PART VI: Chapters 21-24
SECRET OF THE HAZORN
TWENTY-ONE -- AZARA’S TRIAL
“Before you came along,” the Hazorn told me, “life was good.
I had risen high enough that I had no fear of those beneath me, but not
so high that those beyond me had cause to complain. Neither
Gorbaba nor Oberhobla troubled me, and I could sleep in peace at nights,
pursuing my own interests and without worry that my fingers would be chopped
off in the middle of the night.”
For myself, I listened to this speech with a sensation of growing
dread. This Hazorn seemed much smarter than the balance of
“Then one day,” he said, “I wake up to find myself Jed, without
any effort on my part. Even worse, my own followers are now drowned
out by a fanatical legion which sings my praises at every turn, and whom
I must, by rights, provide for. And worst of all, I am saddled
with a series of labours which seem frankly impossible.”
He regarded me calmly.
“Why do you hate me so?” he asked. “What did I ever do to
you? Have I offended the Gods so greatly that they sent you
down from heaven solely to make my life a misery?”
“Well,” I said, “let’s be fair. Its not as if your
predecessors had it easy, they are both dead. And you are the Jed.
Most people would see these as good things.”
“Most people,” he said, “are petty conniving fools without the
brains to outwit a Sorak, and vision that extends no further than the tip
of their tail-member.”
It was hard to disagree with him.
“So I ask again,” he said. “Why me? Why not
He seemed so sincere, that I felt obligated to give him an honest
“Because,” I said softly, “I couldn’t pronounce his name.”
His mouth opened. Then he closed it. Then he opened
it again. Strange expressions flitted across his features, but somehow,
I could guess what he was thinking.
“Well,” he said finally, “you got me into this mess, you shall
get me out. If not, your life is forfeit.”
A bit of cleverness appeared on his face.
“Help me,” he whispered, “and I will help you find your Azara.”
This one, I thought, was too clever by far.
The conquest of the other Jeds nations occurred with breathtaking
speed. As soon as spies began to report the Great Plan, lesser
Jeds traveled to pledge their fealty. Several Jeds lead by
the Jeddak formed a coalition to oppose our village, but immediately a
rumour spread that their coalition was an elaborate subterfuge and part
of the Great Plan, and thus, the Jeddak of the Hazorn had no choice but
to abdicate and pledge his fealty.
“This is terrible,” the new Jeddak of the Hazorn complained.
“How could you do this to me?”
“You whine a lot,” I observed.
“It’s bad enough I had to look after the males whole village,”
he said, “and cater to their imbecilic notions, but now I have deal with
everyone. We live by war upon each other, it is our entire
way of life, now what are we supposed to do? And what in the
name of the sun God was this whole women’s rights thing? Our
culture is a delicate and ancient thing, and you’re messing about without
a care. No good will come of that, let me tell you.”
“Relax,” I said, “I figured this out. Even now, the
most skilled Hazorn from all over the valley are gathering to rebuild this
village as a great floating city. Women have left the caves
and huts to be the equal of men. Ruling the Hazorn is easy,
all you have to do is tell a great big lie, and when that begins to flag,
replace it with an even bigger lie. Keep on doing that.”
He grunted, sullenly.
“I don’t even know where you got this ‘Thousand Year Rule’ bit,”
he muttered resentfully.
“You promised to help me find Azara,” I replied, more to change
the subject than for hope of any progress. I was sick of his constant
“Oh that,” he said, “she is safe enough among the Ossa.
They are treating her well, and trying to determine if she is a Hazorn.”
I was astonished.
“How do you know this?” I asked, incredulously.
“Well, not all of us war upon the Ossa,” he said, “there is a
secret society among us which communicates and trades with certain counterparts
among the Ossa.”
“And you are a member of this secret society?” I asked.
“That,” he said smugly, “I am not at liberty to say.”
“Does this secret society have a name?”
“Of course not,” he said, “it’s a secret society.”
“They call themselves the Engineers,” he said, “among the Ossa,
they are called the Architects.”
“I see,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “they believe that they are the descendants of
the original founders of the valley, the people who conceived and built
the great roof which shielded us from the world’s death. A sanctuary
where Hazorn and Ossa could live forever in happiness and harmony.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Human nature,” he replied.
I thought about that for a minute, and then decided not to comment
“Can this secret society help me to recover Azara?” I asked.
“I’m sure I have no idea what you are talking about with all this
nonsense about secret societies,” he said. “I know of no such thing.”
I stared at him, but could detect no change of expression.
The Hazorn had the unique talent of spouting absolutely inanities with
no apparent awareness that each word contradicted its predecessor.
I swear, the race was entirely mad. The sooner Azara and I
escaped this place, the better, I swore for the hundredth time.
“But you are sure Azara is all right.”
“Oh,” he waved airily, his multitude of fingers opening like a
fan, “she’s in no danger at all. Unless of course...”
“Unless?” I prompted.
“Unless they decide she is a Hazorn after all, in which case,
they will kill her in some brutal and horrible fashion. But
there is nothing to worry about.”
“They won’t conclude she is a Hazorn.”
“Oh no,” he said, “that is virtually certain. That
is the nature of the Ossa, they will worry it and worry it until finally
it gives up an answer that suits them.”
“Then why shouldn’t I worry.”
“There is nothing that we can do, so why worry.”
I gritted my teeth, promising myself once again to escape this
“Well, I am going to worry,” I said firmly, “and we are going
to prevent it, or I will make your life even more miserable.”
“How?” he laughed.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I’ll find a way. Maybe
I’ll marry you! How would you like that!”
“There’s no need to be vicious,” he said finally, “I’ll see what
I can do.”
“Do that,” I told him, “is there any other news of her?”
“I have an amazing set of elbow to knee measurements from her.
“The purpose of this trial,” the Queen announced, “is to allow
you the opportunity to prove that you are not pretending to be other than
what you claim to be.”
“Excuse me,” Azara said.
The courtiers tittered.
“It is rude, and therefore Hazorn like,” the Queen said crossly,
“to interrupt me when I have finished talking.”
“But I don’t understand,” Azara protested.
“Well, I don’t see how a creature, even one such as yourself,
can fail to comprehend. I shall explain, now pay attention:
The question is whether or not you are a Hazorn, do you follow?”
“Thus, we must have a trial to prove you are a Hazorn, and being
the defendant, the burden of proof that you are a Hazorn falls upon you.”
“But I’m not a Hazorn!”
“Be sensible,” the Queen snapped, “if you weren’t a Hazorn, we
wouldn’t need to have this trial, would we? The sole purpose
of legal proceedings is to ensure guilt.”
“But I’m not,” she replied, “how can I prove that to you?”
“My dear,” said the Queen, “you role is not to prove you are innocent.
I cannot understand how you could make that mistake. You cannot prove
a negative. Innocence is an illusory state, always tempting, but
forever out of reach. Perhaps, you should undertake a more positive
pursuit, and aid us in reaching our predetermined conclusion.”
“You want me to prove that I am a Hazorn?” she asked.
“Your Majesty,” the Prosecutor leaped up, “may we take this statement
as an admission of guilt?”
“You may not!” Azara said hotly.
“Your Majesty,” the Prosecutor protested, “she refuses to admit
that she has confessed. How can I work under these impossible conditions?”
“Calm down,” the Queen said, “or I shall make you a witness.”
The prosecutor blanched beneath his fur and immediately sat down.
“It is not ridiculous,” the Queen said patiently. “It is
justice. It is the duty of prosecution and defense to work
together to reach a happy result. Why, you have traumatized
your poor colleague. If prosecutors set out to prove one thing,
and defense set out to prove something completely opposite, then everyone
would argue, nothing would be resolved and we would never convict anyone!”
“Why, by the names of my ancestors,” Azara protested, “should
I help you prove I am something I am not?”
“Because,” the Queen explained, “it will go towards mitigating
“What sentence is this?”
“Death by devouring from the sacred Odil,” she said primly.
“It’s a very special fate. Hardly anyone dies like that. You
should feel honoured.”
“And if I confess to mitigate my sentence, then what?”
“Death by devouring from the sacred Odil,” the Queen replied.
“How is that an improvement?” Azara snapped, losing your temper.
“Obviously,” said the Queen, “if you cooperate, we will think
well of you. You will rise high in our esteem. We may be moved
by the unavoidable tragedy of your fate. This is a significant
difference, I would think.”
“Not to me,” Azara yelled, “I’ll be devoured.”
“That’s enough,” the Queen said as Azara began to swear and bailiffs
rushed to gag her, “I can see you intend to be completely uncooperative,
and bent on reducing this trial to a farce. I will not see Justice
trifled with. I find you guilty of insufficiently not resembling
a Hazron and sentence you to death by devouring.”
TWENTY-TWO -- THE ODIL
The greatest army that the Hazorn had ever assembled in their
history lay at my back.
“I don’t like this at all,” the Jeddak of all Hazorn quibbled.
“It’s wet down there. I don’t like wet, not like they have down there.
And there’s mud and dirt. And diseases. I knew a Hazorn who
went down there once, and his nose swelled up and fell off.”
“You knew him personally?” I asked, I wasn’t really paying attention.
Rather, I was trying to assess the ranks which stood before us.
I wasn’t happy.
“Well, it was actually a friend of one of my men’s fourth cousins,
over from another village. But he swore it was true. The point
is that I don’t want my nose to fall off.”
“Then don’t go down,” I said. “You’ve appointed me your
general. That is sufficient.”
“But if I don’t go down, they’ll think I’m weak.”
For talk, there was none braver than a Hazorn. For
an actual fight against an enemy not actually asleep or unaware, I judged
less than one in ten worthwhile. And of those, perhaps one
in three had the discipline to make even mediocre soldiers.
Just about every Hazorn warrior answered Furhohay’s call
to a great crusade against the Ossa. I had gone to sleep
a woman with plans, and I’d woken up to a mass of disorganized rabble.
My challenge had been to take this army and find a way to prune away the
dross until I had a weapon I could use. This had resulted in
endless argument and wrangling. My only progress had come about
from throwing a temper tantrum every five minutes.
It was Furhohay, the Great Jeddak of Hazorn, who had found my
solution when he suggested a substantial force be reserved to defend against
an Ossa counter-invasion.
“Has there ever been an Ossa invasion of Hazorn villages?”
“Never mind,” I said, “I like it.”
Furhohay had, in fact, shown a positive genius in organizing the
defense against a nonexistent attack, cunningly deploying his forces so
that they were completely incapable of organizing against him, while quashing
any thought of rebellion. A profusion of titles and awards
had been conferred, meaningless missions handed out, and vast numbers of
completely useless Hazorn had been profitably occupied with keeping out
of my way.
In the end, I was left with a couple of hundred of the finest,
fiercest, most disciplined warriors that the Hazorn nation had ever produced.
As their rank assembled, I watched them pick their noses, gossip, bicker
and scratch parts of their anatomy and I wanted to weep.
“Couldn’t we just go and fling some excrement and rocks down
at them,” he nagged, “like we always do, and then come back and announce
a great victory.”
I turned a blank stare upon him.
“Azara is to be eaten by an Odil at noon,” I said flatly.
“We are going to go down and save her. Or you are going to find that
there are worse things than being eaten by an Odil.”
“Go make a speech,” I said.
“What should I say?”
“The usual, call for bravery, valour, victory; promise great
wealth; don’t mention that anyone might be killed.”
“Someone might be killed!?!” he protested. “You never mentioned
I stared at him until he went away.
“You should be very honoured to be devoured by the Odil,” the
Queen said. “Many times, convicts are so overcome by the honour,
that they swim into the creatures jaws.”
“Let me loose, and perhaps I too shall be overcome by the honour,”
Azara replied, as she was heavily weighted down with chains and ropes.
“I should say not,” replied the Queen, “not after assaulting all
those guards. You should thank your ancestors that we are on a schedule,
or we would should charge you with many more offenses, not the least of
which would be various sorts of assault, aggravated and with weapons, yelling
obscenities, disrupting a court hearing and calling the queen a Sorak.”
For a second, the Queen looked puzzled and whispered to an advisor.
“What is a Sorak?”
But the advisor demurred, not knowing.
“Well, it is of no moment,” she said, “if it is low and disgusting
as this Azara creature, I am insulted.”
“You mentioned a schedule?”
“Ah yes,” the Queen replied, “four times a year, we must feed
a convicted prisoner to the Odil. It is lucky we had you.”
“So the charge was just a pretext?” Azara wondered, “You
just needed someone to feed to your monster.”
“Of course not. You were definitely accused of insufficiently
not being a Hazorn, tried and convicted in the normal course by due process
on a convenient timetable. We resent any aspersion of any impropriety.
Things always just naturally work out for the best, that is simply the
way of things.”
Azara contemplated this glumly. Things were not working
out for the best for her. She contemplated her fate. There
must be a way out, but for the life of her, she could not see one.
“May I ask a question, my beauteous and wise Queen?”
“Why do you feed the Odil four times a year.”
“What a silly question. We always have, we need no better
“And you always do what you always have?”
“Of course,” the Queen replied looking around, “how else are we
to live? Is the Odil here yet?”
“No, my Queen,” a courtier replied.
The Queen hmmphed, and then glanced at Azara. She looked
around. It was quite a good crowd. The Odil always
got a good crowd, of course. But there were very few strangers to
the valley, perhaps one every few centuries, and so Azara was quite an
attraction. Everyone who was anyone had turned out to see the
Odil eat a monster from the dead world beyond. Or a Hazorn.
It didn’t really matter, the point was that the Odil was going to eat someone
who wouldn’t be them. The Queen preened. An idea came
“While we wait,” the Queen said to Azara, “do you have any last
words? We are prepared to listen, should you feel the need
to spontaneously burst into praise and acclaim for your blessed Majesty,
the merciful and infallible system of Justice and the perfection of her
“I will speak,” Azara said, in a tone that suggested to the Queen
that she had made a mistake, “I will speak of justice and mercy.
You Ossa might have a paradise, but instead, you have bound yourselves
with chains of tradition and bureaucracy. Your lives are endless
sequences of detail without reason or meaning. I came among
you as a stranger, I did no harm...”
The Queen noticed a ripple moving through the water that indicated
that the Odil had arrived. She crooked her finger, and Azara’s speech
was interrupted as she was thrown into the shallow water of the pool.
Thanks to the weight of her chains, she made a mighty splash and sank out
The Odil’s ridged back broke the surface and it turned towards
the splash, moving in swiftly. Azara had not reappeared.
Too many chains? The Queen ruefully considered that she might
have attached flotation corks to Azara, to keep her on the surface of the
water while the Odil fed.
A scream and a mighty plop interrupted her thoughts.
The Queen stared at the object suddenly before her. It was
one of her advisors, who had inexplicably fallen dead where he stood.
And atop him was an equally dead Hazorn. The Queen blinked.
What was a dead Hazorn doing on top of one of her advisors?
Had the silly creature fallen? How like a Hazorn, to go rudely
falling to his death at such an inappropriate moment, it quite ruined the
dignity of the occasion.
Moved by some impulse, the Queen looked up. Why, there were
hundreds of Hazorn. Around her, a murmur of astonishment was going
up among her subjects. The Hazorn were descending on their flexible
vines from their elaborate webworks in the nets above. Why,
it looked like their vines might even reach to the ground.
They might even land. Whoever heard of a Hazorn landing?
There was another cry, and the Queen spied a strange creature,
unlike a Hazorn, its limbs were far too short, but suspiciously similar
to that strange Azara creature. It had swung out, releasing
its vine, and was plummeting some fifty feet through the air, straight
towards the Odil. She wrinkled her muzzle in astonishment!
Suddenly, a Hazorn appeared on the ground beside her. She
blinked at it without comprehension, but it merely swung its short sword
and chopped off her head.
As I rode my vine down to the water temple of the Ossa, my heart
rose, for looking down, I could see Azara standing with two guards out
upon a platform above the water. We were going to be in time.
Then, without warning, one of the guards gave her a hard shove
and she plunged into the water. The scaly ridged back of a
great water reptile broke above the water as it turned sharply towards
the sound of her splash.
I redoubled my speed riding the vine down as quickly as I dared,
trying to swing out towards Azara. But fast as I was, I was
still too slow. The creature moved steadily towards where Azara
I was now less than a hundred feet above the water, but the creature
had converged upon Azara’s location. Once again, its scaly
back broke above the water as it prepared to dive upon her.
The thought of that horror ripping her apart in its jaws was too much.
There was only one thing I could do.
With a battle scream, I released the vine and dove feet first
towards that monster, my sword at ready. It disappeared beneath
the water. A second later, my feet broke the water, the force
parting my legs.
The shock of the fall drove me down into the water. I felt
myself contact a heavy back, felt fibrous ridges snap. The creature
buckled almost in half by my impact upon it, its yard long head twisting
about to snap at me. Half dazed by shock, I swung my sword at the
clashing jaws, clumsily fending it off.
The Odil surged forward then, trying to escape this strange burden
which had landed so injuriously upon it. As it splashed through the
water, I tightened my thighs around it, as if riding a Thoat, and wrapped
my free hand in its spines, stabbing and stabbing again with my sword.
For a second, we reared out of the water, the Odil giving a mighty
bellow. Then it fell backwards, and I was crushed against the water.
The creature rolled free, its body twisting away from me. I
flailed, trying to keep grip of my sword as the monster rounded on me.
For a second, I had a glimpse of savage jaws opening up before me, a ferocious
rush. I thrust my sword up into that mouth. Then
the monster was past me, its body shuddering and jerking. I
knew I had killed it.
But where was Azara? Levering myself up upon the monster’s
shuddering back, my face broke above water and I took a long breath.
Long ago, from an assassin who had drowned noblemen in their bath, I had
learned the trick of not breathing in water. I dived beneath the
murky water, but could see nothing. I floundered around, until
I reached the bottom, but found nothing. When I could bear
no more, I kicked upwards climbing until I broke the surface, swallowed
another precious breath and dived again.
The blood thundered in my ears, I felt a state of panic.
Each moment that passed might be her own. It might already be too
late. Again and again I dragged gulps of breath and plunged to the
Finally, I felt her, the unmistakable softness of her flesh, the
shape of her breast. But, my heart sinking, I knew I was far
too late. This could only be her corpse. Or so I thought,
for at the instant when I surrendered hope, I felt her body twist and her
arm reach for me. She was alive.
I cannot describe the panicked thrashing of the next moments,
as I found I could not drag her up to the surface. I kicked
up, stealing another breath and screaming for help. In the next moments,
the water boiled around me and Ossa gathered us both and dragged us to
Out of the water, I coughed and snorted, trying to expel the fluid
that had filled my nose. Weak as a sorak, I shook off the rescuing
Ossa, ignoring the bleatings of the Hazorn Jeddak. From the little
I gathered, the battle was already over, the Queen dead, the Ossa surrendered.
But that did not matter, nothing matter as I threw myself upon my princess,
and wailed in horror.
Her arm was gone just below the elbow, only a bloody stump was
left. She was not breathing.
TWENTY-THREE -- THE SECRET OF THE HAZORN
“Azara,” I called out, my voice breaking with anguish.
Suddenly, her head flopped towards me. Her eyes opened,
then her body convulsed, her lips parted and she vomited up muddy water,
coughing and hacking. I was astonished, it was a miracle.
I grabbed her, turning her over on her stomach and grasping her
midsection, to force even more water out of her.
“You live!” I cried out. She vomited more water,
and gasped weakly. The stump of her arm flopped about.
“Get a healer,” I yelled at Hazorn and Ossa alike.
“Bind her wounds, see to her. For if she dies, I’ll burn this whole
valley from one end to the other.”
In seconds, a solicitous mass had converged upon her, frantic
Ossa accompanied by Hazorn were working on her. Ossa massaged
even more water from her lungs, while Hazorn bound up her arm and addressed
her other wounds.
“Now what do I do?” Furhohay the Jeddak complained to me.
“This is terrible.”
“I see you still have your nose.”
“It feels swollen,” he said, “I just know its infected.
How can I be a Jeddak without a nose?”
“I have known many Jeddaks without a brain,” I replied, “I am
sure you will get along.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ll be a Jeddak without a head if this keeps
up. We’ve conquered the Ossa, from this, I see nothing but
“It’s dirty, its filthy, its full of mud and small crawly things,”
“Well, the Hazorn have always wanted it.”
“Not to live in! This is disgusting, it would be torture
to live here.”
“Then you must force the Ossa to live here,” I said.
“But they already do,” he told me.
“We go from victory to victory.”
“Seriously,” he snapped, “how am I to rule this land I’ve conquered?
No Hazorn will consent to live here.”
“Appoint an Ossa to rule on your behalf, one of these engineers
your secret society is always conspiring with.”
“They’re architects, not engineers,” he replied, “and I have no
idea what secret society you are speaking of.”
Then he paused suddenly.
“You know, that could work. But what will we
do now that the war of ten thousand years is over?”
Throwing rocks and excrement at each other? Some war,
I thought. These creatures, as annoying as they were, had a
strange innocence to them.
“How will we steal from the Ossa now... ” his
voice trailed off as he realized that, having conquered the Ossa, he no
longer needed to steal. They could just take as they willed.
I sighed. This was the cleverest Hazorn I had ever met.
“What of the Ossa though?” he wondered.
“What of them?”
“They steal from us, they need our fruits and berries and medicines,”
he told me, “how can they survive if they cannot steal from us?
And if they die, how can we steal from them?”
I was getting a headache. Only a few feet from me,
physicians were attending to Azara. She reached for me with
her remaining hand, our fingers twined together.
“You must give the Ossa in exchange for what you take.
It’s called trade,” I said. “Work it out for yourself.
Choose a Queen for the Ossa and marry her, have a big ceremony, unite
And as it turns out, that is exactly what he did. There
was a great ceremony and days of celebration and feasting, the secret societies
of Engineers and Architects came out into the open, and slowly the Hazorn
and Ossa began to adjust to the new circumstances.
I didn’t have the heart to tell anyone I’d been joking.
Or more correctly, swearing. I was glad though I hadn’t told him
to mate with a Sorak.
For a few days, Azara and I rested and recovered, but neither
of us wanted to stay in this mad place any longer than we had to.
It was, we agreed, only a matter of time before some demented notion came
into the head of the Hazorn or the Ossa, and then we’d be in trouble again.
Instead, I used my newfound authority as general of the Hazorn
to command quantities of food and water and equipment to be carried through
the caverns out to the cave where I had lain weak and helpless, only short
weeks before. The Ossa had long narrow boats to carry goods
in, and from those models, I had the Hazorn construct lightweight sleds
to carry our resources. These were carried piece by piece through
the caverns and assembled in the uncovered light of the sun.
Finally, we were ready to leave.
A delegation of Ossa and Hazorn came to see us off.
The Jeddak of the Hazorn stood at the mouth of the cave, squinting up into
“So this is the dead world,” he said, reflectively.
“Not dead,” I said equably, “there are cities and tribes out there,
nations and empires. Out there, life goes on, people live and love,
they are born and die, change goes on and we embrace it We do not
hide away in some hole, no matter how pleasant, and waste our lives in
pointless bickering. We do not hide ourselves within secrets,
afraid to face the world beyond.”
He stared at me.
“It smells funny,” he said finally. “I don’t like
it, not at all.”
“You are really going to leave?” he asked.
“Yes,” Azara and I replied in unison.
“Yes, we’re really leaving.”
“And you won’t come back?”
“We won’t come back.”
“That’s not one of your giant lies to get your own way?”
“We never want to come back,” I insisted.
First I, and then Azara, solemnly shook the tail-like members
of each of the Hazorn and then bowed to each of the Ossa. And
with little more ceremony, Azara and I harnessed ourselves to our sleds
and left the cavern to make our way into the world.
We traveled on foot, but my heart was light. We were generously
provisioned, after all, gifted with the spears and swords of Hazorn and
Ossara, and we had each other. I breathed in fresh clean dry
Barsoomian air, so different from the thick humid stuff that weighed our
lungs down in the valley. For no reason at all, I laughed aloud,
and Azara joined me.
“What a remarkable place,” she said finally. “To think
its never been discovered before. For thousands of years they’ve
lived in their own little world.”
“The roof is camouflaged,” I said, “its arches shaped so that
while it admits light, from the outside, it resembles dry stone.
Even knowing where it is now, I can barely distinguish it from the ridges
“Do you think they are the only ones?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“At the north pole, the Okar and Panar built great domes when
the world was dying,” she said, “it is clear that these Hazorn and Ossa
did the same thing, except, instead of building a dome, they roofed over
and sealed a valley. Surely they were not the only ones to
do so. Perhaps there are other sealed valleys, other peoples, perhaps
even other races besides the Hazorn and Ossa.”
“Well, if they’re all like this bunch,” I said, “I’m happy enough
to leave them all alone till the end of time.”
“They were strange weren’t they?” she said.
We spent the next few days of our trip discussing the strange
valley, its people, its societies and the life therein.
It was odd, we agreed. The valley could have been
a paradise, should have been a paradise for both Hazorn and Ossa.
But the Ossa had given themselves over to a petty tyranny of endless rules
and regulations, a thousand pointless exercises, they had kept their noses
so low to the ground, they’d forgotten all about life, Azara told me.
The Hazorn, on the other hand, had lost all touch with reality.
In their elevated aeries, their cliffs and villages, they had become ultimately
selfish. Their lives were consumed with petty ambitions and
Each race had forgotten, or perhaps abandoned, the greatness and
wisdom that had built their sanctuary. They had reduced themselves
to squabbling dishonest children, gradually wasting the accomplishments
of their ancestors, forgetting even the values.
“Not forgotten, I think,” Azara said thoughtfully.
“What do you mean?”
“It was more like they abandoned it. They chose not to know
it, they chose not to think about it. They hid the truth, or
hid from it, and chose to live lives that they liked better. Who
can be happy with a life built on secrets and lies,” she said.
A cold worm wriggled in my stomach. I forced the feeling
“Who indeed,” I said.
A shadow passed over her features, as if she had found the direction
of conversation to be suddenly unpleasant.
“The Hazorn,” she said suddenly, “are such strangers. So
long and spindly, all those fingers. And were it not for the
fact that only males had tales, I could not tell one sex from the other.”
“Those?” I said. “Oh no, those aren’t tails.”
“Of course they are,” Azara replied, “obviously they are tails.
What else could ...”
Her voice trailed off as she understood.
“Oh,” was all she said.
TWENTY-FOUR -- A COLD NIGHT
Marking our progress by the sun and the stars, we continued on
northwest. For the first few nights, I tried to change the
dressing on Azara’s bandages, but she insisted on doing that herself.
It was a pleasant journey, we were out of the desert heat and in no hurry.
We were well provisioned with supplies, though we ate and drank sparingly.
Instead, we walked, and we talked as we did so. When
the cold nights came, we cuddled for warmth. And in the mornings,
we would eat together, see to our sleds, and continue our journey, chatting
Perhaps that was the problem, that we talked. Because,
the more we talked, the more it became clear that there were topics, many
of them, that we avoided. Azara was quite voluble about her
childhood, but I found hints of oddness, and when I pursued them, she fell
“There is no point in going to Aztor,” I said once.
She merely looked down and nodded. Was she really a princess?
I found I believed that, she was too much of the part, too knowledgeable.
Wherever she had come from, she had received a nobles education.
But I could not conceive those things in the tower to be from
a line of noble breeding. I could not comprehend how those things
had crossed her life, much less how they could be related to her in the
way she had claimed. There were other things that bothered me, though
I did not speak of them. I had almost died trying to cross
the desert, but she had been wholly unaffected by the heat and dehydration.
Her lungs had filled with water for full minutes back at the Ossa pool,
but she had seemed incapable of drowning.
She was well versed in literature though. Once, in
response to the humming of a song, we discussed the Jeddak’s Egg.
“There are many variations on this story,” she told me, “the popular
one these days, is a sentimental tragedy. The egg of a Jeddak
and Jeddara are stolen and eventually they die of grief, pining for their
lost child, who grows up and unknowing, returns to them as their Captain
“In the story in the song,” I said, “they are slain by their lost
child, without either knowing it.”
Azara nodded. “That is another version somewhat
closer to the original story.”
“There is an original story?” I asked. “I suppose
there must be.”
“It is history,” she said.
“I did not know that,” I grunted straining to drag my sled from
where its runner had wedged between two rocks.
“Long ago in the Kingdom of Marhor, before the oceans began to
die, there was a great Jeddak who ruled lands far and wide.”
“That sounds like the opening of a formal epic,” I said, “perhaps
you could give us the short version.”
“The King wedded a Princess through an arranged marriage.
But the marriage was not a happy one, and after laying a single egg, she
took her own life. Thereon the egg was stolen, but no one knew
“The King, fearing that his heir would be used against him, and
reasoning that he could have more children, gave the order that for the
next three years all the eggs and newborn in the kingdom be destroyed.
Only by destroying all, could he be assured he had destroyed the one.”
“I’ve heard that,” I said, “that’s another story.”
“It was all part of the same history,” she replied, “once upon
“The very fates were outraged by the King’s order.
He discovered that he could not find a new bride, after what had happened
to his Jeddara. After his massacre of the newborn, no noble
house would accept a marriage. He tried to use his power to
force a marriage, but seven times, seven brides committed suicide on their
wedding nights, rather than suffer his touch. His seed curdled in
his loins, and he found he could no longer give a female, even a common
lowborn female, an egg. Alienated from the other kingdoms,
alienated from the nobles, he grew mad with isolation and loneliness and
became a tyrant.”
“Meanwhile,” she said, “his son–“
”Always a boy,” I laughed. “In every version of the
story I would bet.”
“Yes,” she said with irritation, “its always a boy. His
son was born and grew up to be a great hero. He did many remarkable
things, and there are many different stories about him. Finally though,
the people of Marhor cried out for a saviour to rescue them from the one
they had come to call the Mad Jeddak.”
That was a little uncomfortable. I had recently served one
called the Mad Jeddak.
“And it was the son who responded to the call?”
“Let me guess,” I said, “he killed his father, and went on to
rule Marhor as a wise and just Jeddak.”
“In some stories,” she replied. “But not in the earliest
“In the earliest stories, they discover each others identities,”
she said, “but the knowledge does them no good, for they kill each other.
The kingdom falls to its enemies. None survives.”
The cold serpent of unease crept into my guts, worming its way
among my bowels.
“Ah,” I said. “Was it the knowing that made their doom inevitable?”
“Who could live, knowing they had slain their parent?”
We did not talk much after that. As night fell, we
made camp. We found enough dried vegetation to make a small fire.
As I prodded the flames to life, Azara began to prepare a simple meal for
“I notice,” I said quietly, without quite looking at her, “that
your hand is growing back.”
She froze, reminding me of nothing so much as a small, trapped
“I say this only so that you will not feel you must keep trying
to hide it from me,” I continued, and met her eyes.
We regarded each other for long moments. Then, helplessly,
she shucked off the now ill fitting bandages. I saw that her
stump had lengthened considerably, and at the end of it, were five tiny
fingers, like buds on a tree limb. My skin crawled at the sight,
but I kept my face impassive.
“I think,” I said, “we shall reach Kanhor in a few days.
It is a modest place, but there, we shall be in civilization.
We may rest and consider our opportunities.”
She did not reply.
I stirred the fire. There seemed little enough to
“Thank you,” she said finally.
I looked up.
“I cannot tell you. Tora, my darling, there is so
much I ache to say, but I cannot. No good would come of it,
and much that is awful would result.”
I shrugged, without replying.
“I am afraid,” she whispered, “that were I to tell you all, then
it might change your feelings for me.”
“Then,” I said, “I shall not ask, and it is best that you do not
She stared at me, with astonishment written over her face.
“Knowledge, I have found,” I told her, “is not the boon that people
would have it be. Knowledge has never brought me any thing
but misery and doubt. It is a poison that eats away at certainty,
bringing only rot and weakness.”
“Only the gambler seeks wisdom, for it is a hidden coin.
Before you have it, you cannot tell whether it is good or bad.
And once you have it, you cannot free yourself from it. Few have
ever found a benefit from knowing, and many times, it has been a misfortune.
“I myself,” I said reflectively, “might have profited from knowing
less, but instead, I labour under a weight that bears me down. I
cannot embrace it, and I cannot thrust it away. If you tell me that
there is a thing I do not want to know, then I will believe you and not
wish to know it.”
“And as for my feelings for you,” I said, “there are none.”
I could not bear the hurt in her eyes.
“We are strangers, you and I,” I continued, “and we have shared
circumstances and moments, and profited by it. But you have
told me that I would not wish to know of you. For different reasons,
you would not be better for knowing me. I am content to let
it lay like that and wait for fate or choice to make their throws.”
“You speak to wound me,” she said. I looked up at
her face then. Her eyes were full and her lashes trembled, her voice
was full of pain. False emotion, I thought, reading the absence
of tears. I was glad that she did not weep, for I would not
see her truly hurt. But I was oddly saddened as well, for it meant
something I had longed for was not there.
She stood up and walked away.
It wasn’t going to work for us. We’d get to the city,
and then we’d have to make a living. What did I know but soldiering
and killing? These were tasks she was completely unsuited for.
She could not enter my world, and even if she tried, her beauty would always
set her apart.
And for her? What skills, what abilities did she have?
She’d been raised as a princess, her world was literature and art, diplomacy
and etiquette. To bring a gauche thug into that world would
never do. I would be an anchor, perpetually dragging her down,
an obstacle to security and advancement. An exiled noblewoman
without family, her position would be precarious at best, dependent on
the good will and affections of her class. If she held to me,
I would only be the cause of her failure and degradation. Her
best chances were without me.
What was the best I could hope for with her, to find a position
as a guard in her household, to stand and wait and watch as her life passed
So, life would inevitably pull us apart. Our best efforts
to hold would only bring us misery and torment. We could try
to hold, and for that inevitably learn to hate each other. We could
try to carry on, suffering the strains of our respective worlds, but the
end would be the same.
A piece of grit flew into my eye, causing a tear to run down my
cheek. I wiped it away.
“No, my Princess,” I said softly, when I was sure she could no
longer hear me. “I speak to wound myself.”
As the bitterness weighed down my stomach, I knew that I had succeeded
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