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Volume 1590
Torakar Thor of Mars
Den Valdron
An Extraordinary Adventure on John Carter's Mars 
A 100,000-Word Novel Serialized in 53 Chapters 
Part X: Chapters 37-40


PART X: Chapters 37-40


 “Soon enough,” I told the great bird, “you’ll wish that I had put a bullet through your brain.”

 “We’ll see,” replied the great creature.  “If this is it, so be it.   I’m no longer a man, but I have it in me to die like one.”

 I nodded.   They were on the second floor now.   I glanced at Azara.

 “You have a chance,” I told her.  “You hardly have a scent.   You’ve told me they have no taste for your flesh.   Hide yourself.”

 “And leave you to your fate?”

 “If they catch you with the blood rage upon them, they’ll tear you to pieces.  Not even your inhuman flesh will sustain you.   Hide,” I said, “hide and you might live.”

 Close the circle, I thought, remembering another girl a lifetime ago.

 “No,” she said.  “I won’t leave you.”

 I felt a pang.   I was not afraid to die, I realized.  I’d never been afraid to die.   But suddenly, I feared so much the thought of losing her.

 “Too late,” I said, “they’re here.”

 A head appeared at the base of the ramp.   I aimed and fired, but it was gone.   I heard the sound of scraping on rocks and knew they were climbing the walls outside the building.

 “They’ll come in through the windows,” I told her.   But I was wrong, with blinding swiftness, one of them tumbled down from the upstairs ramp.   Again, I loosed a shot, but it dodged behind a pillar.   No more wasted shots, I told myself.

 Another slipped in through the window, shuffling boldly to distract me.   I didn’t need to look to know another was breaching the window behind us.

 “To me, Azara,” I whispered.   “To my back.”

 Two more came up from the lower ramp.   Another clambered through a window.   They walked stiffly in challenge, rapping great stone clubs against the floor.   A couple glanced at the wounded Malagawr, but paid him no attention.

 “Talk to them,” Azara whispered to me.  “Make animal noises.”

 I chuckled.

 “That won’t work,” I said, “we’re strangers to them.  Noises will not deter a hungry Banth, nor speech dissuage a green man’s wrath.   Azara...   I–"

 But then I had no time for speech, as a bull rushed me with a mighty roar.  I answered his roar with a challenge bellow of my own and sprang at him.   I stepped back, ducking the swing of his club and then rushed in.   Surprising me, the creature danced away from my blade, and instead cuffed me a glancing blow with its fist.   I stumbled but had my sword up and swinging, warding the others away.

 One of the bulls stared hard at my face, his features writ clear with astonishment.   He lowered his club and cocked his head to the side.

 “Sharp fingers?” he asked.

 Amazed, I froze.

 “Who calls me by Sharp Fingers,” I rasped gutterally.

 “It is Throws Stones,” it said.   “Bent Toe is here too.”

 Abruptly, I roared and threw myself at the creature, leaping hard upon it.   It seized me from the air and swung me around, barking furiously.   Its great fanged jaws gaped before me, and I bared my teeth as I dove for its neck.

 The apes backed away, and Azara stared in astonishment as I grappled with and writhed in the grip of a monster three times my size, a torrent of inhuman barks, yelps and growls tearing their way out of my throat.   I caught a glimpse of her from the corner of my eye and turned to her.

 “Azara!” I bellowed, “its all right.”

 Seeing her expression, I remembered to switch to human language.

 “It’s all right,” I told her.  “It’s a miracle.   These are my brothers!”

 Then I threw my head back and bellowed.

 “I am Sharp Fingers!”  I roared.   “Daughter of Moon’s Shadow, Sister to Bent Toe and Throws Stones.   I am Sharp Fingers, and I claim right of clan and kin!”

 The other apes grunted in confusion.   I found myself restraining the urge to burst into insane laughter.

 “Mine!”  I said, pointing at Azara.   An afterthought took me.   “Mine!” I said pointing to the Malagawr, who stared at the proceedings with bright eyes and panting amazement.

 “Well, I can see where this is going,” an ape behind me said to his companion, “we’re obviously not going to be eating anyone tonight.”

 The spell of the hunting fever broke, and many of the White Apes wandered away, leaving only my two brothers and a few curious watchers.   Azara retreated back to crouch near the Malagawr. 

 “How is mother?” Bent Toe asked, “it has been a long time since we have had news.”

 “Dead,” I said sadly, “years ago.”

 “That is a shame,” Throws Rocks said, “she was a good mother.”

 “She lives on in you,” Bent Toe told me, “you are the image of her.”

 “Except for being tiny and not having enough arms, and imitating the false creatures,” Throws Rocks snickered.

 I growled and snapped at him, climbing up his knees to whap him with my fists.   He chuckled and rolled.   For a moment, it was like the old days, the old times, and I remembered being happy.

 “Just the same,” Bent Toe said, “why are you imitating the false creatures?   Why are you here?  What are these strange things that you keep with you?”

 “It is a long story,” I said.

 “Tora,” Azara called.

 “It’s all right Azara,” I replied not taking my eyes away from my brothers, “give me a few moments.”

 “That sounded almost like you were talking to her,” Throws Rocks noted.

 “I was,” I said, “the false creatures have their own speech.”

 They scoffed at this, of course.

 “They scream, at any rate,” Throws Rocks said,   “Next you’ll claim that they’re capable of intelligence.”

 I shrugged happily.  Bent Toe laughed with good humour.

 “She smells strange,” Throws Rocks said, sniffing in Azara’s direction.   “They both do.  I think they are of a sort with the creatures of inedible flesh we have heard of.   They cannot be eaten, their flesh refuses to digest.  You can only tear them to pieces and let the pieces quiver in the sun until they begin to rot.”

 I nodded.

 “She is like those creatures,” I told them.  “But different.   She is from the same source, but she is mine.”
 My brothers exchanged knowing glances.

 “There are more and more of those creatures,” Bent Toe said judiciously, avoiding the topic of me and Azara.  “We hear of them again and again, they are spreading.   And among them are strange beings who look like True People, but they have no speech and their smell and movement is wrong.   The Matriarchs are becoming very concerned.”

 I nodded gravely.

 “The Matriarchs are wise to be concerned,” I said, “I have encountered these beings myself.”

 “That must be a story,” Bent Toe said.

 “Enough about me,” I said.  “It has been years since I have seen you.   How is it that you come here?”

 And of course, because males love to brag and boast, that was all they needed.   Soon I was rocking on my haunches as they told me of their many adventures since leaving our mother.   Battles against Banths, careful ambushes of Green Men and Thoats, empty cities they had passed through, careful travels between cities under the cover of night, all the time growing into bullhood, becoming such fine strapping specimens that we had barely recognized each other.

 At length, we grew tired, and they invited me back to their nest, to rest and renew myself.

 I turned then, remembering Azara, slipping back into my human self and froze as I saw her face.

 “It is not animal noises,” she whispered.  “You talk to them.  And they talk to you.”

 I knew I had some explaining to do.


 “You lied to me.”

 “Yes,” I replied.  My heart was pounding softly.   “No.   I mean, no, I did not lie to you.  I only spoke a part of the truth.   And yes, I speak to them.”

 “I have never heard of any Red Man speaking to them.  I have never heard that they could speak at all.   They are just animals who kill all they see.  But they do not attack you,” she said.

 “Us,” I corrected, “they do not attack us.”

 “You,” she repeated.   “They don’t attack you.  They talk to you, and you talk to them.  Tell me why?”

 I sat silent, thinking over different lies.   Finally, I decided to tell the truth.

 “I am one of them,” I said.  “My mother was a Great White Ape.”

 Azara’s eyes widened. 

 “You are as human as I!”  She announced.  “I do not believe it!”

 “I was born in a Jeddak’s harem,” I began, “I suppose I was born human, and in the normal way, hatched from an egg.”

 “So you are a Princess?”  she asked.  “Tul Axtar’s spawn?”

 “No,” I said, “my father was no Prince, no Jed, no Jeddak, he was a wanderer, a swordsman and a killer.   He had no noble name in his own land.”

 “The Thern?”

 I raised an eyebrow.

 “Some of the Panthans talked about you,” she explained.  “They said you were half Thern, which explained your light skin and odd features.”

 “My father came out of the Valley Dor,” I said carefully.   “But I never met him.  I can say little about him.  Little good at any rate.   He was gone, and I was born into the Jeddak’s harem, a child without history or pedigree, little more than a slave or a pet.”

 “I spent my early years there,” I continued.  “I was a precocious child, and pretty.   This was perhaps, not a good thing.  It was not wise to be a pretty child in the harem of this Jeddak, for in time, I came to his notice.  And that was not a good thing either.”

 Azara shuddered.   “I heard stories of the lusts of Tul Axtar,” she volunteered.

 “A nurse took pity upon me, and chose to flee with me.  I supposed that she hoped to reach some safe city beyond the Jeddak’s reach.   But her stolen flyer was not well charged.  As she flew out over the desert, she lost power and speed.  As night fell, she chose to seek shelter in a dead city in the empty lands.”

 “It was not a wise choice.   The dead city was not wholly dead, but rather, it was infested with great white apes.   They found her and tore her to pieces before my eyes.   She had hidden me as they broke in, but still, I saw what they did to her.   I gasped, and this sound alerted them to my presence.  Quickly they tore me from my hiding place.”

 “How did you survive?”  she gasped.

 “I would have suffered my nurse’s fate.  Even as the beasts pulled my from shelter, others were devouring the body of my nurse, tearing out ragged chunks of flesh and gulping it down.  I screamed, the most terrified cry of my young life.  But before the apes who had me could act, a great female, larger than all the others seized me from them.   She roared, frightening them away from us, and clasped me to her breast.   Holding me tightly, she rushed off into the night, leaving them to bicker over the remains of my benefactor.  She looked down at me and cooed gently, and pressed my face to her nipple.”

 “Among the White apes, each tribe is ruled by a dominant female.   The ruling female of this tribe, my tribe, had lost her baby.   Her grief made her mad, she refused to give up the dead body, carrying it wherever she went, as if love alone could drive death away.    Only duty, the need to lead her tribe, had kept her going.  But when she saw me, I was much lighter then, a white skinned child, the same size as her baby, screaming in terror, some alchemy took place in her heart.   She abandoned the dead infant and took me for her own.”

 “All this I came to understand later, of course.   My brothers told me parts of it, and the rest I figured out.   I was terrified in those first days, living in a constant state of fear.  But I was a child, and fear cannot endure forever.  I slept and woke, the ape cared for me and nursed me.   The other apes might yet have killed me, but she kept them away.   She became my mother.”

  “The Great Apes are unlike the Green Men,” I told her, “in that they love their children. 
Each egg is treasured, the mother attentive upon their hatching, the infant grows under the care and love of their tribe.   Slowly, the other apes of the tribe came to accept me, as I came to accept them.  They taught me their ways, and day by day, my humanity slipped away and I became on of them.”

 “But this cannot be,” she protested.   “They are huge monsters, surely they could not mistake you for one of them.”

 “They took me for one of their children.   I grew up among them, even as my brothers and sisters grew.   But Great White Apes reckon time differently, and they did not mark that I did not grow apace with my siblings.  I remained small, and so I remained a child among them, a precocious child, but a child to be protected and never harmed.  Time gave them acceptance.”

 “I found a knife, and used it as my weapon.  For this, they gave me a name, Sharp Fingers.  Though my body was childlike to them, yet they learned to respect my strength and quickness with the knife, and the cleverness of my wits.   They were my people, and I was happy.”

 “They are intelligent creatures?” she said. 

 “Intelligence of a sort,” I said, “their thinking is different from Red Men.  Their lives are fierce and ruled by instinct.   But intelligent yes.”

 “And they have their own language?” she asked.   “Who could have imagined!   Say something in their language.”

 I smiled then as I made her a very indecent proposition in barks and growls.

 “What happened then?” she asked.  “Surely you must have come to civilization by some means.  Whatever you are, you are not a White Ape now.”

 “Aye,” I said.   “After a long time, after years had passed, Tul Axtar, heard rumours of a white girl living among the great apes as one of them.   He sent his soldiers out to take her.”

 “They invaded the city and killed every ape they could find.  They used trained Calots to hunt us down.   My mother died defending me, and I was torn screaming from her body.   I tore the throat out of the man who had killed her, and howled as they bound and gagged me.   This was my first taste of civilization.”

 “I was a prize for the Jeddak now, no longer a fetching girl child, but a savage creature with the looks of a woman and the heart of a beast.   But much as he may have wanted me, I was far too savage to be returned to his harem.  Instead, I was given to Panthan’s and Animal Trainers to raise.”

 I smiled wryly at the memory.

 “I did not lie to you Azara,” I told her.  “I was raised by Animal Trainers.   I was the animal they trained.”

 She gasped and put her hand on my arm in sudden sympathy.

 “Oh Tora,” she whispered.

 “The trained me not to bite.   They trained me to cringe and kneel, to sit up and roll over,” I laughed.   “They taught me to beg, and after I was tamed, they taught me speech and manners.   There were cruel ones, and I killed them when I could.  There were some who were not cruel and I learned to like them, or at least, not to hate them so fiercely.”

 “Returned to the harem, I found the delights of slave girls, but not the disposition to be one myself.   Ungovernable, I was given to soldiers and trained as one of them.   I became a killer for my Jeddak, as loyal as a Calot, as fierce as a Banth.”

 “And how did you become a Panthan?” she asked.

 “My Jeddak, my city, were destroyed by the butcher of Helium.   A lesser tyrant was destroyed by a greater tyrant, as is the way of Red Men,” I shrugged. 

 “John Carter is no tyrant,” she protested.   I laughed a little at that.   His web of illusion had caught her up too.

 “It is all tyranny, with only the faces changing, but always there is a throne to sit upon the backs of all.    John Carter is no better than any of the others, he is merely worse because he is so much greater.   There is no goodness in greatness, Azara, merely different degrees of monstrousness.   Trust me, I should know.”


 “There were good people in Jahar,” I told her.  “Innocent people.  John Carter’s fleet killed them as easily as the bad.   There were innocent slaves in the Valley Dor, and good people in Okar.   He raped an entire nation, handing a city to the Green Men in the sack of Zodanga, he killed a faith, and dragged hiding nations from their refuge.”

 “But those are the fortunes of war,” she protested, “any war has casualties.”

 “And how does that make any war a moral thing?”  I asked, “Or any warrior a moral creature?   We are all monsters in this enterprise, and the only thing that distinguishes the innocent and the guilty spitted on our swords is chance. ”

 I saw her mouth the word Thern, but she thought better of it, and swallowed it unvoiced. 

 “Tul Axtar,” I said, “had me swear an oath to destroy John Carter.   So I suppose his war continues beyond his death.   Let us forget the Butcher of Helium, I have no wish to speak of that, I would forget Helium entirely, if I could.”

 I paused, collecting my thoughts.

 “Having no master, and no skill but killing, what else was there for me.   I had no wish to serve this new tyrant, who had destroyed all that had been left to me.  I could not return to the Great Apes, for I was no longer one of them.  I had become what they called a ‘false creature’ and the family that would have seen to my true soul as one of them were scattered or dead.   Freedom had been thrust upon me, unwanted, and I wandered this world, with nothing but my sword and my arm to wield it.”

 Her eyes were brimming with compassion as she gazed upon me.   I looked away.

 “That is such a tragic story,” she whispered, “you poor creature, it explains so much.  Your unnatural senses, your remarkable strength....”

 “My senses are not unnatural,” I said, “nor my strength, they are the same as any other human, except that most people do not exercise their talents and so are blind.”

 “Your strange manner, your surly disposition and ferocious nature,” she continued.

 “I am not surly!”  I said.   “I am not surly at all.  Sometimes I am impatient with those who are foolish.  But I’m not surly.”

 “I have never found you surly towards me,” she said diplomatically after a careful pause.

 “Well, exactly,” I said.

 “What a strange life you have lead, Tora,” she whispered.  “What a strange and terrible life you have endured.   My poor, poor, darling Tora.”

 I shrugged.

 “Better than I have suffered worse,” I said, “I have no cause to complain.   My mother was a Great White Ape, and she was a good mother.   I love her still.”


  The Matriarch of this tribe was named Reflections in a Shallow Pool.   She was young as Matriarchs are counted.   As Bent Toe and Throws Stones stood grinning behind me, she looked Azara and I over.

 “They both look like false creatures to me,” she said, “I don’t know why we aren’t eating them.   Which of you is Sharp Fingers?”

 “I am, noble mother,” I replied in the language of the great apes.

 She grunted thoughtfully.

 “I’m not your mother,” she said, “though I’ve heard other mothers in their late ages have produced stunted offspring.    Bent Toe tells me that despite your deformities, you are strong and clever and fierce.”

 “I have high regard for my brothers,” I said.

 “As do we all,” she replied.   “Strong and clever and fierce?   Everyone has one of these qualities at least, and many have two.  But to possess all three is rare.”

 “What’s happening,” Azara whispered.

 “It is a good sign,” I whispered in the red man language, “she’s talking to me, which means she’s decided not to kill us immediately.”

 Reflections followed my quick exchange with Azara.

 “What about that creature,” she asked.  “Can she speak, or is she truly a false creature.  Can we eat her?”

 “She is mine,” I said firmly in the ape speech.

 “Are you going to eat her?”  Reflections asked.

 “Every chance I get,” I replied with a straight face.

 That confused her.

 “She is one of those inedible creatures,” Bent Toe added quickly.  “Whose flesh cannot be digested.”

 Reflections leaned forward and sniffed Azara deeply.   Her nostrils twitched.

 “I see,” she said.   “I do not approve of pets.   If you join our tribe, you’ll have to look after it yourself, or get rid of it.”

 She glanced towards Bent Toe.

 “There was a third?   Some sort of flying thing?”

 “Also of inedible flesh,” Bent Toe replied.  “It was wounded.”

 “Does it live?”


 “If we can’t eat it, what good is it?   Why hasn’t someone twisted its head off?”

 “It is a great curiousity,” Bent Toe said.   “We’ve never seen a flying thing so large, nor so close.   The creatures who resemble true people ride them in the sky.”

 “Indeed?”  Her tone conveyed utter indifference.

 “And it belongs to Sharp Fingers,” he said quickly.

 “Another pet?” she glanced at me.   “I thought you were fierce.   Perhaps your brothers were mistaken.   It is lucky for you that I am soft hearted myself.”

 I made a mental note that the instant the Malagor found itself capable of even partial flight, it should get out of here.   We’d have to watch over it carefully until then.  I hoped that the creature healed as quickly as Azara seemed to.   Azara I reckoned to be safe enough, so long as she was with me every moment.

 “You are welcome to join our tribe,” Reflections said, making her decision.   “But you are forbidden to take a mate until the seasons change.   Stay out of trouble, do not provoke fights and do your share.   If someone mistakes you for a false creature and eats you, its nothing to me.”

 Bent Toe clapped me on the back.

 “What did we tell you?”  He said.  “Isn’t she special?  Just like mother.”

 “We’re in,” I whispered to Azara in the red man language.

 “Terrific,” she whispered back in a flat tone which suggested that she didn’t really mean it.

 And thus we joined the tribe of Reflections in a Shallow Pool, for a series of precarious days.   Slipping back into the persona and nature of a White Ape came easily I found.  It was as if I never left.   I quickly adopted the shambling gait and human sounds dropped from my throat to be replaced with gutteral barks and grunts.

 As my ape nature asserted itself, the other members of the tribe found it increasingly easy  to accept me.   My childlike size worked in my favour once again, and so I was mostly excluded from the challenges and competition, in favour of a kind of instinctive protectiveness.  Even Reflections warmed to me.

 “Why are you called Sharp Fingers?” she asked once.

 I showed her my sword.   She grunted.   A day or two, she found an old battered Green Man’s shortsword, covered with rust, nicked and dented with hardly an edge.

 “I have sharp fingers now too,” she told me.   To her great pleasure, I cleaned and polished it for her, hammered out the worst of the nicks, and showed her how to sharpen it and maintain an edge.   Soon, lead by my brothers, half the white apes of the tribe were dragging around old green man and red man hardware.

 I even tried to showed them some rudiments of fencing.  I discovered that their arm strength and motion was not well suited for fencing.   Instead, we experimented with free swinging club and sword combinations.

 Acceptance brought curiousity.   I told them about the ways of red men and green men, discoursing about tools and weapons.   We talked about the people who had made this place we lived in, and how the world had changed.   This tribe was different than my old one, they were more curious, more open to ideas. 

 “It’s why we decided to settle here,” my brother Bent Toe told me once, while we were out digging a hive of moss insects to eat.   The days settled into an easy routine of hunting and gathering during the days, and chatting and storytelling in our great communal nests at night.

 The bird recovered quickly, but one day, before I judged it fully healed, it vanished.  I could not believe it had been able to fly away.  But no one in the tribe would confess to killing it, so I never learned what happened to it.   We’d lost our route of escape.

 Somehow though, I found it hard to care overmuch.  Civilization drifted away for me, becoming an illusory thing, only vaguely remembered.

 Were it not for Azara, I might have happily vanished into my ape nature and remained with my new tribe.  But she reeked of humanity, in her look and movements and posture.   I had to constantly watch and ward away my fellow apes from her.   More than that, being near her constantly pulled me back to humanity.   Every touch of her, every word she spoke, and every time I spoke to her dragged me back to human thought.
 If I was happy here, Azara was not.   She learned comfort with my brothers, but the other apes frightened her.   She could not learn our skills, and shrank from foods we found delicious.   Slowly, her isolation became misery.   And her misery seeped into my heart.

 “You are not happy,” Throws Rocks said to me one night, as we cuddled in the communal nest.

 I grunted.

 “Your heart is torn,” he said, “you cannot fully belong to the tribe.”

 He glanced down at Azara, cuddled sleeping in his arms, “I would kill this one for you, and release you from the conflict that divides you.  But you would not forgive me, I know, and your grief would divide you even worse.”

 Azara turned in his arms, as if she were aware he was speaking of her.   She mumbled a short sentence in the language of the White Apes.  The line I’d spoken to her that time she’d asked me to say something in the ape language.   The murmur of conversations around us ceased.  Bent Toe looked over, mouth gaping.  Throws Stones was dumbfounded.

 “I don’t even have one of those,” he said finally.

 He looked over at me. 

 “You must go soon,” he said.   “It was good to have you back with us.  But you belong with her, and she does not belong here.”

 “It is awful out there,” I whispered in the ape tongue, “there is confusion everywhere, my enemies haunt me and I am divided every which way.  I know no peace.”

 He nodded wisely.

 “But it is where you must be.   Kill and eat your enemies, and your confusion will resolve itself.   She will lead you to peace.”

 I hugged my brother then, giving myself to arms which could tear the limbs from a Thoat, nuzzling his heavy jaw and jutting brow.   I felt a vast sadness, he was right, I would have to return to the world of men.


 Reflections accepted my decision to leave the tribe with good grace.
 “Well, I’ve gotten used to you,” she told me, “but to tell you the truth, your pet has been creeping us all out.   She smells funny.”

 “She hardly has an odor,” I said.

 “Your nose is half blind,” she humphed, “she smells of the new creatures.   Your ‘hormads’ are becoming more and more common.   Before you came, we only occasionally saw a flying thing, now we see them in the sky frequently.   We think they are searching for something.  You, perhaps?  Or your pet? 

 “This may be so,” I replied.

 “But even without you, we were seeing them more.   They appear in more and more places, and in greater numbers.    The Matriarchs of all the tribes grow increasingly concerned. The tribe of Ripples in the Sand destroyed a band of them just the other day.”

 That was odd.   I thought hard in terms of what I’d learned of the locations of tribes.   My life among the red men had left me with a better command of geography than most of my people.   If Ripples in the Sand’s tribe was where I thought it was, it should be far distant from any operations of Pew Mogel.    Was this a new scheme?  Was he expanding?   Was his influence spreading?  I felt a tension in the muscles of my belly as I felt the world dragging me back.

  But what could I do about Pew Mogel, I wondered.   I was just one sword.   This was a problem that called for the great powers, even Helium.  I rubbed my forehead.  Were I still leading the black guard of Jahar, I could have swept the deserts clean.  Now...

 What could I do?

 “What’s wrong?” Reflections asked.

 Perhaps we should just run off together somewhere.   Find a city to hide in.   Let Helium handle it.  And just hope that they’d get around to him before he hunted me and Azara down?  I hardly liked that thought.

 But no, they’d failed to deal with Pew Mogel properly once before, and I had little confidence that they’d get him this time, if they could even convince themselves that he was still around.   Razing cities was what they did, this required something more.

 I was going to have to do this myself.   How do you kill an unkillable madman surrounded by secret armies of flesh shaped monsters?

 “I think I must do something about the new creatures,” I said, “I must stop their leader, before he causes trouble.”

 “That’s very sensible,” she said, “and I approve.”

 “I don’t know how I shall achieve that.”
 “You are clever and strong and fierce,” she said, “that’s a rare combination.  I’m sure you’ll be up to it.   Maybe your pet can help?”

 Yes, I thought, a Princess of Aztor might help indeed.   In the best of cases, perhaps she could take the throne and we could raise armies together.   Or failing that, she’d be far better at making our case to noble houses. 

 Come to that, I’d served in armies and fleets and commanded troops half the world over.  Between us, I was sure that Azara and I could raise up armies somehow.  I would postpone my lifelong war with Helium.   I felt an irrational bouyancy somehow, a confidence that the fates would be with us.   About damned time, come to think of it, they’d had the sport of me my whole life.  I figured that they owed me.   If nothing else, I supposed they might enjoy the change of pace.

 The problem, of course, was that having decided to leave, I had no idea how to get out of here.   Our Malagor was either dead or long gone, and it was a long way on foot to the nearest city of red men.

 Later that evening, I discussed the problem with my brothers and with Azara.  It was a slow conversation, as I had to translate each of their words for the other.   Both seemed vastly intrigued by the notion that they were conversing through me.  I suppose neither my brothers nor Azara believed deep down that the other was truly intelligent, but the very thought that they might be fascinated them.

 “We could come with you,” Bent Toe said, “it would help in negotiating your passage with the other tribes.   It’s been too long since we travelled.  My feet ache to see the world.”

 “Why don’t you just ride,” Throws Stones suggested.

 Azara agreed.

 “Excellent suggestion,” I said sarcastically in two languages.  “Do any of you have a Thoat tucked away.”

 It was a bit of a joke, because while Thoats were tolerant of Red and Green Men, they had never abided the presence of White Apes, or vice versa.  Perhaps the inability of my people to tame Thoats had resulted in their being left behind by the other races.  I voiced this thought to Bent Toe, who was the more philosophical of my brothers.

 “On the other hand,” he said, “the artificial creatures that mimic true people seem to have no difficulty riding those great flying things.   Isn’t that odd.”

 “Artificial creatures both,” Throwing Stones pointed out.

 “But do they ever ride Thoats, these beings?” 

 “Not that I know of,” I said.

 Bent Toe leaned back and rubbed his chin, as he always did when thinking. 

 “None of this gets us any further,” I said, “because we have no flying creatures, and we have no Thoats.”

 “There is a camp of false creatures and their Thoats not too far away,” Bent Toe said, “in the territory of the tribe of Wind Makes a Lonely Sound.”


 I hadn’t heard this before.  Carefully, I interrogated my brothers about this.  But the more I learned, the less sense it made.   There was a large camp of red men, hundreds of men by the sound of it, and exercising remarkable discipline.   They had Thoats, but neither flyers nor malagors.   They seemed in contact with other bands of men, for while their numbers remained constant, there were riders coming and going constantly.   They seemed, despite their numbers, at pains to conceal themselves.

 I could make neither heads nor tails of it.   A group that size suggested some sort of enterprise, yet I could find no sign of industry in my brothers descriptions.   There were far too many to be bandits, and there seemed no purpose to justify a military presence.

 Who were these Red Men then?   And what were they doing?

 Was this some further scheme of Pew Mogel?  I could not tell.

 I resolved to investigate this matter.

 “Thanks for discussing it with us,” Throws Stones said.

 “She was always bossy like this when we were young,” Bent Toe confided to Azara, though of course, they could not understand each other.

 Azara nodded and replied, “nothing ever changes.”

 What?   Furrowing my brow, I asked, “can you understand him?”

 “No,” she replied smartly, “I don’t need to.   His tone of voice tells me all I need to know.”

 And then they grinned at each other. 

 Family, I thought disgustedly.

 There was nothing more to discuss and little to carry, thus no preparations to hold us.   We filled our bellies with delicious grubs, which for some peculiar reason, Azara declined, and then headed across the scrub desert, traveling between ruins and rocks until we made it to Wind Makes a Sad Sound’s territories.

 Wind was a fairly conservative matriarch, who imposed little discipline upon her people.  After being convinced that neither Azara nor I were fit to eat, and neither Bent Toe or Throws Rocks intended to stay too long, she consented to let us wander her territory without joining her tribe.   She was generous in this, as the continuing presence of the red men, and the inability of her tribe to hunt them effectively had put her in a sour mood.

 While my brothers flirted with the shes of Wind’s tribe, I decided to scout these strange red men, taking Azara with me.

 “Your brothers seem popular,” Azara noted.

 “They were always handsome devils,” I replied distractedly, examining the ground.   There were Thoat tracks here.   “The true people used to say that Mother divided her attributes equally among us.  Bent Toes received her looks, Throws Stones received her wit...”

 “And you?”

 “I got the stubbornness.  That was why I refused to grow any taller.”

 “I like that,” she said.

 “Hmm?”   I had a rough idea from Wind as to their perimeter, but I would need to scout it more carefully.   Was it an organized camp, with mess, stables, latrine and kit?  Or was it merely a cluster?   I couldn’t tell from a simple Thoat trail, and it would tell me a great deal about who they were and what they might be up to.

 But the fates had one last joke to play upon us.   For as I was examining the direction of the tracks and planning my approach, a dozen Thoats with riders turned a corner and appeared in front of us, not two dozen yards distance.

 For a second, we stared at each other, frozen with shock.    Then the lead rider pointed at us.

 “Kill them!” he said, and they all broke into a gallop.

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