.
The rays of the Kanthoran satellite cast a rosy sheen upon the pale jade of the girl's skin; it shimmered upon the bright, blood-bespattered fabric that shrouded her hips and legs; and it sparkled upon the dark, sequin-like scales of her bodice. Only the tousled tresses that framed her fine features and fell pell-mell to caress her shoulders and breasts, refused any illumination.
There was a catch in Kara Dea's breath as she drew it in, but when she spoke her voice was quiet and level. "Hector Blake, I have made good my vow to kill Baytor Thag; his body lies at the foot of this tower. A little while ago I pierced his heart with the dagger you gave me. Although death-struck, so excited was he by desire for me and fear of you that he was able to bring me to this place even as his life's blood drained from him. Snaroths and a warrior awaited him here, but as he fought to force me to mount, his life finally left him and he fell. His minion fled by snaroth, and I, fearing capture by others of his agents, hid myself in the room beneath our feet, until I saw that it was you, my Earth-man, who followed."
Only for the most fleeting fraction of a second after Kara Dea had spoken did I continue to stand amazed. Then, I sprang forwards to take her into my arms.
And, under the crimson moons that whirl through the seething skies of the Planet of War, she and I surrendered to the rapture of our love's consummation.
HECTOR BLAKE lapsed into silence and, for a moment, an expression of intense longing entered his eyes. Beyond the window of the African hotel, the sky was brightening, and in the dense forest above the bay the birds were beginning their chorus.
"Thank you for listening," he said at last, rising from his chair and extending his hand. "The tales of how the Prime of Skanth was bearded in his den, and of how I came to fathom the terrible secret of the Dath are for another timeperhaps. Now I must away, for I have a long journey ahead of me."
I leapt to my feet in consternation. "But where are you going?" I cried.
"Back to Kanthorto Marsof course," was his reply. "My princess awaits me, and she knows I shall come for her."
Shortly thereafter, he departed, and for a long while I stood staring at the doorway through which he had passed, his valedictory words echoing in my mind.
"I can understand your amazement, my friend," he had said; "and I shall not be aggrieved if you dismiss all you have heard as the product of a deranged imagination: for surely it is madness to lay claim to the ability to cross the star-strewn void. Yet it seems to me that I have accomplished something beside which mastery of space and time is a small thingI have won the love of the Excellent Kerraja of Sherpath!"