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Volume 1586
Torakar Thor of Mars
Den Valdron
An Extraordinary Adventure on John Carter's Mars 
A 100,000-Word Novel Serialized in 53 Chapters 
Part VI: Chapters 21-24


PART VI: Chapters 21-24


 “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 his race.

 “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 Phryghliabhola”

 He seemed so sincere, that I felt obligated to give him an honest answer.

 “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.

 I shrugged.

 “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 carping.

 “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 on it.

 “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 cursed place.

 “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!”

 He blanched.

 “You wouldn’t!”

 “Try me.”

 “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.   Quite extraordinary.”

 “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.   “That’s ridiculous!”
 “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 your sentence.”

 “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.”


 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?”  I asked.

 “No, but...”

 “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.”

 He whimpered.

 “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 that!”

 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 what?”

 “Why do you feed the Odil four times a year.”

 “What a silly question.  We always have, we need no better reason.”

 “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 to her.

 “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 nation.”

 “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 of sight.

 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 had been.

 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 bottom.

 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 the shore.

 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.


 “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 shrugged.

 “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 problems.”

 “Such as?”

 “It’s dirty, its filthy, its full of mud and small crawly things,” he said.

 “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.”

 I shrugged. 

 “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 your kingdoms.”

 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 the sun.

 “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.”

 I shrugged.

 “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 around it.”

 “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.”

 I shrugged.

 “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 endless competition.

 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 away.
 “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. 

 I laughed.


 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 amiably.

 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 silent. 

 “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 or Minister.”

 “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 by whom.”

 “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 a time.”

 “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?”

 She nodded.

 “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 ones.”


 “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?”

 She shrugged.

 “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 us.

 “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 animal.

 “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 say.

 “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 tell me.”

 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 me by?

 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 quite well.

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