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Volume 2161
LOST EMPIRE OF PELLUCIDAR

By Fred Blosser


FOREWORD

I received the following manuscript from – well, never mind how or from whom.  At a party in Washington, D.C., one night, I let slip that my grandfather, as a young radio enthusiast, had known the legendary Jason Gridley in Tarzana, California.  From that association, some years later, as a Ph.D. in radio engineering from Cal Tech, Grandpa became part of the scientific team that adapted Jason’s wonderful discovery, the Gridley Wave, for U.S. Army communications use at the outbreak of World War II.

From the subject of Gridley, the conversation naturally drifted to the underground world of Pellucidar.  Several of us bemoaned the fact that no news had been heard from Pellucidar for many years.  We wondered what had become of David Innes, Dian the Beautiful, Abner Perry, Ja the Mezop, and the others.  We all regretted that contact with Pellucidar – always tenuous, even in the best of circumstances – apparently had ended with the death of Gridley’s friend Burroughs.

Shortly afterward, this manuscript came into my possession.  Judging from the “Top Secret” classification that had been stamped on the pages repeatedly, the person who gave it to me had no business doing so.  Clearly, at some point in the last 65 years, the affairs of Pellucidar – or at least the means by which the manuscript or rather transcript, or translation, had come into being – somehow had become intertwined with issues of U.S. national security.

It may be a legitimate record of the world at the Earth’s Core, revealing two previously unknown or unrecorded societies on the Lural Az – or it may not.  Decide for yourself.


ONE
I Am Sent to Tir

I am Dax the Mezop, the grandson of Ja the Mezop.  You have heard of my grandfather, if you have not heard of me.  Grandfather was, and is, the friend of the Emperor David of Pellucidar.  From infancy, I heard how Ja had rallied the tribes of Anoroc to David’s cause in the war against the dreadful Mahars.  Under the Emperor’s leadership, the men of Anoroc, Luana, Sari, Amoz, and Thoria overthrew the dominion of the Mahars.  Their victory established a new era of human rule and prosperity from the Lural Az to the Lidi Plains and beyond.

Phar, my father, the son of Ja, accompanied Emperor David as a young warrior on the quest to find the missing Lieutenant Von Horst.  He won great respect and high honors from that service, and from many other deeds.  As his son and Ja’s grandson, I looked forward to the occasion when I would be old enough and seasoned enough to follow them in leadership of our tribe.

I was a fair enough hunter, and I bore my share of scars from encounters with the ravenous sithic and the fierce cave bear.  However, in times of peace – such as had existed in Anoroc through my boyhood and youth – it seemed unlikely that I would ever have cause to test my mettle against greater challenges, as Ja and Phar had.  And then …

As I returned with a party of other youths from a great hunt, my younger brother, Ru, bade me hurry to the family hut:  “Father wants you.”  When I entered our home, Father clasped my shoulder in affection and said, “The event of the great feast draws near, which our village will host this time.”

“Yes,” I said.

The great feast was a celebration of all the Mezops, drawing guests from all the islands of Anoroc and Luana.  It was an occasion to celebrate our emancipation from Mahar tyranny in Grandfather’s time, and to renew our vows of fellowship with each other.  I well knew that it approached.  The recent hunt, from which I had just returned, would help fill our larders for the festival.

“As soon as you’ve eaten and had a little rest, I want you to be ready to depart again,” Phar said.  “We’re sending messengers to the tribes to invite their attendance – as is the formal custom.  Each messenger travels alone.  I want you to carry the invitation to the tribe of Tir.”

The tribe of Tir lived on one of the outer islands to the south.  It was a long journey that called for accuracy in finding the destination, and cunning to avoid fatal encounters with ferocious beasts of sea and land.  I thanked my father.  In asking me to accept the responsibility, he showed great trust in my ingenuity and reliability.

“I have another reason for asking you to be our emissary to Tir,” he added after a moment.  “It is said that Tir has a daughter about your age, a young woman with great intelligence and a pleasing personality.”

“It is time, you know, that you began to give thought to finding a wife,” Mother added from across the hut, where she was pounding corn into meal.

“From what I hear of Tir’s daughter, Veeza, she would be a fine match for you and a splendid addition to our family,” Father continued.  “I want you to pay your respects and invite her to be our personal guest at the great feast.”

What could I say?  It had the earmarks of an arranged wedding.  I was being enlisted to advance my suit for the hand of a girl I had never met.  This Veeza might have the tender disposition of a fanged, bloated sithic for all I knew.  Besides, I had a very clear picture, in my imagination, of the girl whom I would someday meet, love, and marry.  I was certain, even sight unseen, that she was not Veeza.

But I might as well face a sithic barehanded, for real, as to naysay my father.  Besides, he had shrewdly wrapped this disagreeable duty in an assignment that carried great honor and prestige.

Father and Mother watched me expectantly.  I sighed.  “I’ll get a boat ready.  I’ll take provisions and eat on the way.”

Presently, after loading the boat with a small stock of dried meat, bread, tubers, and water, I chose my weapons – a spear, a sword, a knife, a musket, and powder and ammunition for the firearm.  Guns were much improved in accuracy and efficiency since the earliest models that the Emperor David’s friend, Abner Perry, had introduced into Pellucidar.  However, guns could misfire and powder could get wet.  It was wise to have the edged weapons in reserve.

Until the advent of David Innes, the weapons of Pellucidar had been of the rudest sort: knives and spears of chipped stone.  David and Perry had also introduced the arts of smelting and tempering iron, and in the past two generations, the use of steel had become commonplace.

Father, Mother, and Brother came down to the beach to see me off, joined by a few other villagers, including two girls of the tribe whom I liked, Lyl and Zada.  I also knew that, in turn, they liked me as well.  All of my well-wishers hugged me farewell, for Mezops are a very demonstrative people.

As we embraced briefly, jet-haired Lyl whispered, “Be careful, Dax.  You do like me better than Zada, don’t you?”

Ebony-haired Zada in turn held me closely and murmured, “I’ll have a special surprise for you, when you return, Dax.  I promise.”

Obviously, only Father and Mother knew that I was being sent to pay court to a girl whose destiny to become my wife was apparent – to them, at least.  I assured Lyl and Zada that I would miss them both.  I hoped that my journey would be swift.  I hoped that the mysterious Veeza would be as unreceptive to the idea of an arranged wedding as I.  With those thoughts in mind, I hugged Mother, Father, and Brother goodbye, climbed into the canoe, and pushed off from shore.

Of the first part of the journey, little need be said.  I paddled a course that would take me as quickly as possible to the small island where Tir’s tribe resided.  I met a few others along the way, mostly hunters and fishermen, both male and female.  For the last two generations, Mezop women have been as proficient with bow, musket, spear, and net as Mezop men.

On the nearer islands, when I beached occasionally to find fresh fruit and water, I recognized friends whose tribes had close ties with mine.  The names of Ja and Phar were known and respected.  As I traveled farther from home, faces and names became less familiar.  Yet, every encounter was friendly, and – until the time of which I am about to speak – people were happy to see the approach of a stranger.

Occasionally, I glimpsed the mighty leviathans of the deep at a distance, the tandorazes and the azdryrths.  I kept a safe distance.  Even the smallest of those monsters could crunch my dugout in two with the first snap of its jaws, and grind me into a bloody mess with the second.  Anytime I paddled to land, I kept an eye out for predators such as the great, striped tarag and the warty-skinned sithic.  Fortune was with me.  I encountered none.

At length, as I paddled by an island that I reckoned to be very near Tir’s, I noticed something strange.  Several canoes were adrift on the tide, empty.  Out of curiosity, I drew nearer to the isle.  No canoes sat on the wide, sandy beach.  I was puzzled.  It was unheard of, for a Mezop to be so careless as to leave a valuable canoe lying within reach of the tide.

Back of the beach, tall palms and banana trees grew, interspersed with shadowy stands of fragrant tiare, hibiscus, and jasmine.  As I pondered, several men and women emerged from the belt of foliage and crept cautiously out onto the open beach.  One pointed at me, shouting to the others.  In an instant, bows and muskets were raised.


TWO
Usman the Su-lu

There was a rattle of gunfire from the muskets, but I was too far away to be struck by the bullets.  Bowstrings twanged and arrows flew, but I was out of range of those as well.

I raised my arms.  “Wait, I’m a friend!  I am Dax, son of Phar and grandson of Ja!  Put down your weapons.”

There was a lively exchange of words among the men and women on the beach, and they watched me closely as I snagged one of the drifting canoes and pushed it ahead of me while I paddled toward shore.  They reloaded their muskets and notched new arrows, but held their fire as I drew closer.  For the first time, I noticed a plume of smoke rising from beyond the trees.  I smelled its pungent odor above the perfume of hibiscus as the breeze blew toward me.

Once ashore, I pulled my canoe up onto the sand, grabbed the one I had retrieved, and dragged it up too.  The tribesmen gathered around me, still wary.

“What tribe is this?” I asked.

“This is my tribe,” said a sturdy, hawk-faced man of distinguished bearing.  “I am Fen.”

“I know the name of Fen,” I said, smiling.  “My father has talked about you.  How, as young hunters, you and he once captured and tamed a great white thag.”

He regarded me closely.  “And did he say why we captured the thag?”

“It was a present to the father of the girl you wished to marry.  I think her name was Mira.  I was always very impressed by that story.”

“This is the son of Phar, sure enough,” Fen said, clasping my forearm in greeting.  “You have your father’s features and voice.  Phar may have exaggerated his story a little in the telling.  It was a young thag and much short of its full growth.”

“Why are you so wary of strangers?” I asked.

“A short time ago, we were attacked by men from an unfamiliar ship.  They anchored on the tide and some came ashore on a longboat.  They seized two of our young women who were gathering shells on the beach.  A third girl escaped and warned the village.  A group of the invaders proceeded toward the village, apparently with the thought of surprising us, but they were delayed on the trail thither.”

Fen’s village, like ours and like every other Mezop settlement, is set far back in the jungle.  The path to reach a Mezop village is usually very twisty and difficult.  In the old days, it was our surest defense against intruders.  Even after the advent of peace, old custom died hard among many tribes.  Most villages, like Fen’s and Phar’s, retained this style of trail out of habit.

“By the time the invaders came in sight of the village, we warriors had mustered and set an ambush.  The strangers had muskets too, but our aim with gun and bow was better, and being hidden in the underbrush, we were difficult to shoot at.  After an exchange of shots, the invaders set fire to one of our fields and retreated.  They set our canoes adrift and returned to their ship.  We killed one of them in the ambush, but when the others left …” the chief’s voice was grim … “they took the captive girls with them.”

While Fen spoke, two of his warriors plunged back into the undergrowth.  They returned with a body, which they dumped on the sand.  It was a short man, wiry, whose skin was a somewhat darker and less coppery shade of brown than ours.  He was clad in a gaudy jacket and pants of some shiny red fabric, worn and dirty from long wear.  A short, wavy dagger of fine make was thrust into the sash around his waist.  An arrow had pierced through his heart.

“I’ve never seen a gilak, a man, like this before,” I said.

“Nor had we,” Fen said.  “The ship came from there …” he pointed across the ocean, “and when it left, it sailed that way …” He indicated the direction in which lay the island of Tir’s tribe.

“My father dispatched me on an errand to Tir and his folk,” I said.  “If the invaders are headed on that same bearing, Tir may need help.”

I helped Fen and his warriors retrieve their canoes, and when we were finished, I loaded a skin of fresh water in my vessel.  “I’ll complete my errand to Tir as ordered by Father,” I said.  “Perhaps Tir’s people will have had more warning of the strangers than you did.  Perhaps, if attacked, they were able to overcome the strangers, perhaps even able to rescue your young women.”

Fen shrugged.  “Anything is possible, I suppose. At any rate, if Aava and Zayle remain captive, we will follow to the fiery rim of Molop Az and beyond, if need be, to succor them.  Will you wait to join our pursuit?  First, we must tend to our wounded, and we must make sure that the fire in the field is fully extinguished.”

“The sooner I set out, the quicker I will be of help to Tir, if help is needed,” I said.

“Then take one of our warriors with you.  Two muskets are better than one.”  He signaled, and a young man of about my age stepped forward.  We were more or less of the same height, but he was stockier in build.  “This is Rama, my eldest son.  If Tir is besieged, tell him to take heart.  I will follow shortly with another dozen men and women under arms.”

My canoe was large enough for both of us, and I had an extra paddle.  Rama gathered his provisions and weapons, and we set off.  We set a faster pace than I had set alone, in part because two paddled instead of one, and in part because the nature of our errand drove us to greater urgency.  Rama displayed a steady, even temperament that I liked.  Too, I soon found that it could be more advantageous for two warriors to travel together than one alone.

We had not left his island far behind, and I calculated that we would sight Tir’s island in a short while, when a shadow swooped down on us under the glare of Pellucidar’s eternal noontime sun.  I looked up, expecting to see a thipdar, gliding down on great wings that stretched from forefingers to hind legs.  The thing that threatened us was a little smaller than a thipdar, and its wings were quite unattached to its forelegs and hindlegs, extending up from its back instead.  And its head was broader and blunter than a thipdar’s.  As it dived toward us, the mouth opened, disclosing sharp yellow teeth.  Its underbelly was white, its wings and the upper part of its scaly body dark green in color, shot with streaks of rusty orange.

As I kept the canoe steady, Rama snatched up his musket and fired.  The flying reptile jerked sideways with the impact of a bullet, flapped its wings frantically, and plummeted down.  It struck right beside the canoe.  One threshing wing raised great splashes of water, while the other dealt my companion a buffet that knocked him off his feet, down onto the bottom of the canoe.  The creature’s beady black eyes rolled and its teeth snapped at us, and one of its clawed forefeet scrabbled for purchase on the side of the canoe.

Before it could secure a grip and tip us over, I grabbed my own musket, aimed, and shot it in the eye.  It gave a great squeaking cry.  Relinquishing its attempt to seize the canoe, it slid back into the water, its spasms steadily growing weaker.  I dropped my gun and took up my paddle again, as Rama did the same.  With each desperate dip and push of our paddles, the creature fell farther behind us, sinking gradually out of sight.

I continued to paddle and Rama reloaded his musket, then he paddled while I recharged mine. “That was an ugly beast,” he said after a while, smiling.

“Bad-tempered, too,” I agreed.

On we proceeded, eating a brief meal of jerked meat and corn cake.  Presently, Rama said, “Island ahead,” waving his hand.  I nodded, sighting the trees that came into view on the curving horizon.

As we drew nearer, I felt an evil presentiment.  Smoke billowed over the trees and formed a dark haze overhead.  Where an arm of the island jutted out over the sea, we put in and beached our canoe.  As we buckled on our swords and picked up our muskets, I noticed that, beyond the far side of the island, as was visible from this spit of land, a sail billowed out on the sea.  I looked more closely, picking out further details.  The sail was a bright red in color, canted at an angle from the mast.  The ship to which it belonged was about six times larger than our canoe, as nearly as I could judge, and painted black and yellow.

I pointed.  Rama nodded.  He had seen it too.

“Should we give chase,” he asked “or …”

“Let’s check the island first.  Time enough to catch up once we’ve done that.”

We found a path into the underbrush and proceeded quickly but carefully, guns ready.  Bright scarlet and blue parakeets fled from our advance.  Unlike Fen’s people and mine, Tir’s tribe had abandoned the old style of winding labyrinthine trail.  This path had been hacked in a relatively straight fashion through the ferns and bougainvillea from one end to the other.  It showed signs of recent heavy passage by booted and bare feet alike, and the tracks that led in the opposite direction from ours, the direction back to the beach, were accompanied by drops and splashes of blood.

Eventually, the trees thinned and Tir’s village came into view, a typical Mezop settlement of huts that looked like large wasps’ nests, mounted on tree trunks at a height of about twenty feet.  I had lived comfortably in such a structure with my family since infancy.  In this particular village, a sight of great tragedy now met our horrified eyes.

The bodies of men and women – even the bodies of children – were strewn across the ground.  Blood had soaked into the soil.  Flames smoldered where some of the huts had been consumed, and more flames still crackled in the neatly laid-out fields that provided grain, vegetables, and fruit for the tribe.  Rama and I swiftly went from person to person, noting grim evidence of gunshot wounds and sword cuts, quickly coming to a grim tally: twenty men, seventeen women, and eight children.   All dead.

Three or four other corpses lay sprawled among the Mezops.  Like the dead man on Rama’s isle, they were brown men in gaudy shirts, jackets, loincloths, and pantaloons.  Gripped in their dead hands were wavy-bladed knives, curved swords, and muskets with elaborately carved and decorated stocks.  The villagers had defended themselves ferociously.

I caught a glimpse of motion on the other side of the village, heard a low, feeble voice.  I raced over there.  A man of mature years lay on his side, trying to beckon.  His black hair was streaked with gray, his face lined with experience.  He wore the same sort of garb that Rama and I did, a loincloth and sword belt.  A wide bronze circlet – evidently a sign of rank – was worn on his right arm.

The man had been stabbed in the shoulder and chest, and the side of his head had been creased by a bullet.  He had bled much, but he desperately hung onto consciousness as I knelt by his side and gave him a sip of water from a pitcher that I found nearby.  By my appearance and clothing, he recognized that I was a fellow Mezop.

“They attacked … before we could get ready …caught us by surprise,” the wounded man gasped.  “They were strangers, of a tribe unknown to us.  Not Mezops.  They called themselves Su-lu.  We tried to fight … but they had the advantage.  They captured four of the girls … my daughter little Gazelle and three others … and shot or stabbed the rest of us.”

“Easy now,” I said, moving him gently to a more comfortable position.  I stripped articles of clothing from the dead invaders and used them to staunch the bleeding from his wounds.

“Take this,” he said with an effort, sliding off his armlet and handing it to me.  “Go and find my daughter, my little Gazelle.  Show this to her, that she may be assured that you have come at my request.  Bring her back to me safely … I ask that you and your warriors do this for me.”

“Is Tir here?” I asked.  “Did the chief survive the attack?”

He tried to answer, but before he could do so, his voice trailed off, and his eyelids shut.  His breathing was heavy but steady.  There was no indication that any of his wounds had pierced his lungs or other vital organs.  He appeared to be in no immediate danger of dying, but nevertheless, his injuries were serious and needed care.  If they were tended to, it seemed likely that he would pull through.  If left alone, he would perish.

“There may be others who escaped the raid,” Rama said, scanning the trees and underbrush that surrounded the clearing.

“And there may not,” I responded.  “We don’t have time to look.  One of us must stay and tend this man until your father catches up with us – and the other must continue the pursuit.  This man laid on me the charge of finding his daughter.”

“He was half-unconscious and thought we were a good-sized party, not merely two men.”

“One man, two, or twenty, it doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I have to set off now, while there’s still a chance of keeping the raiders’ sail in sight.  Stay here, nurse this man, and when your father’s party arrives, follow in the direction in which the ship was proceeding.”

I could tell that Rama wished to argue, but he recognized the necessity for swift pursuit and knew that I was not to be dissuaded.  I bade him farewell, pausing only to take an extra musket from the dead hand of one of the raiders – the Su-lu, as the wounded Mezop elder called them – before plunging back into the trees, along the path that wound back to the beach, marking the blood drops that told of injuries among the departing invaders.

I shoved my canoe out into the water, and clambered aboard.  As I paddled, the island receded behind me.  Far ahead, almost out of sight on the upward-curving horizon, the crimson sail of the Su-lu ship bobbed on the sea.  I focused my attention on it as I forged ahead with long, sure strokes of the paddle.  I wondered about the man whose bronze circlet I had slipped onto my arm, and his daughter, little Gazelle.  It was an unusual name, but then, some Mezop tribes name their children for things that are particularly beautiful or graceful.

I also thought of Tir the chief and his daughter Veeza, and wondered.  Did they lie among the other corpses in the village?  Had they escaped the slaughter by retreating into the brush, where they might have had better odds of success in fending off the Su-lu?  Or was she one of the other girls who had been led into captivity?

The sail remained in sight as I pushed onward, ever onward.  My grandfather Ja says that the eternal sun of Pellucidar was a wonder to David Innes, for the sun of the Outer World rises and sets, and from that cycle, those of the Outer World measure their lives.  I can’t conceive of a world in which light alternates with darkness, much less of a world in which men and women are slaves to a system in which existence is counted out in dollops.  We of the Inner World live in the present moment, and in this timeless present, I pursued the crimson sail of the Su-lu pirates.

At length, another small isle hove into view.  I was close enough now to the ship to see the figures of men on deck, but still too distant for an accurate count.  It rounded the isle, perhaps in search of a cove in which to land, or another village to sack.  We were now quite beyond the southernmost islands of the Anaroc and Luana groups and well to the east – as the Emperor David taught us to gauge direction – of the other archipelago of which we have any degree of knowledge.  We Mezops knew little of the waters that I was entering in pursuit of the Su-lu, and from which, presumably, the pirates had made their destructive voyage.

I saw no signs of human life on the island.  I rounded the shoreline just enough to ascertain that the Su-lu ship had come to anchor in a pretty little bay.  The sail was being furled.  I eased back around the curve of the island then, out of sight.  I found a narrow beach on which to come ashore and did so.  Once I was in the shallows, I got out and hauled the dugout up across the fine white sand.  On the opposite side of the shore, the beach rose gently to a line of dunes.  Tall bunch grass and sea oats grew on the dunes.  There I hid the dugout.

I slung the Su-lu musket over my shoulder, loosened my sword in its scabbard, checked the load and priming in my own firearm, and made sure that I had sufficient powder in my powder horn.  It was a much smaller island than the one on which my tribe lived, and smaller than the islands of Fen and Tir.  I would bushwhack my way overland, to the other side where the pirate ship was anchored.  There, from cover, I would spy out the situation and take stock of the raiders.

And then?  That question, only the gods of fate could answer.  If good fortune prevailed, Fen’s warriors would catch up with me soon, augmented perhaps by Tir and his fighting men and women if any lived.  With enough warriors and canoes, we might be able to trap the pirates and free their captives, the young women of two tribes.

If my friends were not close behind me?  Then I would continue to pursue and hope for the best.  There was nothing else I could do.  To turn back was unacceptable.  To attempt to confront the Su-lu single-handed would be tantamount to suicide, doing neither the captives nor myself any good.

There were no blazed paths across the island, but I did find game trails that helped me to slip through the thickets of pine, holly, and juniper with relative ease.  The trails followed a network of small, narrow streams that appeared to run along the center of the island.  A few squirrels and opossum scurried away at my approach, and once a red fox dashed away at the edge of my vision.  I didn’t see any larger predators.  Perhaps there were not enough smaller animals on the isle to give them sustenance.

Presently, I heard faint sounds ahead – laughter and voices in a language that I didn’t recognize.  Keeping to the underbrush, swatting away a swarm of gnats, I crouched down and inched forward.  The brush thinned out, and from a clump of holly and laurel, I looked out over the bay and the black-and-yellow sailing ship that it hosted.  A few men were walking from the jungle to a waiting longboat, carrying bunches of bananas, grapes, and cocoanuts, and barrels of water.  Others on the longboat helped to load the supplies onto the ship.  On shore and on board ship, others stood guard with guns and swords.  All told, I counted twelve crewmen, some of whom wore crude bandages as mementoes of their raid.

Of the captive women, there was no sign at all.

I knelt there, wondering if the captain would weigh anchor once the food and water were loaded, or whether he would rest here for the time being.  After two fights, the Su-lu might want to take it easy for a while.  On the other hand, if they anticipated pursuit by the angry folk of Fen and Tir, they might wish put as much open water behind them as possible.

I was concentrating too much on my thoughts and not enough on my immediate surroundings.  I heard the scuff of a footstep behind me, saw the shadow of a man fall across the laurel.  I began to turn and rise, but I wasn’t fast enough.  A crashing blow fell on my head.  Flashes of light exploded across my vision, and were swallowed in a rush of darkness that swallowed me as well …

When I recovered my senses, I lay on the wooden deck of a ship.  I knew it was a ship because it swayed underneath me with the gentle motion of the Lural Az.  My hands were bound securely behind me.  I still wore the bronze bracelet that the wounded elder had pressed upon me.  My guns had been taken away from me.  My sword and knife were gone.

In bare feet, sandals, and boots, men padded across the deck to do various chores.  I heard a voice shout commands in a foreign language, and turning over on my side, I saw the crimson sail of the Su-lu ship being hoisted above me on sturdy lines.

One pair of sandals walked across my field of vision and stopped in front of me.  The man who wore them was short, wiry, brown-complexioned.  He had a thin moustache and wore a bright scarf wrapped around his head.  He was bare-chested but wore a sleeveless indigo jacket worked in gold thread.  His breeches ended mid-calf.  A broad-bladed, wicked-looking sword, which I later learned was called a barong, rested in a black sash around his thin waist.

“You’re awake, young fella?” he asked.  He spoke the universal human language of Pellucidar, but with an odd accent that I’d never heard before.  “I saw you watching the ship from the jungle.  You’d be the fella that’s been following us in the canoe ever since we left the last island?”

“You …” I began to speak, but my head hurt and I had difficulty framing the words.  I swallowed and tried again: “You and your crew are the Su-lu?”

The man in the indigo jacket smiled delightedly.  “You have heard of us!  Yes, we are the Su-lu.  And I am Usman, the nakura, or as you would say, the captain, of this ship.  Perhaps you have heard of me too?”


THREE
The City of Caesarea

Now, a seasoned warrior would know how to exercise prudence when at the mercy of enemies, but I was young, and my head ached wretchedly from the blow it had received.

“Never heard of you,” I said thickly, “but I know of your bloody handiwork.  I saw the shambles you left of Tir’s village.”

“Not my doing,” he said in a hurt tone of voice.  “My subordinate Jolo led the foray.  It was over by the time I learned.  The others who followed Jolo and got their hands red were killed in the fighting.  Had I been in command, it would have gone differently.”

“Among my people, a chief is accountable for the misdeeds of his subordinates.”

“Enough talk,” Usman replied, his voice rising.  “You might do well to keep a civil tongue, youngster.”

His sword flashed half its length from his sash.  “When I saw you on the island, spying on us, I thought you might be a nice surprise to bring to the Empress Messalina, along with the girls bound for the slave market.  Messalina’s been looking for a new favorite, and you look like you might be able to go a few rounds in the Games.  It was easy enough to bash you on the skull and fetch you aboard.  But it’s been a long voyage, I’ve lost good hands, I’m tired, and I’m in no mood to listen to the rants of a prisoner.  Another insult, and I’ll cut your throat and toss your carcass overboard.”

“ ‘Empress’?” I said, puzzled by one of the words he had used.  “What Empress is that?  The only empress I know is Dian the Beautiful, the wife of the Emperor David …”

I shut up, for the look on his face suggested that he was in no mood to talk further.  It made no sense to provoke him, and being abashed, in pain from the clout to my head, and – yes, there is no shame in admitting it – scared, I would have difficulty in keeping up a friendly conversation.  I was curious to learn more, but I didn’t want my temper to get me into trouble and invite retaliation.

He pushed the barong back into the sash.  His voice became calm again as he turned to two crewmen and issued an order in the strange language that I had heard from shore.  The men picked me up and, holding me under my arms, partly dragged, partly walked me to the stern of the ship, where the six captive women of Fen’s and Tir’s tribes huddled.  Their hands were free, but their ankles were fettered with chains bolted to the deck.  Three fierce-looking Su-lu stood guard with muskets.  I realized now why I had not been able to see the girls from the shore.  High gunwales enclosed this end of the ship, and had blocked my line of sight from a distance.

I was dumped unceremoniously on the deck   I looked at the women, and they looked at me.  Three were very young girls just entering maidenhood, two were a little older, and the sixth appeared to be about my age.  I later found that two of the youngest girls were the ones who had been kidnapped from Fen’s village, Aava and Zayle.

It was the sixth girl – she was very pretty, wore a doeskin skirt that left her shoulders and breasts bare, and had steel-gray eyes and even darker hair than Lyl and Zada – who spoke to me first.  “Where did you get that armlet?” she asked.

“A wounded man on Tir’s island gave it to me as a token,” I said.  “He asked me to find his daughter, whom he called little Gazelle.”

“You’ve found her,” the raven-haired girl said, leaning forward tensely.  “That was my father.  Was he … Is he…?”  She looked at me with an expression of desperate curiosity and fear combined.

“He was alive when I left,” I said.  “My friend Rama remained to tend him.  Rama’s father Fen and other warriors of his tribe followed behind us.  Even now they may be catching up with us.”

The girl smiled, her eyes brimming with tears of mingled stress and relief.  “I saw Dad struck down as he ran toward the three Su-lu who had seized me.  I feared that he had suffered mortal wounds.  I am so glad that he wasn’t killed.”

“He asked me to find you and bring you back safely to him.”

“And you propose to do so?” she asked, wiping her tears with her hand.

“I took on the charge, didn’t I?”

“The Su-lu may have something to say about that.  So may I.  Dad thinks of me as his little girl, but I’ve gone out with the sisterhood of the hunt since I was yea high, and I can take care of myself.  I thank you for your pledge to my father …”

“My name is Dax, son of Phar.”

“… But know this: At the first chance of escape from these pirates, I’ll stand toe to toe with you, sword to sword.  I saw family and loved ones struck down, Dax, and I’d like nothing more than to return the favor.”

I studied her closely and nodded.  “I think you would, at that.”  From experience in my tribe, I knew that with the same training, there was little difference in the capabilities of men and women.  This girl looked to have the fire and strength to fight well.

As we talked, a Su-lu swaggered over and glared down at us.  He was of about the same stature as Usman but younger.  Two wavy daggers, called krises, were stuck in his belt, and a campilan or long sword hung on a bandolier from his shoulder.  “No talking, you,” he snarled, kicking me in the side.

I grunted with the pain.  He drew back his booted foot to kick again.  I braced my shoulders against the gunwale and swept my feet around, fetching him a solid sideways blow on the other ankle.  He was off balance and stumbled, nearly falling.  His face flushed with anger and a kris was suddenly in his hand, gleaming.

Before he could act, Usman appeared and grabbed him by the shoulder.  “Enough, Jolo.  The young man is destined for the empress and the girls for the slave block in Caesarea.  Do you want to diminish our profits by damaging the merchandise?”

So this was Jolo the butcher!  The lieutenant glared.  Usman returned the glare with a slight smile, his hand on the hilt of his barong.  “Get for’ard and tell the crew to make more haste.  The sooner we make harbor in Caesarea, the sooner we are paid.”

The younger man hesitated, and then, scowling, put his knife away and stalked off.  Usman looked after him, and then with no word to the women or me, departed in another direction.

I asked the girls if they knew of this Caesarea of which Usman spoke, but they knew as little as I.  As the voyage continued, I learned that Jolo was the julmuri of the ship, or that is to say, Usman’s first mate.  Jolo was a quick-tempered type, always scowling.  Usman was a more unpredictable sort – a fellow who could toast your health once minute with sincere affection, and slip a knife into your ribs the next.  The crew paid the women and me little attention, other than to feed us a portion of cold, lumpy gruel periodically and, at gunpoint, escort us to the facilities when we needed to relieve ourselves.

As Usman had said, we were merchandise or chattel.  We would be sold for money.  On Pellucidar, any commerce other than barter is almost unknown, although I knew, through my grandfather, that selling goods for money is a concept of which the Emperor David has spoken.  Apparently, the Su-lu wanted to make sure that we drew top dollar.  And so I was spared any further injury and the women remained safe from molestation and rape.

Some three sleeps later, we saw a human settlement for the first time since Tir’s island.  Picture a small, scrubby island from which extends a great network of shabby latticework huts on flimsy piers, connected one to the next by shaky boardwalks.  Everywhere lay a clutter of fishing nets, boats, fish strung up to dry over smoking grills, yapping dogs, naked children, and adults engaged in various forms of work and leisure.  A couple of other craft like Usman’s were anchored nearby.

The people I could see from the ship, as we passed, were mostly Su-lu in appearance, although others more closely resembled the Mezop type, albeit shorter and skinnier.  They rushed over and shouted and waved to us across the water as we sailed past.   The crew waved and yelled in return.

“Is that Caesarea?” I asked Usman, who stood nearby.

“Caesarea?  No.  Caesarea is …” he searched his vocabulary for the right description … “Caesarea is a village like no other you have ever seen, a great village of stone.  This …” he indicated the floating settlement, “is Dajo, the home of the Su-lu, my home.  It is impressive enough, as I’m sure you agree, but the city-empire of Caesarea is in a class all its own.”

At first I expected Usman to pay a visit.  Instead, we sailed past, the crew waving to their families and friends for as long as they remained in sight.  From overhearing occasional snatches of conversation that included Pellucidarian words, I understood that the pirate ship was bound first for the mysterious Caesarea.  There, we were to be delivered into further captivity or slavery, and Usman and his crew would be paid for us.  After that, they would return to Dajo.

I never learned much more about the customs or the origins of the Su-lu.  Usman vaguely said that his ancestors had come from another world where the horizon curved downward rather than upward as is good and natural – it sounded much like the Outer World of which David Innes speaks.  How they had come to the Lural Az, he didn’t know, except that his ancestors had always been a maritime folk.

They had settled on the island that later became the anchor for their floating village.  At first, they had faced resistance from the people who already lived on the island, and then, gradually, the Su-lu had gained the upper hand.  Eventually, the two folk began to intermarry and the indigenous tribe took on the ways of their conquerors.  Usman said that he and his men more closely resembled the original Su-lu stock.  I could believe that statement, and that the Su-lu had come from elsewhere, because of the differences in language and complexion.

“Is Caesarea a Su-lu village too?” I asked.

Usman seemed amused by the question.  “You’ll see,” was all he replied.

I became friendly with the six captive girls, and learned something about their villages and families, as they learned something about mine.  I found that the other five were much like Gazelle in their mettle.  Even the youngest had some experience with weapons.  In other circumstances, I think we would have been a match for the Su-lu.  As it was, the girls were chained and I was bound, save for the intervals when we ate or were allowed to use the facilities.  Permitted only enough food to sustain ourselves, we were at less than fighting strength.  The pirates were heavily armed and always vigilant.

Even if we could make a break for it, some of us would be killed in the attempt, and we were a long way from home across an ocean teeming with predatory reptiles.  Our only hope lay in the conviction that Fen and his warriors were somewhere behind us, and would catch up eventually.  Yet there was no sign of any dugout on the broad sea behind us.

I was dozing when – two sleeps past Dajo – one of the pirates yelled from the fore of the ship, “Captain Usman!  Caesarea ahead, skipper!”

I stood up and peered ahead over the gunwale, Gazelle and the others pressing in around me.  We were approaching a good-sized island, this side of which was dominated by a vast village.  As Usman had promised, it was like no other I had ever seen.  It had something of the appearance of the old, deserted Mahar towns, in that many of the structures were built of stone, but the scale of the buildings and walls dwarfed anything in the Mahar architecture.  There was a harbor where many boats were docked, including a couple of ships that had the trim of Su-lu vessels.

People began to come down to the harbor as they sighted Usman’s vivid sail.  When we were close enough to notice characteristics, I saw that they were of paler complexion than the Su-lu, as well as taller and larger.  Yet they were not Mezops, or very much like the people of Sari and Amoz.  Some of them had blond, red, or light-brown hair – unknown among the Mezops and a rarity even among the other people of Pellucidar.  The men wore short tunics or robes, and the women wore long, flowing dresses and kept their breasts modestly covered.   Here and there stood a warrior in leather cuirass, helmet, and greaves, armed with short sword and spear.

As we put into shore and anchored, a detachment of soldiers filed down to the dock and formed up, seven men abreast, standing at attention, spears held vertically in front of them.  A heavy-set man in flowing robes huffed after them and waited for us to land, and a minute later, an older, balding man in robes joined him.

Usman lowered his longboat on lines and pulleys, and tossed a rope ladder over the side of the ship.  The captive women were unchained from the deck, and I was untied.  Each of us was fitted with wrist shackles and marched at gunpoint to the rope ladder, where Jolo motioned for us to descend.  As I walked past the first mate to the ladder, he gave me a hard look.  Clearly, it still rankled that I had kicked him.  Well, I hadn’t forgotten the kick that he had dealt me, either.  I suspected that I had not seen the last of Jolo.

I clambered into the longboat and helped Gazelle and the others in.  We sat with two pirates facing us, muskets ready.  Oarsmen took their places and rowed us toward the dock.

“I’d hoped that Fen and his warriors would catch up with us,” I said somberly.  “On board the pirate ship, we still stood a chance of rescue.  Now …” I looked at the great stone city, and its many inhabitants, “the odds are infinitely greater against us.”

“Have you given up on your promise to my father, Dax?” Gazelle asked, managing a smile.

“No.  It’s just that the job has become even bigger, that’s all.  At this point, the sight of Fen and Rama would be most welcome, even if it meant that I’d have to follow through on the assignment from my father.  That’s why I ventured away from home in the first place.”  I had not mentioned it before.  Now, to pass the time as we were conveyed to the dock, I briefly described my parents’ wish that I court Veeza, daughter of Tir.

Gazelle looked amused at first, then put out, then amused again.

“You ladies take these matters in stride, I suppose,” I said.  “Very romantic for you, I guess.”

“Why do you take on that way, if you haven’t met the girl?”

“If she died in the Su-lu attack, and if I have wronged her in my thoughts, I am most heartily sorry,” I said.  “If she still lives, she probably has a mean streak, a short temper, and a domineering personality.  Why wouldn’t I take on so?  You must know her, being from the same village.  Tell me I’m wrong, Gazelle.”

“I know her very well, Dax.  My name isn’t really Gazelle, as it happens.  That is my father’s nickname for me, ‘little Gazelle.’  He would naturally use it, especially in an extremity when he feared for my life and safety.  My father, whose armlet you wear, is Tir the chief.  I’m Veeza.”

There was a silence, entirely awkward on my part, as the boat pulled alongside the dock and tied up.

“Why didn’t you tell me before?” I mumbled as a Su-lu motioned for me to get out of the boat.

“You never asked.”


FOUR
The Empress Messalina

The girls and I were herded to where the soldiers and the fat man stood.  Two underfed-looking men in plain tunics hurried over.  One fitted the girls with heavy fetters for their left ankles.  A chain connected the shackles.  It was just long enough to allow them to walk in lockstep, single file, without stepping on each other’s heels.  The other man fastened my ankles together with a separate chain.

The functionary who chained the women took his time as he locked a shackle on one of the younger girls, leering up to peek under her loincloth.  I started to move, but Veeza was faster and closer.  She slammed her heel against the side of the lout’s head, knocking him over on his side, stunned.  The soldiers’ spears bristled in our direction, but the fat man waved his hand.  The soldiers came to attention again.

As the stunned man regained his senses and stood up, rubbing his head, the fat man berated him sternly.  The lout nodded and finished his job, this time keeping his eyes decently averted.

Presently, Usman and Jolo were rowed over on the longboat.  Usman saluted the corpulent man, who saluted in return.  They conversed in the Su-lu language, a little of which I had picked up on the voyage hither.  I knew enough to learn that the man’s name was Gaius, and that he was the agent for the person who would sell the girls on the slave block.  My own fate was uncertain, in that I didn’t know enough of the language to follow the conversation in that much detail.

Usman and Gaius talked for some time.  When they had finished, the corpulent man spoke briefly to the soldiers and then departed with his hirelings.  By gestures and signals, the soldiers indicated that we were to go with them.  Two of them led the way, one marched on each side of us, and the remaining three fell in behind.  The older, balding man, who had theretofore stood to one side, observing the transaction but not participating, followed.  Now that he was closer to me, he appeared even older than I had thought at first.  His faced was deeply lined, and his remaining fringe of hair was white, as were his heavy eyebrows.  But he moved lightly with the springy step of a younger man.

It was all quite marvelous, this city, the like of which I had never seen before.  I had no words, then, for many things that I saw – I only learned them later.  I didn’t completely forget my fear, but it was tempered somewhat by curiosity and awe.

The street that we walked was paved with cobblestones, making a bumpy surface underfoot.  In the immediate area of the harbor, it was crowded with merchant stalls, beyond which was a jumbled, dirty cluster of rude shops and houses, knocked together from odds and ends of planks and lumber.  Painted women and drunken men leaned against the hovels and watched impassively as we walked past.

A wall encircled the city beyond the hovels.  It was made of great blocks of stone cunningly joined and cemented together, and was half again taller than I.  We passed through a guarded gateway.  Beyond, we saw more wooden houses, somewhat cleaner and sturdier than those outside the wall.  On this side too were the great stone buildings I had seen from the ship, most artfully made from huge blocks and slabs of stone.

Men, women, and children walked past, averting their eyes from the soldiers.  They exuded a palpable tension.

The balding man noticed my gawping expression as I gazed all around.  He spoke to me in a language I didn’t understand.  When I shook my head, he switched to heavily accented Su-lu.  “This is better?  You understand the lingo of the pirates?”

I nodded.  “My name is Dax.”

“I am Leonidas.”

“Can you tell me where we are going?”

“Some of the soldiers will take the women to Gaius’ slave pen presently.  The rest of the soldiers and I will accompany you to the palace.  The Empress Messalina will wish to inspect you, to determine if she wants to put you in the Games.”

“Usman spoke of the Games.  What are these Games?”

We were passing a huge structure, circular in shape, which appeared to be open to the sky, although I could not see inside over the wall.  “The Games take place there, in the Coliseum.  They are contests of prowess and ferocity between men and men, and men and wild animals.”  He looked me over appraisingly.  “You look like you would have the prowess.  But do you have the ferocity?”

We passed on, and when we reached a cross street, some of the soldiers turned on their heels and escorted Veeza and the other girls away, as Leonidas had said would happen.  Veeza and I nodded to each other, silently vowing that this would not be a final parting.

I hoped it would not be a hollow promise, but I was none too confident as the girls were marched off toward a long, one-story sandstone building at the far end of the cross street.  Walking on with the other soldiers and white-haired Leonidas, I felt pretty lonely.  I tried to concentrate on the sights around me, attempting to memorize buildings and streets.  It would be good to know my way around, if and when I had the chance to break free and find the women.  I did my best not to dwell on the possibility that the chance might never come.

The palace, as Leonidas called it, was a great, imposing structure, made from massive blocks of stone, the entrance shadowed by columns that soared far over my head.  We entered a spacious foyer that was dominated by a gurgling water fountain, the floor paved with colorful mosaics.  More soldiers were stationed here, including a tall, burly, broken-nosed fellow who came over to meet us as we entered.  He wore a plumed helmet and carried a short whip, which he tapped impatiently against the interlaced leather straps that covered his upper legs.

He and Leonidas spoke in their foreign tongue, and then the burly officer – I assumed his plume signified such rank or status – joined our group as we crossed through the foyer to a long hallway, and from there to a spacious, high-ceilinged room.  The windows were barred and were too small to let in much sunlight.  Fires burned in braziers on tripods around the room, providing illumination.  In the center of the room was a high, silk-draped divan on which a woman reclined.

The soldiers presented their spears smartly.  Leonidas and the burly officer knelt on one knee.  There they stayed until the woman waved her hand, and they stood again.

The woman looked at me speculatively, under half-lowered lids.  She was one of the most beautiful I had ever seen.  Of medium height, slender, she had a golden complexion and dark brown hair, which was piled atop her head and held in place by elaborate pins.  A slender golden diadem encircled her forehead.  Her face was heart-shaped, her eyes sea-green, and her lips full and red.  Her robes were diaphanous, clinging to the curves of her body as she relaxed on the divan.  She wore a faint scent of lavender.

She spoke to me, but I shrugged.  “I don’t understand,” I said in Su-lu.

“He speaks only the pirates’ language, Majesty, and a barbarous tongue of his own,” Leonidas interjected in Su-lu as well.

“Who are you, boy, and where do you come from?” asked the woman, whom I took to be the Empress Messalina of Caesarea.  She too switched to Su-lu.

“I am Dax, son of Phar, a chief of the Mezops.  I come from the islands of Anoroc, a great distance from here.”  I raised my head and squared my shoulders.

Messalina and the burly officer exchanged a quick glance, and the officer stepped forward, raising his whip.  “You’ll address Her Majesty respectfully, slave,” he snarled.
“And you will bow your head and kneel as you do so.”

More by reflex and luck than conscious thought, I reacted as he tried to bring the lash down.  Instead of cringing as he expected, I lunged forward, hampered only slightly by the fetters on my ankles.  The chain between my wrists was just long enough to loop around the hand that held the whip.  Employing an old Mezop wrestling move, I used his own momentum to pull him close to me, turning him around and holding his arm fast at a painful angle.  Given the chance, he was strong enough that, normally, he would have been able to pull free.  But I had put him off-balance, in an awkward position.

Two of the soldiers advanced with their spears raised.  With the pressure on his bent arm as leverage, I hauled the officer around and put him between the weapons and me.  On equal ground, I had no doubt that he could break me in two, but I had his arm at such an angle that his size and weight worked against him.  He could not resist without risking a dislocated shoulder.

“Enough!” Messalina made an imperious gesture, and the spearmen fell back.   I unlooped the chain and the officer straightened, rubbing his shoulder.  He stood tensely, like a mastiff awaiting an order to spring.

“Do you know why you were brought here?” the empress asked.

“Usman said that you were looking for a new favorite for the Games – whatever those may be.”

“I think you’ll find out soon enough,” she purred, looking me over from head to feet.  “What do you say, Leonidas?”

“You are a better judge of such things than I am, Majesty,” the elder said drily.

“Leonidas …” there was an edge to the purr now, “I sometimes have difficulty in deciding whether you’ve given an honest answer to a question, or whether you speak with your tongue in cheek.  Shall I draw it out with red-hot pincers to see?”

“As your Majesty wishes,” Leonidas replied.

“I may wish someday, but not today.  Take this young savage to the Gladiators’ quarters, and turn him over to Lucan.  He looks brawny enough to be a Gladiator, at least.  Marcus,” this to the officer, who looked at me with wholehearted hatred, “take your detachment of soldiers and go with them.  All of you have my leave to depart.”

She watched after us impassively as, after bowing to her profusely, they marched me out of the palace and back onto the street.  I didn’t fear immediate retaliation from Marcus.  He was one who would savor his hatred and bide his time, now that the first rush of anger had passed.  It was only by circumstance that I had bested him.  If he had come at me with a sword or spear instead of a whip, or if I had paused to think before acting, the outcome would have been much different.

We returned back up the street to the Coliseum, as Leonidas had called the building.  A guard admitted us through the gate.  Inside, it was open to the sky, as I had thought, and the massive wall enclosed a great, open area strewn with sand.  Men exercised with weapons here and there, under the instruction of other men – sword against spear, trident and net against sword, sword against sword.  From somewhere came a muffled cacophony of animal snarls, honks, and roars.  At intervals along the wall, openings apparently led back into areas within, whence presumably the animal sounds issued.  Heavy, grate-like doors were set in the openings.

I was marched over to a short, heavy-set, bearded man who watched two other men stab and slash at each other with wooden swords.  Clad only in loincloths, they moved with more vigor than grace, huffing and sweating.  The observer shook his head impatiently as he watched their clumsy motions.

“Your new champions, Lucan?” Leonidas asked in Su-lu.

“Champions my hind end, friend Leonidas,” the short man said in a gravelly voice, with good-natured derision.  “They barely know the front of a sword from the back.  Now, your friend here …” before I knew it, he was poking my stomach and kneading my biceps, as if judging livestock, “has a promising appearance.  Is he bound for military service?”

“No – the Empress wishes to enroll him as a Gladiator.  She commanded me to leave him in your care.  He is named Dax.”

“Since you prompted me to speak in the Su-lu tongue, I take it he is not a native Caesarean?  Yet surely not a Su-lu either, with that height?” Lucan asked.

“No, a savage from beyond the sea.  The Su-lu brought him in with their latest catch of female slaves.”

“You, Dax,” said Lucan, “have you fought before?  Killed men before?”

“I’ve killed animals for food and survival.  I’ve never killed a man.  I never had need to.”

“Do you know how to handle a sword and a spear?”

“I know those things.  We warriors train for exhibitions during our great feasts in the Mezop villages, when we test our skill against each other, for prizes.”

“Well, we’ll see what skill you’ve developed.  Starting today, at the Empress’ command, you’re a Gladiator in training.  In the Games, the prize for which you fight will be your life.”

And so I entered into the tutelage of Lucan, to be trained as a Gladiator.  As best I could determine, the purpose of a Gladiator was to fight other Gladiators in the Games, which seemed to be the Caesareans’ version of the contests that we Mezops hold during our great village festivals.  There were two differences, however.  One difference, as Leonidas had indicated, was that Gladiators also fought wild animals in the Games.  The other difference, as Lucan had said, was that the fights were waged to the death.

Once Leonidas and the soldiers departed, I was shown to a small room inside the walls of the Coliseum.  These were to be my quarters, at least for those occasions when I was permitted rest and sleep.  Mostly, as I entered the next phase of my existence in the Lost Empire of Caesarea, I lived in the great open expanse of the Coliseum, in training with the other Gladiators.  Meals were held in a communal hall where we gathered in a noisy rabble, sweating, sore, and weary from practice, to gobble our food before returning to the training ground.

I trained on the sword and spear.  The maneuvers were somewhat different from those in the Mezop contests, being designed to end in the opponent’s death rather than mere defeat, but easy enough to learn.  I also benefited from the basic skills that a Mezop develops from childhood through hunting: to be watchful, quick on one’s feet, and adaptive.

The skills of the hunt too might give me an edge in a contest with the beasts that were kept caged inside the walls of the Coliseum.  I knew that the menagerie included two jaloks, the massive predators of Pellucidar, not exactly wolf nor hyena, but partaking of both; a tigerish tarag; and a sithic, with the body of an immense toad and the jaws of an alligator.  The menagerie was not large because, for one thing, space was limited, and for another, the keepers could not afford the cost of feeding any great number of voracious carnivores.

Of my fellow Gladiators, some were slaves who had lost their masters or who had been sold to the Coliseum for the Games.  Others were criminals who had been condemned to the Games for various infractions.  Most of these criminals were thieves, swindlers, and such, but one was different.  He was a tall, able young man, dark-haired, who took pains to keep clean-shaven and presentable.  In personal appearance and manner, he had more in common with the elegant men and women who occasionally were admitted to the field to watch us practice.

“Patricians,” Lucan said of those observers.  “Mostly friends and supporters of the Empress.  They come to check out the talent and decide where to place their bets when the Games open.”  From this, I understood that they wagered gold and other valuables on whether one or another of us would triumph or die when we fought.

On one occasion when the dark-haired man and I were paired off for sword practice, we traded chatter, and he asked where I came from.  I told him, and asked the same question of him.

He laughed bitterly.  “My name is Tacitus, and I was once a patrician, of the same class as those who come to take our measure for the Games.  This has not always been a city ruled by tyranny.  It was not so until Messalina seized power, dissolved the Senate, and imprisoned Britannia.  I was one who spoke out to protest her actions.   Her soldiers came by night and arrested me.  I was tried – naturally, with Messalina as the adjudicator – and sentenced to the Games.  I was surprised that she did not order me crucified instead.  She may have believed that I would die a more agonizing death instead under sword or talon.  If so, she underestimated my skill as a fighting man and my will to live.  I have survived so far.”

I had no idea who or what Britannia and the Senate might be, but I was curious about his last statement.  “If you fight long enough and well enough, will you be freed?”

“No,” Tacitus said, “I will fight until I am killed.  That is the way of the Games under Messalina.  If no one has told you that fact so far, then hear it from me.  No Gladiator leaves his bondage alive.”

I thought that the Empress and her friends must be very bloodthirsty people.  The Games reminded me of a similar practice in which the abhorrent Mahars had once indulged.  I had learned of it from my grandfather Ja.  The Mahars had put their human slaves into arenas with wild beasts.  At least in the Mahar exhibitions, if a man or woman survived one such encounter, he or she would be freed and never again placed in servitude.  The Caesareans were even more disdainful of human life than the reptilian Mahars, it seemed.

“My hatred drives me from contest to contest,” Tacitus confessed.  “Even here, within the Coliseum, we sometimes hear word from outside, and there are rumors that unrest builds in the city.  Save for her sycophants, rich and poor alike are becoming sick of Messalina.  Among the patricians, Messalina’s cousin Augustus is particularly disgruntled, as is young Marcellus Sergius, one of my kinsmen.  So far, the Empress has managed to hold power thanks to her lapdog Marcus and his soldiers.  At some point, I think, the people must rise up in desperation.  I want to live long enough to join with them and restore just rule to Caesarea, and trample Messalina into the gutter where she belongs.”

Lucan approached to make sure we weren’t slacking off, and we shut up and practiced our slashes and parries.

Leonidas came around another time as Tacitus and I practiced.  He said that the Empress had asked him to see how I was doing.  “As well satisfied as a dog on a leash,” I said.  Leonidas nodded, glanced at the enslaved nobleman, then at me, bade us good fortune, and left.

As the occasion of the Games approached, I chafed that I had become no more than a commodity.  I was desperate to find a way out.  Too, I feared for Veeza and the other girls, whom I had not seen or heard of since they had been led away to the slave market.  I still held a slim hope that rescue would come from across the sea, but more and more, as no help appeared, it became an increasingly forlorn hope.

No matter that I was a stranger in an alien land, among a people about whom I had only the scantest knowledge.  No matter that I was alone, and a slave to boot.  It became clear to me that if I wished to leave Caesarea, I would have to rely on my own devices.  A nebulous plan began to form in my mind, needing only a favorable circumstance to turn it into reality.


FIVE
I Meet Britannia

I was practicing net and trident when Lucan walked over.  He assigned my opponent to spar with another Gladiator, and beckoned to me.  “You’ve been doing well in your practice, Dax.  A wealthy gentleman has heard about your skill and has asked to meet you.”

I nodded, wiping the sweat off my face, and laid down my weapons.  I knew enough about the system now to guess why a patrician would want to make my acquaintance.  He wished to learn whether or not he should join his bet with that of my owner and patron, the Empress, when it came time to wager for or against me in a fight.

A thin man in blue robes stood off to the side, watching the various pairs of fighting men go through their paces.  At my approach, he studied me with a critical eye.  I was used to such examinations now.

“Lord Augustus, this is the man of whom you inquired, Dax,” Lucan said by way of introduction.  He bowed and took his leave.

“You are the son of a chieftain, a ruler, in some distant land?” Augustus asked.  He spoke in Caesarean.  I had learned enough of the language from Tacitus and Lucan to be able to converse.

“Yes, I am the son of a ruler, but ‘ruler’ has quite a different meaning among my people than it seems to have in Caesarea.  A ruler may issue orders, but does so only in accordance with the will of the people.  He or she is expected to administer the law wisely and fairly.”

“That is the system on which Caesarea was founded, but some would assert that things have changed since my cousin Messalina took power with the backing of the army,” Augustus said cautiously.  “Speaking of Messalina, I understand that my cousin assigned you to the Games.  Leonidas, the scribe, from whom I learn many interesting things, told me about you.  I expect Messalina plans to put quite a nice bet on you when the contests begin.”

“There are better fighters here than I,” I said.  “For example, Tacitus.  If anybody is looking for a sure thing, he’s going to be it.  Anger is a great motivator, and Tacitus is an angry man.”

“Leonidas said that he had seen you sparring with Tacitus.”

“Sparring and talking, too.”  I had followed Augustus’ lead in strolling casually out of earshot of anybody else in the vicinity.  “I learned many thing from Tacitus.  I learned, for example, that he is not the only angry person in Caesarea.”

“True, there are many angry people, but no good way to channel the anger.  The poor are impressed into slavery.  The merchants resent the taxes that go to pay for Messalina’s comforts.  The patricians fear that they will say the wrong thing and will hear the tread of jackboots on their doorstep.  I speak, of course, of things that I hear from others.”  He paused.  “You have met the Empress, and some may say that she has favored you greatly by giving you a chance to compete in the games, rather than sending you to the slave block.  When a man is so favored, he tends to be grateful to his patron.”

“One form of slavery may differ from another in externals, but slavery is slavery nonetheless,” I said.  “I feel no special obligation to anyone for the honor of fighting one foe after another for the gratification of strangers, with eventual death the only conclusion that I can expect.  I will feel grateful to the man or woman who helps me regain my freedom, and no other.”

“No freedom can be yours as long as Messalina is in power...”

I nodded.

“…And for all the anger that simmers in Caesarea, the fact remains that the Empress is in power, and her power is enforced by the army.  On our own, we patricians are not particularly good fighters, and besides, we lack arms.  All weapons were confiscated when Messalina took power.”

“The Gladiators are good fighters, some better than others,” I suggested, “and as for weapons for men who desire but lack them, the storeroom of the Coliseum is full of spears and swords.”  I paused to let him consider that.  I had the feeling that the same thoughts had already occurred to him, and that his visit here today, to gauge the temper of one who had intelligence, a reason to rebel, and the respect of his fellow Gladiators, was no accident.

I continued, “From my brief experience here in Caesarea, it occurs to me that there are many who might desire change, and fight for change, if given the chance to help effect that change.”

“I think we understand each other on the issue of power in Caesarea,” said Augustus, “but I’m not sure I know what you mean by your last statement.”

“I may have let my speech outrun my good sense,” I said apologetically.  “I voiced what may be only a supposition on my part, a wish, and not a statement of fact.  I could better judge the matter through first-hand observation.  However, as long as I’m cooped in here, I’ll have precious little chance to observe anything beyond these walls.”

“You would like to have an opportunity to get out into the city, even for a brief time?”

“Yes, but I doubt Messalina would grant me a furlough.”

“She won’t need to.  If a Gladiator has practiced diligently and faithfully, it is customary to grant him a brief respite from work before the Games get under way, as long as he doesn’t go anywhere unescorted.  On my word of honor, and for a small consideration, I’m sure Lucan will see his way clear to let me buy you a flagon of wine at a nearby tavern – to toast the health of my cousin and your patron, the Empress.”

Brief words and a flash of gold passed between Augustus and Lucan, and shortly I was outside the walls of the Coliseum, in the teeming streets of Caesarea, for the first time in many sleeps.  With the new insights that I had gained from Tacitus and Augustus, I had a greater appreciation of the downcast, sullen expressions on the faces of the people who passed me by in the crowd.  The omnipresence of armed soldiers took on sinister significance.

I asked to go outside the walls of the city, to the harbor, for the flagon of wine that Augustus had promised.  He looked at me quizzically but made no comment as we proceeded to the quays.  I peered into a number of the shabby taverns frequented by those who followed a maritime trade in Caesarea – the native-born coastal fishermen, and the occasional Su-lu who lingered in port after payday.

At length, I saw the person I hoped to see: my erstwhile captor Usman.  I entered the establishment, Augustus following.  The Su-lu captain greeted me like an old friend.  “As the Games draw near, there is much talk on the street about the comparative qualities of the Gladiators in training,” he enthused.  “I hear great things about you, Dax.  I may even stick around for the Games and put a purse on you.”

Augustus ordered another serving of wine for Usman, one for himself, and one for me.  I didn’t touch my cup save to join my host in a loud toast to the Empress.  “Lord Augustus here is a powerful person in Caesarea – and under other circumstances would be an even more powerful one,” I told Usman under the surrounding din of the tavern.  “He would be appreciative of his friends.  But I’m certain that you have all the friends you need, captain, and that you like things in Caesarea just the way they are.  This seems to be a lucrative market for you.”

Usman shrugged.  I guessed he was well aware of Augustus, and of the patrician’s relationship with Messalina, through gossip in the markets and taverns.  “Well … nothing is ever permanent, and one is always prepared to make new friends.  And perhaps to improve his lot in life?”

“Any who befriend me in the right circumstances are sure to improve their lot,” Augustus murmured.

“How many Su-lu are in port now?” I asked.

“Perhaps three dozen of us.”

“And all armed?”

“Of course.  By tradition we only carry knives when ashore, but guns and swords are stored near at hand in the ships.”

We made idle talk for a bit, and then Augustus and I took our leave of the pirate captain.  We dropped in on a tavern within the city walls, where we repeated the toast to Messalina, and Augustus greeted and conversed briefly with two friends.  I requested one more stop before returning to the Coliseum.  Augustus nodded, apparently unsurprised.  Entering the slave market, we encountered Gaius, the sales agent.  Augustus counted out several pieces of gold, and Gaius bowed unctuously, bidding the patrician to stay and examine the merchandise for as long as he wished.

As we proceeded back into the cellblock, where sputtering torches cast dim light, I glanced over my shoulder for a second and saw Gaius watching us.  A speculative look creased his flabby face.  I didn’t like the avaricious glint in his eye.

Veeza and the other captive girls shared a miserable cell not much larger than a cage.  They were disheveled and filthy, and had lost weight.  Positioning myself to hide the action from the guard who stood at the entrance to the cellblock, I reached through the bars and squeezed Veeza’s hand.  “This is a dismal place,” I whispered.

“So far, we all remain together, and we’ve protected each other from injury and harm,” Veeza whispered back, holding my hand.  “When we were first brought in, they tried to brand us, but we fought back so hard that they finally gave up on the idea, at least for the time being.  We’ve also made ourselves so disagreeable that we’ve frightened off the prospective buyers who have shown any interest in us.  I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to get away with that.”

“Hold on and keep up your spirits.  In that time that I’ve been here, I’ve learned that Caesarea is a smoldering fire.  It only needs to be poked a little for the flames to waken.  I am trying to poke them with the help of Lord Augustus here.  I hope to have good news ere long.”

We said hurried farewells, and I expected Augustus to suggest we take our leave.  Instead, he leaned close and said, “While we’re here, there’s another whom I wish you to meet – if she yet lives.”  We walked further back into the cramped badger den of the cellblock, around two turns in the narrow corridor, to a corner where only the dimmest light burned.  Rats scurried away at our approach.

The cells back here were even smaller and meaner.  I saw ragged forms huddled in dank corners, weeping.  One wretch was manacled by his raw wrists to the ceiling of his cell.  His back was crisscrossed with whip marks.  His eyes were half closed, his face was buried in the tangles of his bushy beard, his breath rasped hoarsely in and out of his lungs.

In the next cell over, a slight form sat.  She was pressed up against the bars of the cell door, as if trying to get as close to the glimmering torchlight as she could.  I saw a young woman with short ash-blonde hair and a slender, long-legged figure.  She had blue eyes, high cheekbones, and a firm jaw.  She appeared to be about my age, but with an air of experience and command that belied her youth.

She glanced up dully as Augustus and I approached.  And then, as she recognized my companion, joy lit her face.

“Britannia,” Augustus said in a low voice.  “Thank the gods you have not been taken away or grossly mistreated.  I tried to inquire about you at first, but it was cursed hard to communicate with anyone who might be able to sneak a message into this place.  After a while I feared that Messalina would intercept my messages, so I stopped trying.  Please forgive me.”

“Augustus, there is nothing to forgive,” the girl murmured.  “I knew that my friends had not forgotten about me.  I would not wish to see you wind up here too.”

“Britannia, this young man with me is Dax, a warrior from a distant land who was captured by the Su-lu.  He was consigned to the Games by Messalina.  He too wishes to regain his freedom.  It may be …” he glanced briefly around to make sure no guard was close enough to hear, “that we will all get what we wish shortly, with luck.”

“I confess I do not know who you are, lady,” I said, “but it is clear that Augustus thinks highly of you, so I am glad to make your acquaintance.”

“Let me tell you who I am, warrior Dax,” the young woman said, bending close.  “In and of myself, I am insignificant, but I represent an ideal of liberty that Messalina has insulted and defiled.  I am the descendant, many generations removed, of Britannicus Magus, once known as Britannicus Caligulae Servus, and his son, Numerius Tiber Britannicus.  Britannicus the elder was a Briton who spent his youth in slavery in Rome under the mad emperor Caligula.  In adulthood, after the death of Caligula, he won great honor under the Emperor Claudius, and earned his freedom through service to the empire.”

She told her story in a way that suggested she did not fully understand all of the words she used.  It was as if the story had been handed down from parent to child for so long that the import of old names and old titles had long since been lost.  Yet, the names and titles continued to be venerated out of tradition, precious in meaning and significance of themselves.

“The emperor heard of a country in the far north, called Thule, which was said to be rich in gold, furs, and other precious commodities,” she continued.  “He commanded Britannicus to assemble an expedition to find Thule.  He was to establish peaceful relations with its ruling house, if the country was inhabited.  If there were no human masters, then Britannicus was to claim it for Rome.  From Rome, Britannicus, his wife, his son, and the emperor’s chosen delegation sailed for Britain, and thence, in five triremes, north to find Thule.  Among them were patricians, tradesmen, laborers, soldiers, and others – men and women – who would form the basis of a stable colony.

“It was a dangerous voyage.  As they sailed further and further north, they entered icy seas and howling gales.  Icebergs and ice floes began to choke the sea lanes.  Nevertheless, they pressed onward.  Two of the ships were lost, caught fast and crushed in the drifting mountains of ice.

“Britannicus began to despair.  The northern darkness lengthened.  The floes grew thicker, and sheets of ice formed on the sails and lines of the surviving triremes.  And then, as it seemed that the expedition was doomed to failure, the triremes encountered warmer currents flowing from the north.  The ice lessened, the sea opened again, and presently, Britannicus and his followers saw a sight that filled them with awe: As the feeble northern sun dropped over the horizon behind them, another, brighter sun became visible ahead.  They had crossed the threshold that separated one world from another, and had entered the realm of Pellucidar, whence had come the legends of Thule.”

It seemed that the newcomers had sailed onward, marveling at the eternal noonday sun overhead, and the strange beasts that infested the sea.  Eventually, they came to an island sparsely inhabited by a primitive tribe that fled at their approach.   “Stone buildings already stood on the island, built by whom, and from what, for no quarries were to be seen, no one knew.  These buildings became our great public edifices, including the hall of state where Messalina now holds court, the slave market, and the Coliseum, all designed to replicate the familiar structures of Rome.”

Once settled in Pellucidar, in the city they called Nova Roma, the Romans discovered that they could not go home again.  The seas were impassable.  One trireme that attempted a return voyage was lost.  Britannicus and his fellows made the best of their situation, establishing a government on the model of what Britannia called “the old Republic.”  A sort of tribal council called the Senate was put into place to make laws.  A governor was appointed to see that the laws were carried out, and that society ran in orderly fashion.  The governor and members of the Senate were appointed by the will of the people.

“So Nova Roma was founded.  As generation followed generation, and the indigenous people of the island became part of our community, we continued to honor the tradition of freedom and popular rule.  And yet there were always some who wished to upset the balance of power, to concentrate it in the hands of the few, and to rule through fear rather than justice.  Messalina, who claimed descent from the Caesars, was one such.

“When the Su-lu came appeared from the sea with their thunder weapons, trepidation arose that here might be a rival and hostile power.  As a leader in the Senate, Messalina exploited the fear, and championed a growth in the army.  The fears about the Su-lu proved groundless – they preferred trade to aggression – but Messalina had accomplished her objective.  She had created an armed force that felt a sense of obligation and loyalty to her.  Acting swiftly, she declared herself Empress, a sovereign ruler in whom power was centered.  In her own honor, she decreed that Nova Roma would thenceforth be known as the city and empire of Caesarea, and so that change in name came about.  As the last popularly elected governor of Nova Roma, I was condemned as an enemy of the state and reduced to the existence you now see.”

“Messalina has taken no step toward … eliminating you?” I asked.

“No, she waits for me to die in this pit.  She fears that the people, cowed though they are, would rise up in outrage if she executed me.”

I glanced at Augustus, and he at me.  Her words had engendered the same thought in both our minds.  “Lady, stand fast and trust in your friends,” I said.  “We’ll restore your freedom or die trying.”

“You swear to it?”  She touched my hand.

“With the last breath of life.”

“We should go,” Augustus murmured regretfully, “before the guards come looking for us.  Next time we see you, my lady, may it be under greatly improved circumstances.”

As we emerged from the half-light of the cells, we winced at the blaze of radiance from the sun overhead.  “I think our way is clear, Dax,” my companion commented.  “Freedom must be restored – to your friends, to Britannia, to Caesarea.”

I nodded abstractedly.  In truth, my thoughts were on something else.  It may be difficult to understand that I pondered on an entirely personal matter, in the midst of the momentous affairs in which I had become embroiled.  Nevertheless, the heart chooses its own time to speak.  As my companion talked quietly of overthrowing oppression and tyranny, I mused on a young woman with ash-blonde hair and blue eyes.  I mused on her not as the personification of a cause, as Augustus did, but as a warm, vibrant woman.

I had never met Britannia before, and yet, I had pictured her lovely face in my imagination a thousand times.  It was the face of the woman whom I had been destined to meet, love, and marry.
 


SIX
The Empress Offers

As we walked back to the Coliseum, a murmur of fear suddenly ran through the sullen, unhappy crowd around us.  The throng parted to admit an imperious procession – a veiled woman in rich robes on a litter, carried by sweating slaves.  She was surrounded by a retinue of armed soldiers.  The officer in command of the troop was my friend Marcus.

Having recognized Marcus, I was not surprised to see that the woman whom the soldiers guarded, as she unveiled her face and smiled icily at Augustus and me, was Messalina.

“You’ve been hosting our young Gladiator in a tour of the city, my lord cousin?” she asked in a teasing voice.  I was reminded uncomfortably of a cat playing with a mouse.

“Yes, my lady.  We availed ourselves of a fine custom.  It is one that you, I believe, introduced in your wisdom.  I’ve given Dax a bit of relaxation away from his training.  We have been toasting your health in the public houses.”

“And in the slave market?  I heard you visited that establishment too.  You also toasted my health there?”

“There, lady,” I interjected, bowing, “I thanked the gods for the good fortune of having a patroness to whom I owed the honor of being trained for the Games.”

She nodded, smiling.  “As you return your guest to his quarters, Augustus, you might do so by way of the artisans’ market.  I think you will see something of interest there.”  She waved for her procession to continue onward.

“Gaius the slave agent has done well for himself,” Augustus said with a sour smile, bowing after her.  “As soon as I paid him our admittance fee, he doubtlessly sent a runner to Messalina, who paid in turn for the news of our visit.”

“What about this sight of interest that the Empress mentioned?”

“I don’t know, but by her tone of voice, I don’t think it’s likely to be something of favorable interest.  We’ll go see.”

We strolled into the artisans’ market, where crowds of people milled, speaking in tense undertones to each other.  As we passed, bystanders fell silent and averted their eyes from the patrician.  When we rounded a corner, we saw the reason for their strange behavior.

“By the Gods …” The oath choked in my companion’s throat.

A beam had been erected at the end of the street, with a crosspiece near the top giving the whole a T shape.  A man hung on the beam, wrists roped to the crosspiece, the weight of his body suspended from his arms.  His face had been beaten to a bloody pulp.  Lash-marks gouged bleeding furrows across his naked chest and shoulders.  I could not see his back, but I imagined it was similarly ravaged.  He was alive, but his breath came in weak, painful gasps.  Five soldiers were posted as guards.

A young woman in a mauve gown sprawled at the foot of the beam, weeping.  As Augustus stepped toward her, the commanding sergeant intervened, hand on sword.  “You must keep your distance, my lord.  We have express orders from the Empress: no one, not even a patrician, may step beyond this point on pain of death.”

Augustus turned away angrily.  “That is Marcellus Sergius,” he grated.  “The young woman is his wife, Lavinia.  What’s Messalina up to?”

A man fell into step with us.  It was Leonidas, the Empress’ scribe.  “This is bad business, my lord,” he murmured to Augustus.  “The Empress heard that Marcellus had said something critical of her.  She had him beaten, and she ordered that he be publicly crucified – as a warning to others who might be harboring seditious thoughts.”  He bowed and disappeared into the crowd.

Augustus and I returned to the Coliseum, where I thanked him for his hospitality.  “Keep your ear to the wind for news,” he said, his face still angry from the sight of his crucified friend.

Came the opening round of the Games.  Signs were posted, advertising the thrills of the blood sport, illustrated with gory drawings of armed combat and slavering, wild-eyed beasts.  Lucan translated the Caesarean writing for me: “See mighty giants locked in combat to the death!  See decapitations, dismemberments, and disembowelments!  See the savagery of giant beasts, mad for human blood!”

In sooth, the opening round was merely what Lucan called a dress rehearsal for the real thing.  We fought with blunted, wooden weapons.  The beasts remained locked in their cages.  The exhibition gave the crowds a chance to study our styles, choose favorites, and decide on whom to bet in a real match.  I fought sword against trident, sword against sword, and spear against sword.  I won each contest, but to tell the truth, I was pitted against lesser antagonists.  Had I been assigned to fight someone who really knew his stuff, such as Tacitus, the outcome quite likely would have been much different.

As the crowds watched us, the exhibition in turn gave me a chance to study the crowds.  Tacitus told me that originally, before Messalina’s power play, the Games had been a bloodless affair of wrestling, boxing, and mock swordplay – a celebration of athleticism rather than an excuse for butchery.  Under Messalina, they had been transformed into orgies of bloodletting to engage the baser instincts of the populace.  It was a way of distracting them from their unhappiness under the Empress’ heavy rule.

Even so, it seemed to me that the most avid spectators were those who sat in and around the special pavilion from which Messalina watched the fray.  In the faces of the others – merchants, tradesmen, the poor – I thought I yet detected furtive traces of resentment and fear as they glanced toward the Empress’ station.

Tired and sweaty, and bruised from the jab and slash of mock weapons, we Gladiators filed back to our gathering hall inside the Coliseum when the exhibition ended and the crowds dispersed.  After a meal and sleep, the spectators would return, and the Games would begin in earnest.

A few patricians found their way to the hall and circulated among us.  It would be their last chance to size us up before the occasion came to place their bets.  Augustus was among them.  He spoke to Tacitus and a few others, asking questions about the fine points of getting a sword-thrust under an opponent’s guard, and evading the toss of a trident-man’s net.  Presently, he ambled over and engaged me in conversation.  We spoke about matters of combat in voices loud enough to carry some distance.

In between those comments, we communicated in low tones about the matters that actually had brought Augustus here:

“Messalina went too far in crucifying Marcellus,” he said.  “Some of her advisors finally convinced her to cut him down from the cross, fearing reaction from his friends.  By the time she did so, he was dead.  There is increasing outrage among the patricians.  Many, before, were too frightened of Messalina’s bully boys to talk about rebelling.  Now, they are ready to act if given the chance.  Each fears that on the slightest pretext, he or she may be the mad Empress’ next victim.”

“I have a plan, if enough time remains to instigate it,” I murmured.  “The patricians will be gathered at the Games, as will a great number of the plebians, as you call them.  The Gladiators will have arms, and more weapons will be available back in the Gladiators’ armory.  Some distraction will be needed to occupy the attention of Messalina’s soldiers, at least long enough for somebody to raise a shout for insurrection, for the Gladiators to be marshaled, and for weapons to be distributed.

“If enough of the wealthy, the middling, and the poor are sick enough of Messalina’s tyranny to rise up, this is their best opportunity for doing so – when enough of them are together in one place to give the soldiers what-for.”

“What kind of distraction do you propose?”

“Get to Usman.  He as much as said that he’d be willing to back a change in regime, as long as it means more money for the Su-lu.  If he and his men can burst into the stadium and open a volley on Messalina’s guards, it may throw the soldiers off balance long enough for the spectators to be armed and mobilized.  If we don’t get the upper hand in the Coliseum, then we will carry the fight to the streets, and release the captives in the slave market.  Many of them are too sick and weak to fight, but others will rally.”  I thought of Britannia, Veeza, and the other Mezop girls.

“It isn’t a foolproof plan, but once one part of it falls into place, there’s a good chance that the rest will follow,” Augustus conceded.  “At any rate, I don’t think a better opportunity will present itself.  I can alert my friends to be ready …”

“No!  If the plan is bruited about, there’s too much risk of it reaching Messalina’s ears.  We’ll just have to hope that, when the time comes, enough people seize the moment.  However …” I remembered our conversation with Britannia in the slave cell, “there is one thing you might do.  You might quietly spread the rumor that the lady Britannia has been put to death secretly by order of the Empress.  The more festering anger we can stir in patricians and plebians as they assemble for the Games, the hotter fire we can spark.”

After Augustus left, with a hearty wish for my good luck in the arena in parting – “For I will wager a heavy sum on you, lad!” – Tacitus wandered over with two cups of wine.  I took one and drank sparingly.

“When the Games start, stay sharp and follow my lead,” I muttered to him.

He nodded, obviously puzzled but too wise to ask any questions.

After a light meal, I sought my cot.  I had hardly dozed off when a hand shook me awake.  I looked up quizzically to see Lucan bending over me with a lantern.  “You have a visitor,” he said.

I arose, threaded my way among my sleeping comrades, and followed Lucan to a private room.  He motioned for me to enter, and as I did so, he remained outside and closed the door behind me.

It was a storeroom for weapons.  Racks of spears crowded piles of daggers and short swords.  Wavering light from a torch, fed by a draft of air from a ventilation shaft, disclosed bare walls, a flagstone floor, and a small table and chair in the center of the room.  As I entered, the Empress Messalina rose from the chair and shrugged off a cloak that swathed her form.

“I came by myself, in secret, to see you, Dax,” she said.

She was a vision of dazzling loveliness.  Her dark brown hair shimmered in the torchlight, and every curve of her voluptuous body was plain to see under the sheer gown that she wore.  She stepped close to me and laid her hand lightly on my chest.  The scent of lavender tickled my nose.

“I am surrounded by enemies,” she said.  “Increasingly, I hear of conspiracies and plots directed against me by rascals who hide in the shadows, fostering resentment.”

I made so bold as to take her hand in mine.  She didn’t resist.  “You command many soldiers,” I observed.  “Certainly, they must offer ample protection against any threat.”

Her red lips curled.  “There is never enough protection when enemies slink and hide on all sides.  I was very impressed by your performance in the opening round of the Games, Dax.  You conducted yourself very skillfully, and it was clear that you are a man who thinks as he fights.  Lucan speaks highly of your quickness in learning the ways of combat.  He says you move swiftly and decisively.”

I shrugged.

“I came here to make you an offer, Dax.  The offer is this: Join my personal guard, and you may walk out of here a free man, now.”

“What of Marcus?”

“What of him?  He is mine to command.  If I command him to report to you as his superior, he will do so.”

Her sea-green gaze was locked on my face, searching.  Her fingers curled around mine.  It was clear that she tendered even more than freedom and command.  She held out the unspoken promise of her intimate favors as well.

“If I refuse your offer?” I asked.

“Then you will suffer the consequences.”

If I truly were as quick-witted as she thought I was, I would have accepted her offer immediately.  I would have used my newfound freedom to scheme a way out of the slave cells for Britannia and the Mezop girls.  Instead, I thought of the injustices that my friends had suffered because of this ambitious woman.  I remembered the beaten man on the crosstie, and the woman who wept at his feet.  I thought of how my own freedom had been snatched away on the whim of a woman who reveled in the sight of men slaying each other.  And I replied impulsively:

“Thank you for your consideration, lady, but I decline your kind offer.  I’ll accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”

She stepped back, disengaging her hand from my fingers.  A look of surprise crossed her beautiful features, followed by as shocking an expression of rage as I have ever seen on a human face.  Her red mouth twisted in fury.  Almost before I realized what she was doing, she reached behind her and plucked a dagger from a pile that lay near at hand.

The blade glinted in the torchlight.  I was just quick enough to seize her wrist as the point grazed my chest.  I twisted.  The dagger clattered to the floor.  I held on to her wrist as she spat a stream of curses in Caesarean.

I maintained my grasp until she ran out of energy and invectives, and then I let her go.  She stumbled back against the table, almost falling.

“You … you …” She struggled to speak.  Her burst of anger had left her breathless.  I gazed at her steadily, pitilessly, until she finally regained her composure.  “You have sealed your fate, young savage from the sea,” she panted.  “I made the offer once.  I won’t make it again.”

She swirled her cloak around her rich form, drew one fold across the lower part of her face, and threw the door open.  The angry tap-tap of her sandals rang on the flagstones of the corridor as she strode away.

Lucan waited outside the door to escort me back to my cell.  He looked up the hallway, as if following the receding scent of lavender, and then at me.  His expression was unreadable.  “For what I think you have done this night, boy, may the gods have mercy on you, for our good Empress surely will not!”


SEVEN
For Freedom!

The population of Caesarea crowded into the Coliseum under the blazing sun of Pellucidar.  I watched from the grated door whence, shortly, my comrades and I would issue with our weapons.  The laborers, artisans, and poorer tradesmen poured into one section of seats, shouting and laughing.  The wealthier merchants and patricians clustered in another.  Slaves and mendicants found standing room only, at a greater distance from the killing floor than even the laborers.

With a blare of trumpets, Messalina and her retinue made their entrance after all others had been seated.  A wall of soldiers formed around her pavilion, and others took up positions throughout the stands.  I looked closely at her seating area, where a canopy had been erected to protect her from the fierce sunlight, and where fine brocaded swaths of cloths were draped over the wall of the arena.  From there I glanced over to the adjacent area where more patricians gathered.  I was searching for Augustus.

However, there were too many people, and the distance was too great, to identify my highborn co-conspirator with certainty.  The only familiar face I recognized was that of the scribe Leonidas, who sat close to Messalina and bore a sober, preoccupied expression.

I was assigned to fight with net and trident against a big Caesarean who was armed with a sica, or curved scimitar, and shield.  As I donned the manica of a net fighter – a mesh-mail sleeve to protect my throwing-arm – a troop of soldiers marched into the staging room where we fighters made our preparations.  My old friend Marcus, who commanded the detachment, confronted Lucan.

“This one …” he pointed to me, “and that one …” pointing to Tacitus. “are not to be armed or armored.”

Lucan protested.  “You can’t be serious!  Are they to fight bare-handed?”  At spear-point, I doffed the mesh-mail sleeve and dropped my trident.

“The Empress commands that the first exhibition be a special one,” Marcus said, a peculiar glint in his eye.  He turned to one of his subordinates.  “Bring in the others.”

Others?  The soldier saluted, left the room, and returned shortly with additional troops and three other people – two women and a man.  The women were Britannia and Veeza, walking slowly and shakily.  After the forced inactivity of their cramped cells, being marched to the arena from the slave market must have been an agonizing test of endurance.  The man who accompanied them was Augustus.  He smiled grimly from a bruised face.

“The Empress said her spies had informed her of treasonous behavior on my part,” he remarked through swollen lips.  “These troops who came to arrest me were under orders not to make the process pleasant.”

Marcus stood hands on hips, his lash dangling from one wrist by a strap.  “By order of the Empress, your playbill is being rearranged somewhat, Lucan.  Open the door and release these three men and two women into the arena.”

“And then?”

“I’ll tell you once they are in place, outside.”

Lucan hesitated.  The officer jutted his chin.  A hedge of spears pointed at the trainer’s chest and belly.  Lucan shrugged and ordered a helper to raise the grate that covered the exit to the arena.  “I’m sorry about this, boy,” he told me in a tight voice.  “These were good clean games once, when the Governor and the Senate still presided.”

Other spears pointed and prodded the two women, Tacitus, Augustus, and me through the exit and out into the blaze of sunlight.  The great circle of the arena seemed even larger than it had appeared during all of my long practice sessions.  Or perhaps it was only that I felt smaller as I trudged out onto the killing ground, unarmed.

“One hope remains to us,” Augustus confided in a low voice, leaning close to me.  “Before I was seized, I made contact with one of the crew of Usman the Su-lu.  I asked him to contact the captain, whom I could not find in the time that I had, and to inform him of your proposal.  If the gods are kind, he heard and will intervene before … before …”

“Who was the crewman?” I asked.

“The fellow’s lieutenant – I do not remember his name.”

I groaned inwardly.  It must have been Jolo to whom Augustus had spoken.  It was not likely that Jolo the butcher would help those who had scorned and embarrassed him.  It was more plausible that the first mate had run to the authorities and ratted out both his captain and us.  By revealing the plot to Jolo, Augustus unwittingly had engineered his own arrest and probably had sealed the fate of our conspiracy.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him so, and in truth, it didn’t much matter now.

An excited buzz of voices greeted our emergence.  Questions were asked and speculations were voiced in baffled tones, but the conversations melted too much into each other for individual words to be heard distinctly.  Messalina, rising from her gold-plated, silk-draped seat, raised her arms skyward.  The hubbub of conversation died as the crowd of spectators strained to hear what she had to say.

“I’ve arranged a special performance for you, my dear subjects of Caesarea,” she said in a musical voice that rang clearly through the stands.  “Know you that vile traitors in our beloved city have been plotting against my life.  Word of the conspiracy was conveyed to me, as the tidings of anarchy must always leak out from the shadows where they spawn like poisonous mushrooms.  You see before you, in the arena, the agents of unrest – a barbarian boy and girl from the sea, my treacherous fellows Tacitus and Augustus, and the scheming turncoat Britannia.”

“Britannia – alive!”  The murmur ran through segments of the crowd like the keening of an offshore wind.  Even through a barrage of catcalls and rude jests from Messalina’s lickspittles, I could hear the words.  They passed in surprised, hopeful cadences from person to person in the cheap seats, and in portions of the patricians’ gallery.

I remembered that I had suggested to Augustus that rumors of Britannia’s death be spread.  And apparently the suggestion had been carried out.  For those who had harbored secret loyalty to the young governor, seeing her alive on the killing ground must have been like witnessing the rising of a phantom of freedom from the ashes of despair.

Messalina’s voice continued to echo in triumph, even as she cast sharp looks of hatred at those who spoke Britannia’s name reverently:

“Crimes against the state are threats that undermine peace, security, and public safety!  They must test the magnanimity of even the most merciful ruler.  An example must be made of traitors, so that their evil is checked at the root.  Therefore, I condemn these five turncoats to face the beasts of the arena.  I leave them in command of their faculties, so that they may make what fight or flight they can.  They will remain in the arena for as long as it takes the exhibition to reach an end!”

She paused, raking the five of us with her most spiteful gaze, and then in a shriller voice, she exclaimed, “Release the jaloks first!”

A trumpet bleated.  From a sturdy door at the other end of the Coliseum came muffled roars of famished man-eaters, growing louder as the door was hoisted open from above.  The three hyaenodons of the Coliseum menagerie slunk through the dark doorway and out onto the open ground, snarling and crowding each other.  Each creature stood as high at the shoulder as a man.  Their short brown fur was mangy from their long confinement.  Their eyes, the color of mud, looked around the arena, half-blinded at first by the dazzle of the sunlight, I imagined.  Saliva dripped from their huge muzzles.

As their eyesight grew accustomed to the bright sun, and as the breeze blew from my companions and me to their nostrils, they raised their heads.  Their ears perked back.  They saw the five of us now, the only living things within immediate striking range.

Veeza clasped Britannia’s hand with one of hers, and clenched the other into a fist.  I watched the jaloks closely, Tacitus standing on my left and Augustus on my right, in front of the women.  “There is a chance for two of us to survive,” I said, looking around quickly at my four companions.  “If we three men run toward the jaloks, we may be able to distract them long enough for you, Veeza and Britannia, to make a break for it.  See the drapes that hang over the wall in front of Messalina’s pavilion?  Run there and climb the drapes.  They are strong enough to bear your weight.  Once you gain the top of the wall, you’ll be out of the beasts’ reach.”

The women nodded, even though they knew, as did I, that even if they were able to climb out of the arena in their weakened state, they would be set upon by Marcus and his soldiers.

But even a slim chance was preferable to none, and a spear thrust would deal a quicker and cleaner death than the fangs of the starving jaloks.

“Why us,” Britannia demanded, “and not two of you?  In the free republic of Nova Roma, women pulled their own weight.  We are not dainty toys to be put on a shelf out of a misguided sense of male chivalry.”  Veeza nodded agreement, eyes blazing.

“That’s an easy answer, my lady, and it has nothing to do with chivalry.”  In spite of my fear, I grinned.  I was tickled by the women’s fiery spirit in the face of the sure death that stared at us across the arena.  “You must survive to inspire your people to regain their freedom.  Veeza must survive to bring Tir and Fen to Caesarea and avenge our deaths on Marcus and his tin soldiers.”

An angry susurration began to run among the peasants, and was picked up by some of the patricians.  It seemed that Messalina had misjudged the temper of the crowd, or at least the temper of a fair number of the spectators.  The angry whisper suggested that many of those in the stands were not so far sunken into debauchery and bloodlust as to relish the spectacle of five unarmed people torn to pieces by ravenous carnivores.

But they could do no more than mutter and sputter.  The spears and swords of the soldiers hedged them in, ready for deployment at the first sign of trouble.

For all that the arena had appeared so large just a few breaths before, now it seemed to be the smallest space possible, as I studied the jaloks.  I calculated how quickly they would be able to cross the intervening distance once they sprang into action.  I tried to envision the approach they would make, and to determine how best to divert them from the women.

“Augustus,” I said quickly, “if you and I make a dash ahead and to the right, we may account for at least two of the beasts.  The quickest way to Messalina’s pavilion is to the left.  Tacitus, if you go in that direction with Veeza and Britannia, and stay between them and the remaining jalok, should he separate from the others, we may buy the women enough time to climb up into the stands.”

“As well die facing the brutes as running from them,” Tacitus rasped.  “I wish I had a spear, though.”

“So do I.”  I clasped hands with the men and embraced the women briefly.  I nodded to Augustus.  He and I started forward, waving our arms and yelling to preoccupy the attention of the beasts.  They snarled, and all three began to lope toward the two of us.  I didn’t have time to glance sideways, but I mouthed a prayer to fate.  I prayed that Tacitus, Britannia, and Veeza had begun their sprint toward the wall.  I prayed that the jaloks would remain in a pack.

The jaloks were springing toward us in great bounds now, fangs bared, tongues lolling.  They came in silence except for the scuff of their taloned paws in the sand of the arena.  Augustus and I continued to advance.  I heard a disturbance in the stands.  I surmised that the more bloodthirsty of the spectators had gotten excited by the prospect of our imminent death.  I kept my attention on the predators, and particularly on the one that had now begun to outpace the others, leaping straight toward me.

Bang!  The sharp report of a musket rang out suddenly across the arena.  The foremost jalok went sprawling as if he had run into an invisible tripwire.  He yelped, writhing.  Another gunshot echoed, and a second brute abruptly slid muzzle-first across the yard, raising a great cloud of dust.

I hoped that the third jalok would be distracted by the peculiar behavior of his fellows, but he was too intent on satiating his appetite to notice.  He was closing the remaining distance with fearful speed.  I pushed ahead of Augustus and the beast was so close that he was almost upon me … I smelled the rank odor of his filthy fur …

A third shot whipped through the hot air of the arena, and a bullet pierced the creature’s eye with lethal accuracy.  It too sprawled out, writhing and gnashing its fangs in reflex, even though its brain had shut down in death.  Augustus and I lunged back to avoid its frantic thrashing.

Now I could spare a glance at the stands, where I saw a band of Su-lu with guns confronting a phalanx of soldiers.  They shot a volley straight into the ranks of the soldiers, whose close-packed formation was the worst possible one that they could have chosen in the face of point-blank gunfire.  With each shot a soldier went down, opening gaps in the formation.  The pirates yelled in glee, drawing their swords and leaping into the gaps, slashing like madmen.

The grated door to the Gladiators’ corridor opened, and Marcus’ troops boiled forth.  Of Marcus himself there was no sign.  My friends and I wheeled to meet their charge, now that the Su-lus’ gunfire had removed the threat of the beasts.  Even as we did so, a great shout arose from behind the attackers.  Instantly they were beset by the Gladiators, who fell upon them from the rear.  Lucan slashed a way toward us, with three spears in the crook of his free arm.  I distributed them to Britannia, Veeza, and Tacitus.

I looked up into the stands and saw Messalina pointing for her soldiers to surround a group of restive patricians.  Seizing Lucan’s shoulder, I said, “Dispatch some of the Gladiators up into the seats to distribute weapons.  Have them arm those patricians there, who are being threatened by the soldiers.  Clearly, the Empress does not count that bunch among her friends.”

I asked Augustus to go with the Gladiators.  “You can distinguish your insurgent friends from Messalina’s loyalists.  Once that first group of patricians is armed, you’ll know who else to provide with swords and spears.”

Additional troops charged into the arena, and Tacitus, Britannia, Veeza, and I had our hands full, despite the help from the Gladiators.  More soldiers in the arena meant fewer that our friends in the stands would have to take care of – but their numbers threatened to overwhelm my companions and me.

I beat down a sword thrust, and struck in return, driving the point of my spear into the fellow’s face.  There was a momentary lull, and I spoke over my shoulder to Tacitus, who stood back to back with me, as Veeza and Britannia stood back to back with each other:

“Tacitus, which gate leads out from the tarag’s cage?”

“That one there,” he panted, indicating a heavy, grilled gate to the right, on the other side of that from which the jaloks had emerged.  A massive windlass contraption was built over the gate.  Cranking the windlass would raise the gate.

“That crank will take two people to turn,” I said.  “You and Veeza raise the gate and release the cat.  The rest of us will maneuver the soldiers around so that they will be directly in the tarag’s path once he comes out.  If the tarag doesn’t kill enough soldiers, turn the sithic loose too!”

He nodded, spoke briefly to Veeza, and set off with her as Britannia and I hewed our way over to Lucan.   I guarded Britannia’s back.  I was amazed at how well she fought.  She handled the spear adroitly.  She must have seen the look of surprise on my face as I came up alongside her, for she smiled through the coating of dust and sweat that covered her lovely features.  “My father had hoped for a son,” she said through heavy bursts of breath, “and so as I grew up, he taught me to fight as he would have taught a son to fight.”

Reaching Lucan, I said, “Let’s move toward the right, and try to place ourselves and the Gladiators so that we’re closer to the wall, and the soldiers are further out in the arena!”

“What are you up to?” he asked, but didn’t wait for an answer as he did what I suggested.  The Gladiators followed suit, and presently the battle line was drawn in such a way that the soldiers were out farther in the open than we.  Despite the Gladiators’ valor and ferocity, many of them had fallen under the soldiers’ blows, dead or dying.

Tacitus and Veeza gained the wall.  Tacitus stooped, cupped his hands as a foothold for Veeza, boosted her up on the wall, and then scrambled up afterward with her help.  They seized the crank of the windless, began to turn it, and the gate ponderously rose.

I think Lucan was the first to see the tarag.  “By the gods!” he breathed.

The saber-toothed tiger burst from its confinement, emitting a throaty roar that chilled my blood.  My plan succeeded as I hoped it would.  The cat was even angrier, hungrier, and fiercer than the jaloks.    Bunched between the Gladiators and the predator, the soldiers began to scream and curse as the tarag hurtled forward, crashing among them with the terrible force of a thunderbolt.

Lucan and I motioned the Gladiators back to the doorway from which they had entered the arena.  The offensive against us lessened.  The soldiers were more concerned with the greater threat of the tarag.  The big cat raged among them, crushing some under its taloned paws, flinging others over its haunches in bloody rags, grinding some most gruesomely between its powerful jaws.

Once we were inside the doorway, the roar of the cat fading behind us, we hurried along the corridor.  We sought the byways that would lead up to Messalina’s pavilion.  Lucan knew the way and ran point as the rest of us followed.  We were behind him as he ducked into an archway and pounded up the inclined floor on the other side.  The far end of this byway opened out into the sunlight, and we found ourselves in the midst of the royal pavilion, where rebel patricians fought against loyalists and soldiers.

With a hoarse shout, the Gladiators stumbled over the bleeding, wounded, and dead, and joined the struggle in support of the rebels.  I became separated from Britannia and Lucan, and found myself beside Messalina’s throne; I didn’t see the Empress herself, but had little time to look around for her as a javelin hummed through the air and sliced my thigh.  Driven by the energy of desperation and not yet feeling the effects of the cut, I closed with the soldier who had thrown the weapon.  Before he could draw his sword, I drove my spear into his stomach.

His dying spasms wrenched the shaft of the spear from my hand, leaving me weaponless as a burly, broken-nosed figure emerged from a knot of struggling men and started toward me.  It was Marcus, and as he recognized me in turn, an evil grin split his face.  He had a short sword and shield.  I was empty-handed.

I edged backward, my leg now beginning to hurt from the wound.  Marcus pressed ahead, slashing at me with a blow that I evaded by scant inches.  My leg weakened and I sprawled backward, falling onto the soldier whom I had stabbed.  With speed born of terror, I seized the haft of his sword and whipped it from its sheath.

Marcus prepared to slash at me again.  To get an unimpeded aim, he had to drop his guard with the shield.  Pushing up with my good leg, I simultaneously grabbed the arm of the throne and hoisted myself to my feet.  With the same motion, I thrust.  My sword point cleared the rim of Marcus’ shield and the collar of his leather cuirass, and tore into his throat.  He fell forward, gushing blood, and I stepped aside and let him fall full length on his face.

He didn’t get up.

I waited for someone else to attack me, but no one did.  I found the javelin that had wounded me, and used it for support as I moved away from the throne, looking for an attack to fend off or, conversely, an enemy to engage.  I was amazed to see that the fighting had all but ended.  Soldiers and loyalists were dropping their weapons and asking for mercy.  Rebels and Su-lu wearily pushed and prodded them into small groups, making it easier to guard them.

I wound my way among several corpses.  One, whom I confess I was not unhappy to see, was the slave master Gaius.

A small ruckus continued just outside the pavilion, where a few soldiers yet protected the royal personage of the Empress.  Tacitus and Veeza fought there, as did Usman the Su-lu in his gold-threaded indigo jacket.  I headed that way, but as I approached, the soldiers’ resistance wound down in the face of increasingly greater numbers as more Su-lu reinforced their captain.  By the time I joined my friends, the remaining troops had dropped their weapons.

Messalina looked at them scornfully.  I think she would have picked up a sword and continued the fight herself, except that, at that moment, a slender figure in mauve ran up to her.  A slender lady’s dagger glittered aloft in one small fist for a second, before plunging to the hilt in the Empress’ breast.

The assassin collapsed, sobbing.  It was the lady Lavinia, whose husband Messalina had executed in such a terrible fashion.

Tacitus and Veeza stared in amazement as I started forward and cradled the dying Empress in my arms.  Had they asked why I extended this gesture of human sympathy, I could not have said.  After all, this was the woman who had sentenced all of us to a fearful and degrading death.  Perhaps I felt pity that so beautiful a form harbored such concentrated evil.

“Young savage from the sea,” she murmured, laying soft fingers on my wrist.  “If I had known that you … were so … crafty … I would have had … Marcus execute you … straightaway.”  With an unreadable smile on her red lips, she died.


EIGHT
Reunion

I stood up slowly, putting my weight on the spear.  I stayed on my feet only long enough to move over to a bench and sit down again.  Veeza tore away a piece of Messalina’s fine gown and made of it a rude bandage for my thigh.

Presently, more joined us.  Augustus strode up, throwing away a bloodstained sword.  Britannia followed and sat down beside me.  Leonidas was there, staring silently at the dead Empress.  Usman ordered some of his men to take the prisoners away and lock them in the slave market.  “A good fight, huh?” he asked, clapping my shoulder.

“I feared that you wouldn’t come,” I said.  “I heard that my message to you was intercepted by Jolo.”

“Yes, the fool.  He ran to the palace and betrayed your plan to the Empress.  Soldiers came after the other crewmen and me, to put us under arrest.  Luckily for us, there were not enough of them to accomplish that purpose.  We fought our way free.  I ran Jolo to ground and got the story out of him before I put my blade in his heart.

“In the meantime, other soldiers had been dispatched to cordon off the ships.  We might have overcome them too and sailed away, but for what purpose?  It was clear that if the Empress prevailed, we could never return to Caesarea.  I figured that we might as well carry out your original scheme.  We ran like hell to get here.”

I was exhausted.  My leg throbbed with pain, and I wanted nothing more than to find a pallet and sleep, but I forced myself to stay awake as Augustus and Tacitus made their reports.  The only forceful struggle had come from the soldiers, it seemed.  Now that the uprising was over, those who remained were being escorted to the slave market to join the ones who had already been dispatched there by Usman, in addition to a handful of die-hard loyalists.

“Now that Messalina is no more, the Empress’ palace will become the hall of state once more, and you can sleep there tonight as Governor,” I told Britannia.

Before she could answer, a Su-lu ran up to Usman.  “Captain,” he said breathlessly, “there may be trouble – one of the other ships’ crewmen just reported in from the harbor.  There are men coming in from the sea …”

“Men from the sea?” Usman asked.

“Yes – Mezops.”

Given recent history, the arrival of Mezops would not be good news for Usman, but I put a restraining hand on his arm.  “Wait, don’t take up your arms again yet,” I entreated the captain.  “Let me go see who these Mezops are.”

With the help of Britannia and Tacitus, I made my way out of the Coliseum, through the city, and out to the harbor.  Veeza and Augustus followed, as did the women of Tir’s and Fen’s villages.  It was as the Su-lu runner had said.  Mezop canoes, dozens of them, were arrowing in from the sea.  The Su-lu seamen stood ready with their weapons, watching the approach.

The canoes put in wherever they could find space, and their occupants clambered up onto the dock, bows and spears ready.  The Su-lu were equally prepared for trouble with guns and swords.  At my request, Usman told his fellows to stand down.  Advancing to meet the newcomers, I recognized Tir – bandaged even more heavily than I, but fired with determination – and alongside him, my father Phar and my brother Ru.

Veeza saw her father at almost the same instant, and with a glad cry, she raced over to him and embraced.  The other captive girls, seeing their own kinfolk or friends among the warriors, followed suit.

My father noticed my bandage as he and Ru embraced me.  “The others were ready to wade in, arrows and spears flying, but I bade them calm down when I saw you standing here,” he said gruffly.  “You seemed unharmed, so I guessed that everything was all right.  But you aren’t entirely unscathed …”

“I’m fine,” I said, “or at least I’ll be fine after I get some food and sleep, and after I have a chance to rest my leg.”  Britannia was near, and I eased her forward.  “Britannia, this is my father, Phar, a king of Anaroc.  Father, this is Britannia, once and current Governor of this city of  …” I stopped, remembering.  “I was about to say Caesarea, but it isn’t Caesarea any more, is it?”

“No,” Britannia affirmed, standing very close to me.  “The city and ‘empire’ of Caesarea are no more.  It is the city of Nova Roma once again, as the first Britannicus named it, and I am pleased to meet you, lord Phar.”

From my father and Tir, I learned that Rama had stayed with Tir until survivors of the killing had returned from hiding places in the forest.  Once Rama was assured that Tir would be cared for, he returned to his village to notify Fen.  Word of the disaster, and the news of my pursuit, were sent on to my father from there.  Soon, warriors from all three tribes joined in a flotilla to give chase.

“I recognize some faces from Fen’s village,” I said, “but I don’t see Fen or Rama.”

“They and some others became separated from us in a brief squall,” Father said.  “I imagine they will arrive presently.”

I retained enough strength to walk to the palace with Britannia’s and Veeza’s help.  There, I found a bed and slept soundly.  When I woke, Britannia was hosting a feast in honor of the Mezops.  I learned that some residual bitterness of Tir’s warriors for the Su-lu had almost led to blows.  However, once Usman showed them Jolo’s corpse and promised reparations, and once Tir’s people grudgingly affirmed that none of Usman’s crew still living had been involved in the slaughter, trouble subsided.

I sought my father, who shared a table with Tir.  They said that Fen and Rama still had not arrived.  “I think we shall have to go look for them, in case they ran into trouble,” Father said.

Veeza passed by, deep in conversation with my brother.  They were looking at each other intently.  When I caught her eye for a second before they walked on, I winked.  “I suspect that your wish will come true, Father,” I said.  “The prospect appears good that the tribes of Phar and Tir will be united in marriage.”

“I knew you would come around, boy.  You’ll make a handsome groom.”

“Not I,” I laughed, joined by Tir.  He also had marked Veeza’s and my brother’s ease together.  “The handsome groom will be Ru.  And perhaps his future father-in-law will give him this as a wedding present.”  I slipped off the bronze armlet that I still wore, and returned it to Tir.

Later, leaving my father and Tir to talk, I left the palace alone – I still thought of the building in that sense, and probably always would – and wandered over to the Coliseum.  Things were returning to order.  I tarried to speak briefly with Tacitus and Augustus, who were supervising a celebration to honor the Gladiators.  As my leg began to ache again, I decided to return to the palace.  Even as I turned my steps in that direction, Britannia appeared.

“I wanted to make sure you were all right, Dax,” she said.  “You know, the army of Nova Roma will have to be rebuilt as a reserve force.  Its mission, as it was before Messalina’s power grab, will primarily be one of public safety.  It will need a good commander.  I was wondering … if you were not in a hurry to return to Anoroc …”

“I was wondering too,” I said.  “Ever since I saw you in the slave pen, imprisoned but defiant, I wondered if I had found the woman of whom I have dreamed ever since I was old enough to think about love.”

“And have you?”  She smiled sweetly and drew me to her.  I kissed her.

“Yes,” I said, “I think I have.”


---END---

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