PART XIII: Chapters 49-52
MAN FROM DOR
TUMULT BEFORE THE STORM
52. A BATTLE
FORTY-NINE -- THE MAN FROM DOR
It was dusk, the sun was dying as it always was, painting the
sky in vivid flourishes of blue and purple. Most of the
time, the skies of Barsoom are cloudless, but at dusk and dawn, when the
sun hits low, long thin clouds are visible, catching the light, straining
it in exquisite colours seen nowhere else on this dying world.
Perhaps there are always clouds, but only at twilight can we see
them. I remembered wondering that as a child so long ago.
Azara came up to the tower and perched on a bench off to the side.
She did not speak to me. Just as well, I’d lost her again, it would
do us no good to prolong the hurt.
I sighed. I’d had her far longer than I’d had any
right. What had been the lesson of that long dead Jeddak?
What was his name? Sapso Ko. The lesson I’d taken
was that we only had moments, each of us. Slender moments slipping
away even as we savoured them.
My rage had burned itself out. Now only dying embers were
left to warm me. I felt a bittersweet sadness that forbade me to
send her away. Let her stay, I thought. She’d be
gone completely, soon enough.
Our moments were over. I sighed again and glanced
over to her. She was holding some small object, a talisman
perhaps, on a line between me and her, staring at both it and me.
I shifted my gaze back to Pew Mogel’s forces. I judged
us outnumbered five to one, and more arriving constantly. Hopelessly
outnumbered, underprovisioned, outgunned. With a quarter his numbers,
he could have starved us out. With half his numbers, he could
have taken this poor fortress, undermanned as it was. But still
Was he a fool, I wondered, to commit so many resources to such
a poor task? Or was this some self-aggrandizing display of
might? Or did he fear me?
No answers. It was growing darker, too dark to see
well out in the distance. I turned to Azara to suggest we go down.
She was still staring from me to the medallion. Something about it
drew my eye, I stared.
It wasn’t a medallion.
I took two steps towards her and snatched the object from her
hand. I glanced at it. A coin. A coin
of Helium. Angrily, I flung the cursed thing into the night with
all my might. Perhaps one of Pew Mogel’s monstrosities could
find it and choke on it.
“I found that coin in Korvas,” she said softly, “before I was
placed in this body, before I was imprisoned in the tower.
I carried it with me through everything, the tower, the desert, into slavery.
When I felt despair, I would take that coin and stare at the face on it,
and I knew that if only I could keep on going, then someday, I would have
“Tell me, Tora Kar Thor,” she asked, “why do you fear it so?”
My cheeks burned.
“When I saw you the first time,” she said, “it was as if I knew
you, I felt such recognition. Your features somehow seemed as familiar
as my own in that first instant, and yet in the next instant, I knew I
had never met anyone like you. Before you ever noticed me, I was
fascinated with you.”
My heart thudded in my chest. No, Azara, I wanted
to say, you have it backwards, I feel as if I’ve spent my life searching
for you. That my whole existence was simply waiting for that moment
when I saw you.
“You’ve never lied, have you,” she said quietly. “Perhaps
that is some perverse point of pride for you. You never lie.
You’re just so very careful to tell only part of the truth, and let it
“Your father came out from the Valley Dor,” she said, “but he
was no Thern, was he?”
My lips parted, but no words came. I swallowed once, sucking
my cheeks to moisten my suddenly dry mouth.
“There is an ancient story, called the Jeddak’s Egg.
First told of ancient Marhor, of parents who ruled a mighty Empire, whose
egg was stolen from them.”
I swallowed again.
“But it’s not really a story is it,” she said, “not for you.”
“No,” I said.
She waited. The moments grew long, around us the stars
grew bright, and still she waited.
“What do you want me to say?” I blurted out. “It’s
true, for all the good it does. But it’s only misery.
It only means my life is a joke of the fates, my path written long ago
in kingdoms now dust. I’m denied the illusions that sustain
the rest of us and can do no more than play my bloody part, acting out
a fate already written.”
“You were hatched in Tul Axtar’s harem,” she said. “Oh how
he must have rejoiced in your birth, the fat, vicious madman.
He’d stolen the fairest flower in all the land, I wonder how it made him
feel, to win his cowards victory. He expected to grow you into his
concubine, his whore, to make you something for his pleasure. Had
you been born a son, he would probably have turned you into his pawn, but
a daughter? Oh that must have been so satisfying to him. Was
there anything deeper than a cheap self-aggrandizement, to make the Warlord’s
daughter a toy? Perhaps he thought it might secure him a route
to the throne of Helium, a claim upon that empire?”
“How he must have raged and feared when you were stolen from him.
The relief he must have felt when he finally recovered you, and found you
reduced to the level of an animal. You’d fallen into the care
of beasts, rather than people who might have exposed the both of you for
good and ill. It ruined you as a toy, but it saved his secret,
and perhaps his life.”
I turned my face away, refusing to reply.
“It must be hard,” she said, “the coins of Helium are everywhere.
How many times have people told you your face is familiar, but they cannot
“Too often,” I said dryly.
“And if they said you looked like him,” she said, “I can’t imagine
you would take that well.”
“It did not come up often,” I said, “and seldom twice.”
“Tora Kar Thor,” she said, sounding out my name. “Kar Thor....
Carter... There you are: Hiding in plain sight, a truth so incredible
that you could simply trust it not to be seen.”
”They abandoned me!” I shouted. “They abandoned me
to the White Apes and Animal Trainers, to Panthans and Assassins and Tul
Axtar! They abandoned me and forgot me and consigned my existence
to darkness. They simply had another egg and gave another daughter
my very name! Who could do that! Who could bear to do
such a thing! Better they had smashed my egg before I was ever
“Where do you get this?” She asked calmly. “Is this
Tul Axtar’s nonsense, indoctrinated into your head when you were too young
to know better, set like cement, without your ever thinking it through?”
“Get this?” I said desperately. “I know it!
It’s written in my flesh. It’s the shape of my life.”
“Nonsense,” she said.
“They abandoned me,” I replied.
“You know his story, he set half the world to flame, fought his
way from the depths of Omean to the heights of Okar, all for the sake of
his love. Do you think he would have hesitated to put the rest
of it to the sword to rescue his child?”
“But he didn’t.”
“He didn’t know,” she said. “Do you think Tul Axtar
would have advertised his conquest? A fortnight after the news
reached Helium, there would not be one stone left piled on top of another
through the whole of Jahar. Every ship and boat, every sword
and knife that Helium could command by decree or influence would have been
marching on Tul Axtar. You were his great victory over the
Warlord, and he could never reveal it to a living soul. I can
just imagine the nights Tul Axtar must have woken up in a cold sweat fearing
that his crime had been discovered, the times he must have contemplated
your murder to conceal the evidence, and fearing the retribution that would
flow mercilessly from that!”
“They did not even search,” I said hotly. “They simply
moved on and left me behind. I was not even a memory.”
“How do you know?” she asked. “Have you thought this through?
No, of course not. You’ve spent all your time as a soldier, and no
time at all in court. A childhood among Great White Apes has
prepared you not at all for the intricacies of politics.”
“I’m insulted,” I said hotly.
“No,” she said, “you want to be insulted so you can escape this
conversation. But you will listen to me instead. Tora,
I spent a lifetime in royal courts, and I know and understand things you
do not appreciate. Suppose the Warlord and his bride announced
their egg was stolen, what do you think would have happened?”
“Well,” I said, “they would have searched for me.
And with the resources of an empire at their disposal...”
“Nonsense,” she said.
“How nonsense?” I demanded.
“The day after they made such an announcement, their courtyard
would filled with every fortune seeker who could lay their hands on an
Egg. Within a year, the population of Helium would be doubled
with pretenders to the throne. The only certainty would be
that the thieves of the true egg would have smashed their prize to escape
detection. It would be a nightmare.”
I thought that over. It made an appalling sort of
sense, in a way that made me wish I was back among the Great White Apes.
“Then...” I protested, “they should have done something!”
“And they did. They kept that secret, confining it
to only those they trusted, and then they sent out their agents to scour
the world, plumbing every city, following every rumour, investigating every
possibility. Everything I know of the Warlord or his bride
tells me that they would never, ever give up the search.”
“But it would always have to be done in secret,” she said.
“Of course, no secret can be kept perfectly. Rumours would
seep out, conjectures and speculation would arise, guesses would be made.
None of these could be uttered out loud, but there would be whispers.”
“And in these whispers, as has always been the way with the affairs
of the mighty, stories would be told, would seep out and transmit themselves,
taking false names and set far away, so as not to provoke their subjects.
And one day, the Jeddak’s Egg, a story no one has cared about in ten thousand
years, becomes a popular song, and then a subject of poetry, it becomes
an epic and then a performance. Suddenly, an obscure little
tragedy about a Jeddak and his son in a kingdom lost so long ago that there
are not even ruins is remembered and discussed in every city of note across
the whole of Barsoom. Children who have never heard of Helium
or Jahar hum the tunes.”
“And of course, Tora Kar Thor, hears the tale, recognizes it,
and takes entirely the wrong message from it.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said hotly.
“No,” I said harshly. “I’ll warn you only once.
The conversation is over. Leave this subject, more, leave me
She fell silent, but did not leave. I paced the battlement
two or three times, my guts churning, frustration tensing my muscles.
Finally, knowing not what else to do, I sat down beside her, our hips touching,
and I stared resolutely away from her.
Now it would come, I thought. She would defend him, explain
him, justify him. She’d tear away at everything I was.
How could I explain these things to her?
“Did you ever meet him?” she asked softly, after a few minutes.
I thought about it, touching the idea in my head, the way you
might poke a sore tooth with your tongue, before I decided to reply.
“Three times,” I replied quietly, “sort of.”
She waited patiently. Finally, I swallowed, and began
to speak softly, calling up the memories as if reliving them.
“The first time was the fall of Jahar,” I said, “I remember that
so well. The Helium fleet was unstoppable. Our forces
blasted from the sky. Ships burning as they floated in the air.
The city was half in flames, the towers falling, the streets full of refugees,
our army literally falling apart around me, Tul Axtar missing.”
“I’d been drilled to believe that he was a monster,” I told her,
“and as his forces came on relentlessly, as my city died, I could well
believe it. We rallied at the north gate, and he crushed us
there. Many of us, whoever I could marshal, pulled back to the avenue
of heroes, and again, he swept us away. Tul Axtar had raised
me to be his nemesis, he had promised that some day he would use me against
the Warlord. But now, that seemed like a child’s foolishness.
This thing I faced was less a man and more a force of nature.”
“Then, from my position on a tower which I’d climbed to signal
our forces. I saw him, standing there like a god on the deck of his
I laughed quietly.
“I recognized him from the coin, you see. Isn’t that ironic.
I was a good sharpshooter, not the best, but gifted nevertheless.
I knew that from this distance and angle, I could hit him easily.”
“My shot went wild,” I said. “It did not even come close
to him. I was forced to abandon my position. After that, the
battle was over. I did what I could to save the refugees, and then
later escaped as Helium rounded up the remnants of Tul Axtar’s forces.”
“Why did you miss?”
“You think I chose to miss? Not at all,” I said with
what I hoped was confidence. “The city was burning, winds carried
ash and dust everywhere. A bit of grit caught my eye at exactly the
wrong moment and threw off my aim.”
“It’s true,” I insisted.
“The second time,” she prodded.
“Years later,” I said, “in the service of Sarkiss Vak of Jekkara.”
“Where is that?”
“Near the south of Nunt,” I said. “A permanently rebellious
province. Vak had won his city’s independence from Nunt, and
chose to celebrate it with a war against his neighbor. Unfortunately,
his neighbor was allied with the twin cities. Facing defeat,
it surrendered its sovereignty and Jekkara found itself facing the Warlord.
It was a bloody campaign.”
I waited a moment, but she seemed willing to let me continue.
“It was in a ground battle at the gates of Jekkara,” I said.
“The city lay in the balance. I was swinging my sword, and the next
thing I knew, I found myself crossing blades with a tall white man with
black hair and gray eyes.”
“Did you speak to him?”
I laughed with honest surprise.
“And say what? It was the middle of a battle, our
swords did your talking. We traded blows a half dozen times,
and then several of my soldiers came up, and he was forced to back away,
then a dozen men of Helium arrived, and we gave ground and the tide of
battle swept us apart. That was it.”
“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I fancy myself good with a sword,
perhaps even brilliant. In a battle, I’ll simply cut my way
through, dispatching most opponents with but two or three strokes.
But I couldn’t touch him at all. He cut his way through his
enemies just like I did. When you get to a certain level you can
gauge an opponent’s skill, simply by crossing steel with him for two or
“And do you know what?” I said. “Good as I was, he
was better. We both knew it by the third cut. When
the battle pushed us apart, I will confess that I did not go looking for
“Did he recognize you at all?”
“Mmmm,” I said, “no. I don’t think so.”
I thought it over a little more.
“No,” I added. “That’s not quite right. I remember,
as we fought, a strange look coming over his face. He could not have
known who I was. But perhaps something about me, my complexion, my
features, my strength or my swordplay, perhaps it struck him as familiar.
I’ve seen that look before, in people who think they’ve seen my face before,
but cannot think where.”
“The third time?”
“At the north pole,” I said.
“You’ve traveled,” she said reflectively, “I envy you.
I’ve never been anywhere except for Aztor and Pew Mogel’s captivity.”
I patted her knee affectionately.
“I was in the employ then of Hin Abtol of Panar,” I said, “yet
another of these would-be world conquerors. He had hit upon
a means of creating a tremendous army through freezing, but beyond that,
he proved himself a thorough fool. I soon concluded I’d made
a mistake in joining him, but it was hardly the first and certainly not
the last such mistake.”
“Still, I had no particular wish to become an ice cube, which
meant I must by needs, seek advancement in his ranks. Luckily, that
was no great trial, and so I had soon achieved the rank of Captain, which
was as high as a non-Panar could aspire, but even then, I was beginning
to scheme of ways to overcome that barrier.”
“As it happened, Hin Abtol acquired a prisoner, Llana of Gathol.
Do you know of her?”
She shook her head.
“The grand-daughter of the Warlord, by my namesake and Gahan of
Gathol. He had captured her somehow, and was now showing her
off, before adding her to his harem.”
“Well, I was there, and in something of a quandary.
As far as I was concerned, the Warlord was my enemy, and if Hin Abtol dropped
him and his wife and even his son and daughter off a cliff, that was all
right with me. But this? I could see no way of extending
my feud to some innocent girl, and she was my niece, so even if vengeance
had no role, the blood was still there. My namesake’s daughter?
That almost meant she could have been my daughter, had things been different.”
I sucked air through my lips, remembering.
“And it hardly seemed worthy to leave her in Hin Abtol’s clutches.
He was no Tul Axtar to indulge the rape of children, but his tastes and
ways were well known, and I have no hesitation in saying he was bad enough.
So, I had decided by that time, that the only proper thing to do was to
rescue her. Send her back to Helium, perhaps, with some
suitably contemptuous message.”
“So there I am, in Hin Abtol’s square, standing in his crowd,
looking out at my niece, settled on rescuing her and wondering how I’m
going to get her out of there. And I’m standing next to a great
big red man, one of Hin Abtol’s freaks.”
“Hin Abtol was big on freaks of all sorts,” I recalled, “it’s
a shame for him he never met Pew Mogel. He would have either
put him in a zoo or made him his Prime Minister. He liked to surround
himself with all sorts of oddities, giants and dwarves, fire eaters, acrobats,
half-thern warrior women and strongmen. So of course, it was
nothing at all that I should wind up standing next to some strongman who’d
been discovered lugging things around in the ice pits.”
“But here is the remarkable thing. Something about
that strongman struck me as familiar. I tried to put it out of my
mind, for I had a rescue to plan. But it was damnably distracting.
I kept looking back to the strongman, trying to place where I might have
seen him, or know him from.”
“And then, like a shock, it hit me. It was him!
He’d dyed his skin to pass as a red man, but it was him all right.
I was standing shoulder to elbow with my nemesis, with the bane of my existence,
with the adversary who had cursed my life, the enemy I had been trained
almost from birth to combat. Here we were, standing side by side
like old friends at a picnic, without a care in the world!”
“Did he recognize you?”
“Not even a bit. His eyes passed over me without a flicker.
His attention was entirely consumed by his mission.”
“I must say, I was quite frozen with the shock of it.
And after the shock had passed, I found myself paralyzed with indecision.
What to do? Denounce him? Attack him now? I could
step back and stick my knife in his back before he even knew I was there.
But then what of my niece? Could I take my vengeance on him, without
dooming her? Were I to expose him now, would it ruin my chances of
rescuing her? He was obviously here to rescue her himself.
Shouldn’t I simply let him? He could do it, I would take no
risk, my niece would be safe from Hin Abtol and I could wreak my vengeance
at a later date. But what if it turned out my help was needed?
If it meant saving her, would I have to act? What was his plan?
Did he even have one? A thousand thoughts just like those raced through
my mind as I stood there next to him. Do you know what happened
“No,” she said. “What?”
“He just ran out of the crowd, grabbed up Llana of Gathol in his
arms, bounded past the guards, jumped into a flyer and burst out a hole
in the great dome, while all of us stood around, our mouths gaping with
I chuckled with something approaching admiration.
“That wasn’t even a plan! There was no trace of a
plan! I don’t know what to call it, really. Wild recklessness.
But I’ll tell you there’s no stopping a man like that. A man
like that, he can do anything. There’s no way to beat such
a being. Certainly a pathetic creature like Hin Abtol
had no hope. I was gone from his service the next day.”
“And those,” I said, “are my three encounters with the Warlord
“You couldn’t kill him,” she said.
The warm humour of remembrance seeped away. Bitter
sadness rose up in me.
“No,” I said, “I can’t. I’ve taken his measure, and
I can’t. I’ve neither the skill nor the heart for it.”
I breathed deeply and paused.
“I’ve never talked about this with anyone. Never told
anyone. It’s strange to admit that finally.
So, I guess that means that in the end, he will kill me. It’s a strange
thing to know your fate, to feel its shadow upon you.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said.
I laughed, a small humourless sound.
“Would you set yourself against the very fates themselves,” I
asked. “My story was written long ago.”
“I don’t believe that.”
I turned back to the valley, staring at Pew Mogel’s camp fires.
“You’re probably right,” I said, “I probably won’t live long enough
to play out the story. Pew Mogel will kill us all.”
I heard her step forward, and her arms wrapped around my waist.
Her hips pressed against me. I felt her hair at my back.
“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “Stories are
just stories. We can rewrite them. Our lives belong to us,
not the fates. We can make our own choices.”
“I’ve fought the fates long enough,” I replied softly, “to know
that in the end, they always win.”
“We still live,” she whispered. “Remember, we still live,
and where there is life there is hope.”
Not for me, I thought. Never for me. For me,
there had only been savage necessity. But I did not speak those words,
she did not need to hear them.
“Perhaps,” I said, “I’d like to be alone, I think. I must
She withdrew, but I did not hear her leave. I waited
an hour, staring out at the stars. When I turned, she was still there,
sitting on the bench, resting against the wall, sleeping. Quietly,
I took sleeping silks and wrapped them around her, easing her body against
mine, holding her. At length, I too slept.
FIFTY -- HARD DECISIONS
She was still sleeping as I woke to the dawn’s light breaking
over the horizon. I watched the clouds for a few minutes, and
then the ground, surveying his positions with a critical eye.
Sloppy deployments, I thought, grouped too closely. Then, carefully,
I carried Azara’s unconscious form down to her chamber and laid her in
her bed. I sat there for a time, tenderly watching her sleep.
I could not bear the thought of anything happening to her.
I knew what I must do.
I returned to my office, pulled out a blank parchment and sat
down at a desk with a writing pen in my hand.
I stared at the blank sheet, at first not knowing what to say,
and not wanting to say it.
Savage necessity, I thought, putting unwilling pen to obstinate
paper. In the end, there is no hope, there is only savage necessity.
”Father,” I wrote.
“We do not know each other, and we have no cause to love each other.
Fate has made our choices for us, and we must be content. There
is an enemy we share, a strange mad artificial creature. He
has troubled you before, and if you do not rid yourself of him, he will
come at you again. I bid you to take your forces here and destroy
him swiftly and utterly. I have no right to beg your favour,
nor the power to make promises. I expect no future. But whatever
comes, I would have it ended between us. One way or the other, I
shall trouble you no more. The two who bear this, I consign
to your mercy and generosity. If you have any feelings for
what might have been, I commend you care for these.”
I affixed the coordinates of this location, and as an afterthought,
made notations for what I knew of Pew Mogel’s other bases.
Then I sat there, simply staring at my words, tears running down
my face. With heavy and unwilling hand, I picked up the
pen and signed.
“Your lost daughter, Tora Kar Thor.”
And then, without knowing quite why, for the first time in years,
I wept openly, holding nothing back.
When the spell had passed, I found I had the strength to do what
I must do. I summoned Kal Jor, my self-appointed lieutenant.
“Is the flyer ready?” I asked.
He nodded truculently.
“Fully repaired, and as fast as any you’ll find,” he said.
“You and your lover will be leaving us, I take it?”
I stared at him.
“You expect this?”
“The Jeddak and Jeddara would never make it,” he said, “and we
can’t all go, so it must perchance be someone. I’m not fond
of what will happen to those of us left behind to face those monsters.
I figure that I, and many others here, have been living on days you bought
for us in one way or another, in this war or another. I can’t
begrudge you for collecting on that debt.”
“And by my own sight, I have regard for the well being of the
Princess. She’s a good girl, better than the rest of us and
deserves a chance. I believe you’ll care for her. So
there you have it. That’s how I see it.”
Overcome, I hugged him to me, almost breaking his bones in the
strength of his grip.
“I never deserved to call such as you my friends,” I said, “thank
you. But I will not be going.”
He looked surprised. I stepped back, my voice slipping into
“These are your orders,” I snapped. “Ready the flyer.
Prince Hastor Tal, and his bride, Princess Azara, shall go.”
“It’s a two man flyer,” he protested.
“Yes, and I’ve chosen its riders. They will take a secret
message to Helium. Bring me Hastor Tal, that I may instruct
“A secret message?” he gasped. “Helium, of all places?
What wonder is this? What does it mean?”
I saw something in his eyes, a flicker.
“It means,” I lied, “that I have a plan. We may yet come
out of this.”
That flicker flared into a small hope.
“If anyone can do it,” he said, “you can. Helium!
Of course, I can see it now. Who would have imagined!”
“Helium bears me no love,” I told him, “but they bear Pew Mogel
I held up my hand to shush him.
“One more thing,” I said. “I do not wish to see the
Princess Azara before she leaves. I do not want to see or hear her.
Make sure that I do not.”
He bowed and rushed off. As the door slammed, I allowed
my shoulders to sag. Command was naught but a burden.
He had hope now. Good for him, it would help him die better.
I sighed heavily, feeling the truth.
There was no hope.
Once the decisions had been made, things proceeded with remarkable
swiftness. The final preparations were made to the flyer.
Hastor Tal and I exchanged words briefly, and I found it wasn’t in me to
despise him. He was a good man, I hoped that he would make
Azara I avoided. Easy enough to accomplish, since
there were so many other thing to do. I had no particular wish to
see her, losing her would be hard enough. I didn’t want an
emotional parting, nor did I want her to have any opportunity to do something
romantically foolish like refuse to go. No, get her on the
flyer, get her out of here, and hope that Hastor Tal and my estranged father
together would be enough to protect her and see her happy.
It hurt to think of these things, but in a good way. I took
satisfaction in knowing that I had been able to save her.
I did not even attend the launch. Instead, I stayed
on the battlement and watched as the flyer with its two riders, wrapped
heavily against the cold upper air, streaked off literally under the noses
of Pew Mogel’s startled and unprepared Malagawrs.
They’d never catch her, I thought to myself, watching the giant
birds flounder. She’s finally safe.
One of our sleeping silks lay forgotten on the bench behind me.
I picked it up, breathing in the memory of her. Memory was all I
would have now, but that was enough, and carried it down the steps.
Azara was waiting for me in the meeting chamber.
“NO!” I screamed in shock. “No! No! No!
What are you doing here!”
“I’m where I belong,” she said, “with you.”
“You fool,” I said, “you’ve doomed yourself. How dare
you do this to me? Why aren’t you on that flyer?
This is outrageous! I will not tolerate it! Who’s on
that flyer? Why aren’t my orders obeyed?”
My head felt like it would burst, it was absolutely insufferable.
I simply could not bear it.
”You!” I snarled spotting Kal Jor. I strode over and
picked him up, shaking him like a child. “This is all your
fault! How could you dare disobey my orders!”
“My commander,” he grunted, “I did not.”
“What did I say?” I screamed at him. “She was to be
on the flyer!”
“Prince Hastor Tal and his bride,” he grunted. “A
two man flyer, only two. Those were the two you chose.”
“Prince Hastor Tal and his bride, Princess Azara,” I roared.
“Valla Mar is his bride,” Azara said quietly, standing behind
I dropped Kal Jor and turned slowly on Azara.
“After I was taken, many considered me dead.. Hastor
Tal, freed from his betrothal oath to a dying cripple, fell in love with
Valla Mar and took her as his bride.”
“I did...” I stammered. “I did not know this.”
“You were too busy feeling sorry for yourself. You did not
think to ask. No, forgive me, that is cruel. No
one told you, when we were all reunited, Hastor Tal’s marriage was unknown
to me. I learned only later. His marriage could have
been invalidated, if I wished, by virtue of his promise to me.
They are both virtuous persons, and so they came to me in secrecy for my
“I know what love is,” she said. “There was no choice,
for I would not tear from them what they had found in each other.
My father agreed, and might have revealed it to you, had not circumstances
“But... You were supposed to be on that flyer.”
“Your instructions, whether you realized it or not, were ambiguous.
Kal Jor was forced to interpret it as I directed. Would you
tear two lovers apart for your own satisfaction.”
“I wanted you to live,” I pleaded.
Her eyes were steady.
“Live? Why should I want any such thing,” she demanded,
“if you are not a part of it? I have told you this before.
You should pay attention to these things, or I shall have to become cross
I stood there, utterly defeated. I was in awe of her.
I was strong and fierce, but her? Her strength was the strength
of mountains, of oceans. What hope had I against such as her.
I was better off taking my chances against Pew Mogel’s overwhelming hordes.
Speaking of which...
I cast my mind back over the morning’s positions.
Grouped far too closely, still building his forces, complacent and lazy,
obviously not expecting an attack. Could we....?
Obviously impossible! Why not...? My thoughts became
calculations, and I found myself grinning wolfishly.
Why not, indeed, I thought. Perhaps Pew Mogel was
right to fear me.
I turned to Kal Jor, my manner suddenly crisp and focused.
“Ready the men,” I said, “we’ll sortie within the hour.”
My sudden certainty seemed to give him heart. He allowed
himself a grin. I shifted back to Azara. “You,” I told
her, “I expect you to stay put and stay out of trouble for once.”
I went off to prepare an attack. My lips pulled back
in a barring my teeth in a savage grin. I felt almost exhilarated.
The situation was hopeless? Of course it was. But so what?
Pew Mogel thought well of his flesh creations? I laughed.
I was going to show him the killing machine that Tul Axtar had made of
I intended it to be a lesson he would not soon forget.
FIFTY-ONE -- THE TUMULT BEFORE THE STORM
I will say this for Pew Mogel. Once you made him suffer
for a mistake, he did not make it again. In this, he proved
himself finer than almost any general I had fought for or against.
My sortie took his troops by surprise, overwhelming his positions.
We drove through his front lines, attacking his mess tents and provisions
stores, raiding and stealing what we could. To conceal our
pilferage, I pushed a series of flanking maneuvers which had his cavalry
going in circles. As we charged them, his troops broke and
ran, and we simply slaughtered as we rode until exhaustion finally forced
us to return.
We celebrated that night, my followers filled with renewed hope.
I made love with Azara in our chambers as my troops shouted my name triumphantly
to Pew Mogel’s chastened forces. It would not last, I knew.
But I cast those thoughts from my mind and kissed her.
My next sortie he was well prepared against. Unfortunately
for him, I had more tactics than I had shown him. Rather than
confront his ripostes, we flanked hard, tearing through his artillery and
toppling his siege engines. He was in the unenviable position
of chasing us as we retreated through the vulnerable guts of his own army.
But he learned well, and my next sortie was hard pressed to escape
without significant losses, and little damage inflicted.
Two days later, observing a weakness in his lines, I attacked
again. He reformed his troops in short order and pressed us
hard. We took losses bloodying him one last time.
And that was it. I’d taught him his lessons, there were
no more weaknesses to exploit.
But more than that, I’d taught him fear.
His troops had shifted into a hardened defensive posture, their
ranks defended by trenches and barriers. It was so hard a defense
that it compromised his attack. His forces would have to climb
slowly and laboriously through their own fortifications to come at us.
There would be no surprises.
As for the attack itself, strangely enough, there wasn’t any.
Neither he nor his troops showed any inclination to press the point.
Even with the worst we had done, he had more than enough to crush us utterly,
should he choose to move. But he did not.
Instead, panicked, he called for ever more reinforcements until
the valley was near filled with his creatures, and I judged us outnumbered
somewhere between eight and ten to one. Still he waited to attack.
Against such numbers, my White Apes would only be slaughtered.
I stared out at the fierce rocks behind the fortress, and knew I would
not call my brothers to their deaths.
Then, one night, on the battlements, surveying my enemy, a sound
came to my ears, a sound no one else heard. It came on a stray
current of cold air, a distant, faint, gibbering, ululating wail.
My expression did not change. No one else gave any sign
of hearing it. My blood turned to ice.
At last, I knew what Pew Mogel was waiting for.
I left the battlements, sought out Azara. Embracing her
fiercely, I carried her away with me to make love this night.
There might never be another one.
The sound of it came to us again, late in the night.
This time she heard it. Her body stiffened.
“It should be dead,” she said.
“Perhaps nothing can kill it,” I replied soberly, “perhaps it
The sound did not grow louder, not really. Somehow
it merely grew stronger and more frequent, more and more heard it as it
approached, a horrid gibbering that chilled the blood.
By midday, we could see a cloud of dust in the distance, as if
a herd of Thoats were approaching. Or something else.
We noted that a few of Pew Mogel’s Malagors that dared to approach the
cloud seemed to go mad, pinwheeling through the air, hurling the riders
to their deaths before diving in suicidal savage plunges themselves.
And still, it drew nearer and nearer. I gave orders.
“The thing that is coming,” I said, “no one is to look directly
at it. Look around its edges and fire your shots where it should
be. But do not look directly upon it.”
Some scoffed privately, but I had no concerns. Once
they caught even a glimpse of it, they’d understand the order.
“It’s grown,” Azara said.
Yes, it had. Without looking at it too carefully, I judged
it to be two or three times the size it had been in the pit.
It moved relentlessly, travelling on a mismatched assortment of legs, claws,
tentacles and pseudopods. It was at the edges of Pew Mogel’s
army now, an army whose soldiers were desperately trying to get out of
its way. Battallions were parting like water before it.
Those soldiers not fast enough were simply seized and devoured.
I could see a rippling in the troops in its wake, a scattering of pistol
shots, as if some of those it passed had simply gone mad from its mere
“So this is what he was waiting for,” I said. “We
hurt and humiliated him too badly. His hiding has driven him
mad. It wasn’t enough simply to destroy us with his forces.
He had to prove his own genius to himself, and thus he had to bring his
worst creation to bear.”
There was no comfort to this insight. For myself,
I would have been satisfied with simple murder. It seemed immensely
petty that an intelligence so vast should stoop so low, should indulge
such childish whims.
The thing traveled as if directed. I thought at first
that it would simply make for the fortress walls and gate and tear them
down. But instead, as Mogel’s army parted around it, it veered away
from the fortified perimeter and traveled down a slope, coming to rest
in a shallow river basin.
“It’s waiting for something,” Azara said.
“What is that thing!” Kal Jor ground out, his voice tinged
with hysteria. “Even looking at it tears at my mind.”
“Don’t look directly at it,” I said. “Those are my
orders, pass them on again.”
She was right though, it was waiting. I assumed that
we would be getting a message, something doubtless childish and vainglorious.
That would be appropriate for the creature. I tried to concentrate
upon the abomination, steeling myself to the point where I might look upon
it without the urge to scream.
A few moments later, Pew Mogel’s voice, artificially amplified,
rang through the valley.
“Bastard Spawn of Helium,” it boomed, “Whore of Tul
Axtar. I give you but one chance to live. Abandon your
resistance, grovel at my feet, acclaim me the greatest intellect upon Barsoom
and pledge your everlasting service, and perhaps I shall consider sparing
you some small part of my wrath..”
I found that if I concentrated hard upon only looking at some
small part of the abomination, it was almost bearable. I pulled
my pistol and laid it across my forearm, using its sights to focus my attention.
“You have one hour to throw your gates open and cast yourselves
upon my just mercy. If you do not, then my creation shall tear the
gates from those walls, and devour you in a manner such that in a thousand
years strong men shall weep at your fate.”
That needed an answer, didn’t it? There was a protrusion
from part of its body that might be taken to resemble a head, a writhing
nest of eyes and mouths. I sighted carefully and fired, blowing
it to pieces and eliciting an angry snort of protest from the creature.
It gave no other sign of harm.
“One hour,” Pew Mogel’s voice repeated.
“This is it then,” I said.
“Helium?” Azara asked me.
“In the next hour?” I laughed. Then I answered
her more soberly.
“Helium is too far away. Even were they to believe
the message,” I said, “and there’s no reason for them to take it on faith,
then I cannot believe they’d choose to act upon it, and even if they did,
no fleet they send could arrive in time.”
She nodded, as if it was something she’d known all along.
Perhaps everyone had known about it, and like the Hazorn, we’d simply chosen
to believe a false thing.
“Can we win,” Azara asked me. “Could we survive?
Do we stand any chance at all? Is there even a trace of hope?”
I looked into her eyes and drew her close to me.
“No,” I said simply.
“Then kiss me,” she said, “and know that if this is my last hour,
my only wish is that I spend it all, each minute of it, with you.”
I kissed her, it was a sad sweet moment. There
was nothing left to any of us but to make our peaces with whatever we believed
might wait beyond death. The moments passed, we kissed again
and again. The hour was almost up. As our lips touched,
I tried to block out the sounds around us, the martial equipment, the howling
gibber of the abomination, the annoying subliminal hum. We
equipped ourselves, waiting to give a good accounting.
“Promise that I will not be taken alive,” Azara demanded.
“If it comes to that, my brain must be destroyed.”
I checked her pistol and then my own.
“I will save a bullet for you,” I said, “if you’ll do the same
There was that hum again, a subtle steady rhythm. I tried
to thrust it from my mind, I had more important things to worry about.
I seemed to be the only one who could hear it. Where had I
heard that noise?
The fall of Jahar, I thought morbidly. I remembered
the screams, the flames, the sounds of combat and death, the sack of a
great city. And through it all, the drones of the warlords
fleet, the distinctive low reverberations of the Heliumatic motors as their
guns fired and tore my city to pieces.
Drone of the Helium ships?
I stopped cold. It couldn’t be. My desperation was
making me imagine things.
“What’s that noise?” Azara asked.
I took her by the hand and together we rushed to the battlements,
to the open air. And there it was. Cruising into
the valley, a single battle cruiser proudly flying the flags of Helium,
one of the finest, deadliest warships on our world.
But only one. Hopelessly outnumbered, hopelessly outgunned.
My summons had had a result after all. I laughed mirthlessly.
Helium had sent a single ship to investigate. I had succeeded
only in luring a few brave soldiers to their doom.
“You poor fools,” I whispered, “I am so sorry.”
Down in the valley, Pew Mogel watched the lone airship and came
to the same conclusions I had. I did not even need to
hear him shout his orders.
From every corner of the valley, came a volley of shots and artillery.
Men fell from the deck of the Heliumatic ship. Flocks of Malagors
took to the air. Under heavy fire, the Battle Cruiser’s guns
discharged again and again, but it was hopeless. It rocked
from side to side, literally disintegrating under the withering volleys
of its enemies, its guns discharging futilely.
They were all going to die.
FIFTY-TWO -- A BATTLE
We watched in horror as the Battle Cruiser came closer and closer,
dipping lower and lower, slowly plowing into the ground among Pew Mogel’s
siege engines, its landing sleds shattering under the impact.
The mighty craft was burning along its superstructure. From
its hold trapdoors burst open, releasing a wave of fighting men and Thoats.
The ships guns continued to pound, providing cover for the escaping warriors.
But one by one, they went silent as the crew abandoned their stricken ship.
“They mean to make for us,” Kal Jor said at my elbow.
Yes, I could see that. With admirable discipline,
the men of Helium had reformed their ranks, established a temporary perimeter
and were forming a column. The Battle Cruiser’s dying guns
had not been firing randomly, but rather, with admirable discipline picking
off positions and obstacles on a path to us. It made a devil’s kind
of sense, they were all dead men out there, in a sea of enemy.
Their one slim chance was to fight their way through to us.
I laughed. So they could die with the rest of us when
Pew Mogel overwhelmed our walls moments later.
“Dare we open the gates for them? We might not be able to
close it,” he said.
“What,” I said cheerfully. “Wait for them to arrive?
What sort of hosts would we be then? We’ll go to meet them.”
I turned to address my assembled forces in the courtyard.
“Today,” I said, “is the day we die. We might have
waited patiently for the enemy to come to us, but we have seen the ship
of Helium crash. Although these are men of Helium, they are
still men. Shall we let them be devoured by the things beyond, shall we
watch from temporary safety as these who came to our aid are brought down.
I say no! Open the gates, I call attack!”
There was an answering thunder from my assembled soldiers.
Leaving behind only enough men and commanders to shut the gates behind
us, I descended the steps, leaping to mount my Thoat and lead my forces
Mogel’s discipline was poor. His ringing perimeter
forces had been completely distracted by the Helium ship, and decimated
by the ships guns. Our attack took them by surprise, we cut
right through them without effort. I hacked my way about.
Judging the left flank weaker, I sent three squadrons to decimate them.
There was a mighty roar of engines, and to everyone’s surprise,
the derelict Heliumatic cruiser took to the air. Burning fiercely,
wobbling visibly as its bouyancy tanks slowly emptied, the ship was its
own funeral pyre. It lumbered toward us, passing a mere twenty
feet over my head. I barely bothered to look, the battlefield
is not the place for tourism. Instead, I used the distraction to
lay waste among my enemies till my forearms were stained red with gore.
The dying ship drifted towards the walls of the fortress, coming
about as its sides slapped into the heavy stone walls. I thought
it would come apart then, but somehow it held together. Pieces of
its structure were falling off. Its engines whined and coughed,
and the dying ship launched itself through the air again.
Even without seeing its destination, its path was clear.
It was aiming for Pew Mogel’s abomination. The horror seemed
to rise up, as if to confront this floating, flaming giant that dwarfed
its own vast bulk. Its tentacles and snapping mouths seemed
to reach for the cruiser, and its gibbering mounted to an insane howl.
Then the battle cruiser crashed down upon the abomination, its
buoyancy exhausted. For the first time, I heard the abomination
scream in true pain and terror as the weight and force of the cruiser slammed
into it below us. The fire exploded as the fuel tanks of the
broken ship ruptured and ignited, consuming the abomination.
Its unnatural flesh burning with an unholy flame. Now, finally
convinced of its own mortality, the abomination squealed and attempted
to drag itelf away. But the burning weight of the Helium ship held
The thing was dead, I thought, or as good as dead, and hopefully
Pew Mogel had died with it. The thought filled me with renewed
strength, and I split the head of a false ape with something like glee.
I glanced back at the fiery hulk, and saw a flaming discharge,
a burning lifeboat launched. Perhaps those suicidally brave fliers
had not been quite so suicidal after all. I felt a sudden flush
of admiration for those brave men of Helium. Their lifeboat had little
buoyancy, serving merely to carry them a few hundred yards from the monsters
I rallied my mounted men around me.
“We go there,” I yelled, “although they are only men of Helium,
they are brave and we shall go to their aid.”
“”Only men of Helium’” I heard one of my cavalry men whisper at
my back, in some trick of sound. “What’s with that?”
“It’s just a quirk of hers,” someone confided, “pay no attention.”
Say whatever you want about me, I thought. So
long as you follow where I lead.
Our sudden change of direction confused Pew Mogel’s commanders,
who had been hardening their lines against our expected attack.
Instead, we rode among their artillery, taking fierce losses and doing
Pew Mogel’s insurmountable numbers worked against him now, as
everywhere, we were surrounded by his forces. His men were
unable to use their firearms effectively, for any volley of shots accounted
for far more of their men than ours. Instead, it was warfare
of the most brutal sort, swordplay of hack and stab, the thrust of spear
and parry of knife.
My Thoat went down with a spear through its side, but I merely
sprang down, ran and cut apart the mounted red man who’d impaled my beast,
and took his Thoat as my own.
Unplanned battles are the bloodiest of all. My lines
of command had disintegrated, there was no strategy left except to hew
and murder, to kill the enemy and try to preserve your own and your allies
A monstrous creature appeared before me. In form,
it was half White Ape, half Banth, a vicious towering monster of savage
claws. Six arms waving swords, it strode towards me on four
legs. Worst of all, it had no head. Instead, Pew Mogel,
the screaming monstrosity with his infant body crouched in a nest of tentacles
atop its shoulder, directing its movements.
“Die alien whore,” he squealed, as the monster limbered towards
me. I pulled my pistol, I’d saved a single round as I had promised
Azara, but now found a better purpose. I blew one of its legs
off. Mogel screamed as the creature toppled over, catching
itself on one side with its three arms. I hacked away at two
of those arms, and as the creature twisted, I plunged my knife into its
back, severing its spinal cord. Blood fountained out of the
monster, and its limbs convulsed wildly. I chopped off another
arm, though this was hardly necessary. Its strange flesh might
live, but without the direction of its nerves, it was a twitching mass.
I mounted its corpse, striding across its back to its shoulders,
ready to finish the little monstrosity. Pew Mogel screamed beneath
me, trapped in the now wildly twisting tentacles. But before
I could thrust my sword through his rotten gourd of a head, three of his
followers engaged me. By the time I dispatched them, he was gone.
I had no time to think of it. I hacked down a false ape,
catching my blade in his ribs. A red man wielding a spear came
upon me. I saw my own death.
Suddenly, he stopped, frozen. A Great White Ape appeared
behind him, seized him by each of four limbs, and tore him apart, great
splashes of blood from limbs and torso gouted everywhere. The Ape
dropped the limbs and picked up the screaming torso, crushing the head
in its mighty jaws. The creature glanced at me.
“Well met sister,” Bent Toe called in our grunting language, “we
wondered if you would ever summon us. By the way, you
do know you can eat the little red ones?”
Then he was gone, tearing his way through the battle.
I looked over to the walls and cursed, for white banners were flying everywhere.
I had not done this. Azara, I realized, had done this. Somehow
she had puzzled out Throws Rocks words to me and had made the choice that
I would not. I felt a pang, for she had all but doomed the
tribes. The numbers against us were too vast, and had it been my
choice, I would never have summoned them.
Elsewhere, I spotted other true White Apes, their ways of moving
giving them away to me. In the confusion of battle, Mogel’s
forces, less observant, took them for their own creatures, a mistake my
cousins were only to happy to encourage, until they could leap and rend.
Then a moment later, we reached the men of Helium.
Surrounded by enemies, we could only fight desperately for our lives, split
apart into warring groups, hacking and thrusting desperately.
For a few instants, I found myself fighting side by side with
a tall white man with a shock of black hair and startling gray eyes.
His speed and strength were incomparable. We glanced at each
other, and I saw his features shift in an astonishment based in recognition.
Then the battle drove us apart.
How long it went, I dare not say. Time runs differently
on a battlefield. The results were inevitable of course.
We had had far more success than I dared to dream, but the numbers told.
Slowly, Mogel’s forces congealed around us, their lines hardening, their
squadrons organizing. Bit by bit, our fighting bands were isolated,
surrounded and obliterated. We could only retreat, seeking
out groups of each other, being forced into larger units.
Soon, we’d been squeezed into a large band, a mixture of my remaining
forces, perhaps only a quarter left of all those who I’d lead out of the
gates, the Helium men, and a handful of White Apes.
I found a vantage point, and though my arms felt like lead by
this time, my blade still flashed and killed, I dared to survey the
field. The last pockets of resistance beyond us were rapidly winking
out one by one. A sea of steel waited between the gates of
the fortress and my group. I turned, there, at the other side
of our desperate band, the tall pale man was fighting, his sword a blur,
holding off a dozen or more singlehandedly.
For an instant, I wondered if I could fight my way to his side
once more. If I could find a spare breath to speak to him.
I had no idea what I might say. But I was hard pressed on every side,
we all were. The noose of death closed around us tighter and
Suddenly, a shadow passed over me. My assailant looked
up, and I thrust my sword through his neck and looked for the next one.
But they were backing away. With this instant of respite, I dared
to glance upwards, to see a great warship floating above us.
All around us, warships of every sort filled the sky, their guns pounding
down, eliminating Mogel’s forces, cleansing his Malagors from the sky.
Everywhere, Mogel’s troops fled or surrendered. The enemy fell away
from us, and we were alone.
On the other side of our ragged band, the tall white warrior caught
my eye. He grinned and made a strange gesture, waving his fist with
his thumb sticking straight up. I wasn’t sure what that meant,
but I repeated the gesture.
It was all over.
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