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Volume 1582
PART II: Chapters 5-8


 The Panthans quickly scrambled, rushing for their weapons and taking up defensive positions, dousing fires and moving Thoats and Zitidars into protected positions.   Their actions were brisk and professional, the elegant efficiency of trained fighting men.

 Unfortunately, the Green Men did not appear at my heels.   Instead, after long moments, the quartermaster recovered enough presence to challenge me.

 “Where are these Green Men?” he demanded.

 “They’re out there,” I replied.   “They have us surrounded.”

 “Indeed?” he scoffed.   “Then why aren’t they attacking?”

 Why indeed, I wondered.   The Green Men of Barsoom have seldom shied away from conflict.

 “I’m not sure,” I said, thinking hard.   “It is night, and they prefer not to move at night...”

 A couple of Panthans nodded sagely at this, though the quartermaster was unconvinced.

 “And further,” I argued, “we are camped and thus all but fortified, we will be easier prey when traveling during the day, when we are strung out in a line.”

 “Hmmph...” the Quartermaster replied.   “So we should simply stay here until our food and water run out?   I do not think so.   Tell me more about these Green Men, how many of them are there?   How many did you see?”

 “I do not know,” I admitted.   “I did not see them.”

 His expression told me I had made a mistake.

 “You did not see them?” he asked.   “How do you know then?   Did you find their tracks?  Their campsites?   Was it fresh?”
 “I didn’t find their campsites.”

 His brow furrowed.

 “Did you hear their voices.”


 “Then how do you know that there are any Green Men out there?”

 This was going to be awkward, I thought.

 “I smelled them.”

 “You smelled them?”

 “I caught the scent of their Thoats, upwind, from two different directions.”

 “You smelled Thoats?”  The quartermaster gave a slow casual glance at the Thoats ringing our camp.   A round of laughter broke out.

 “Upwind,” I repeated.   “The wind was blowing towards the camp, and the smell of Thoats was away.”

 He rolled his eyes expressively.

 “Where are our scouts?”  I asked desperately.

 A look of calculation came over him as he considered this.

 “The scouts are overdue.  They should have been back tonight.   Hear me,” I pleaded, “delay striking camp until the scouts return.   If they do return, it will only be a few hours delay.  If they do not, we will know our enemy is out there.”

 “We could lose the better part of a day,” he mused.   “That is unacceptable.”

 “We could send some scouts out, short range,” a Panthan offered.   “If there is anything out there, we’d find it.  And if there’s nothing, we’d know by morning.”

 “You’d be throwing your lives away,” I snapped.

 “Perhaps,” the quartermaster replied, “but that is what we pay them for.” 

 He turned to the Panthan who had spoken.   “Send out three pairs of men, one in each direction.   Return by morning.”

 I sighed. 

By morning, none had returned.    The Quartermaster sought me out.

 “I must, by needs,” he said, “have some reservations.   None of the men have returned, nor have our previous scouts.   Perhaps there is something out there.   Or perhaps it is merely laziness or bad luck.  You are asking me to put great store by your sense of smell.”

 I shrugged.

 “So allow me a test.   Who stands behind you?”

 “Vel Vair,” I replied easily.   “I’d know her perfume anywhere.”

 “True enough,” he replied.

 “Who else?”

 I narrowed my eyes, and inhaled deeply, hoping for a gust.

 “A fighting man,” I said, “he has the smell of Zitidars.”

 The quartermaster nodded carefully.  He still wasn’t satisfied.   Was there someone else?  A faint clink came to my ear, the sound of chains.

 “Azara of Aztor,” I concluded.

 “I am half persuaded,” he said, “of your supernatural talent.”

 “It is not supernatural,” I replied, “merely an ability that all have but few learn to exercise.” 

 He continued to look dubious, but merely continued.   “I shall ask my brother for a delay.  We shall see what comes.”

 Unfortunately, the slave master, Haja Obol, when matters were brought to his attention, ruled against us.

 “What nonsense,” he said, “a rank odour and a few lazy scouts and you all turn to shrinking women?”   He glanced at me.   “No offense.”

 “None taken.”

 “We strike and move without further delay.”

 My heart sank with the bitter certainty that we were walking into a trap.   At best, I decided, I might be able to preserve my own life.   So, as the camp was struck and the Caravan prepared to move forward, I selected a powerful Thoat and loaded him heavily with all the supplies and ammunition I could find.   I noted a few other fighting men, those who had also fought for the Mad Jeddak and knew my reputation were doing likewise.

 The Caravan had not yet moved when a cloud of dust appeared over the dunes.  To my ears came the thunder of Thoats hooves.   Once again, hoping it was not too late, I sounded the alarm.

 Luckily, my warnings had not gone completely unheeded.  The Panthans were well prepared to fight, as were the Zitidar drivers.   Even as the Green horde thundered down upon us, fighting squadrons organized to meet them and the beasts and wagons were drawn into a circle.

 Luck was with us, I thought grimly.   Had the Green Men only waited a few hours more, the Caravan would have been so strung out that no defense would have been possible.   A sally of Panthans rode out to meet them and were slaughtered by the grim silent green warriors.  At best, they bought the rest of us time.

 I rode back among the screaming slaves, whipping them and the overseers equally, driving them within the circle of wagons, even as the rifles of the Green Men fired upon us.   Ducking within the circle, I continued to ride, shouting out orders, shoring up defenses, closing gaps.

 I came to Haja Obol.

 “What shall we do?” the slave driver blubbered.   “We are all doomed.  Save us, save us.”

 Around us, overseers and officers, whipmen all abandoned their posts.   Within the circle of wagons and beasts everything was descending into chaos.

 This whimpering fool was of no use, I decided.   I rode on to a cluster of Panthans who had some semblance of organization.

 “Disperse,” I yelled.  “Gather others around you.  We need to secure a perimeter.”

 “It’s futile,” the Panthan yelled back.   “We’re lead by Ulsios, and we have not the numbers to stand them off.   We number less than two hundred fighting men, and I estimate twice our number attacking.”

 I cursed.   The logic of numbers was inexorable.   Even if we could harden our defense, there were simply not enough fighters.

 But this was a slave Caravan, was it not?   An idea came to me.

 “You are lead by me,” I shouted back, “the hero of Horsa Straits!   I lead an army alive from a worse trap than this.”

 “But there aren’t enough of us!”

 “Obey me!”  I shouted, “and I’ll get you numbers.”

 With that, I dashed off to the interior of the circle, riding among the terrified masses of slaves.

 “Fighting men,” I called out.  “Surely some among you were fighting men!   Who can hold a weapon?   Who will fight for their life?”

 A wavering chorus of assents rose up.

 “Strike the chains of any willing to fight,” I told the overseers.  “Organize them into squads.”

 “On whose authority?” an overseer protested.   I struck him down with the flat of my sword. 

 “If we want to live, we must all fight,” I yelled.

 “I will fight for freedom!”  A man roared.

 “First you must fight for your life,” I called back.

 “Weapons,” someone called.

 “Whatever we can find!”

 The next hours were a blur to me, a nightmare of screams and shudders, the smell of blood and burning filling the air.  Oddly, I do not remember much of combat.  I have flashes of dueling a green warrior, shooting a thoat, of my sword drenched with gore.   But for the most part, I rode to and fro among the wagons, giving orders, shouting encouragement, organizing squads, finding weapons, shoring up defenses everywhere.

 The situation was bad.  Though we had numbers in freed slaves, their weapons were barely worth attention.   Makeshift wooden clubs, chains, a scattering of swords.   Whenever a fighting man fell, a freed slave was there to pick up his weapons.  But still, we were being cut to pieces.   I had to find a way to reverse this trap we were in.   I thought hastily, I needed to get the green men into close combat, where we could drown them in numbers.

 “Separate the wagons,” I yelled.  “Make a gap.”

 “But if we do,” a fighting man protested, “they will ride in among us!”

 “Exactly,” I snapped. 

 In all the confusion, somehow, we were able to make a gap, and true to form, the Green Men, seeing what they thought was weakness, charged it.

 But to their surprise, no sooner had they charged within, than they were overwhelmed by hordes of freed slaves.   They were pulled from their Thoats, and literally battered to death by bare fists and pieces of wood.   Their salvaged weapons distributed among their murderers and turned upon their fellows.

 Slowly, the tide of battle seemed to turn, but the Green Men never relented.  Even as their numbers dwindled, their females entered the battle, and they too died.   By the end, there was nothing left but an injured handful.

 Finally, the last of them, a tight knot of a dozen, were ringed by slaves and Panthans.   I rode up to them.

 “Surrender,” I called, “and I offer your lives and honour.”

 The Green Men do not have slavery as we Red Men understand it.  But they do have a tradition of surrender and obedience to greater warriors.

 “Bah,” one of the Green Men responded.   “You have no honour to offer.  We are warriors overcome by the numbers of cringing slaves.”

 “That may be,” I said, “but you are overcome nevertheless.  It does not lie for you to mock those who have vanquished you.”

 One by one, the Green Warriors and Women threw down their weapons, and I made them swear loyalty.   I felt at ease then, for unlike the Red Man, the Green folk never betray their oaths.

 Haja Obol took this occasion to finally come out of hiding.

 “Oh insufferable tragedy,” he told me, rubbing his hands together.  “We shall never recoup our losses.   Hundreds of slaves have been killed.  A handful of Green Men, while of some exotic value, cannot balance our scales.   Why, oh why, did you sacrifice my previous slaves rather than do the simple tasks you were paid for?”

 I was astounded.

 “Were it not for the efforts of the slaves,” I told him, “we would all be dead.”

 He shrugged.

 “Or more likely,” he said, “some of my mercenaries would have been scratched while earning their pay.   Well, there’s no help for it now.  But you can forget about your bonus.”

 He turned to his Overseers.

 “Reform the slaves,” he ordered.   “Have them back in chains within the hour, see to the wounded, repair the wagons.  We’re well delayed, and we shall never make a profit if these insufferable delays continue.”

 But to my amusement, the Overseers, with perhaps more sense of their situation, made no move.

 Instead, a man stepped forward, the slave who had challenged me.   He wielded a red man’s sword and a green man’s pistol.
 “I think,” he said, “that having fought for my life, now I shall fight for my freedom.”

 Behind him, there was a chorus of cheers.


 That was the end of the Slave Caravan, for the newly armed slaves refused to accept their chains and declared freedom.   The Slavemaster’s Panthans and Overseers were far outnumbered, so there was little point in contesting this declaration.

 Tension remained, since many of the Overseers who had tended the slaves found themselves hated.   The Panthans formed a third group of fighting men, caught between the two factions.   Most of us, understood that a further battle among ourselves would be disastrous.   Whoever was the victor of such a struggle would risk dying in the desert.

 Thus, I found myself elected leader of the Caravan, as perhaps the only one with the trust of both Panthans and free slaves.   Even the slave master and his overseers acceded, though with poor grace, to my elevation.

 Leadership was a burden that I had not sought and did not enjoy.  Rather, each faction elected a committee to advance its causes, and thus I was trapped in endless rounds of meetings and squabbles.

 Still, we did manage to progress.   The Slave Caravan obviously could not travel to its destination of Tarzhor, otherwise, the slaves would simply be clapped again in irons and sold on the block, a fate that most had no wish to embrace. 

 Instead, in yet another endless committee meeting, wrangling factions arguing ceaselessly with our navigator,  settled upon another city within our range.   Aztor.  I would be remiss if I failed to admit that I myself pushed for this city.

 Azara laughed with joy when I gave her this news.   I realized it was the first time I had seen her truly happy, and the sight made my heart take wing.   She had a smith cast off her chains, and for a time, we were inseparable.

 “Sweet Tora,” she said to me, “can you ever forgive me?”

 “There is nothing to forgive,” I told her.

 “But I treated you like a paid servant, offered you money instead of friendship,” she said.  “I am ashamed to have dishonoured you so.  I was frightened and desperate and did not think of wounding you.”

 “Shush,” I whispered, “for I would bear a thousand wounds more grievious, for but the sight of you.”

 Our faces were very close, and once again, my heart swelled to bursting, and I thought I would fall into those strange eyes.

 She kissed me.

 And that night, we made love beneath the moons of Barsoom, and in my heart I pledged my life and love to her happiness.

 The Caravan ground on, without incident.   My times with Azara seemed always too fleeting.  Endlessly, I was called upon to adjudicate squabbles and disputes, settle the arguments of committees, deal with a dozen requests and a hundred demands.

 Yet still, a sort of peace descended upon us.  There were no murders in the night, each faction looked to itself and respected the others.   Even the slave master and his crew seemed, if not to embrace the new situation, to accept it.

 Perhaps this strange tranquility, and the endless passage of dunes, lulled me into a false security.   Little did I know that disaster was in the offing.

 The slaves, as you might guess, wanted nothing more than their freedom.  But even among them, there were those who saw advantages and security in slavery that exceeded the uncertain benefits of liberty.  Others among them were corrupt or corruptible.

 The Panthans found themselves deeply unhappy, for they would end this journey with little more than the harnesses on their backs and the swords at their hips.  There is no profit in a Caravan of freed slaves.  Thus, some among them, might seek an opportunity to recoup their losses.

 The slave master and his cronies were the unhappiest of all.   At all times fearing revenge from their former victims, faced with no prospects better than surviving a journey through the desert to encounter financial ruin when we finally reached civilization.   They were driven to find a way to salvage their fortunes.

 I must blame myself, for had I not been so fully occupied with the day to day affairs of the Caravan, or with my pleasant nights of love with Azara, I should have anticipated what was to happen and guarded against it.

 But instead, I failed, and all the tragedy that was to come must be consigned to my authorship.

 I on my way to visit the quarters of the Harem slaves wagon, where Azara and other noble slaves resided, when Haja Obol, the former slave trader,  accosted me.

 “Tora,” he said, and then seeing my scowl, amended, “Torakar, I must speak with you at once.”

 “I am busy,” I said, “can we not leave it to the morning.”

 But I paused anyway.   His concerns were trivial and blustery, things I had heard before.  He seemed unaccountably nervous.   I waited patiently, but when it seemed that he had nothing of significance, I made polite excuses and continued to the wagon.

 He followed me, scampering nimbly for such a fat man.

 “Torakar Thor,” he called as I ascended the ladder and opened the door.   “There is a final, vital matter!”

 “What is it?”   In irritation, I turned to look down at him.

 A sly craftiness slipped over his expression.

 “My revenge!”

 I tried to move, but it was too late.   A heavy cudgel descended upon my head, and after a shattering burst of stars exploded across my vision, I knew no more.   The last sound to reach my ears was his treacherous laughter.

 I woke to a mouth full of sand and a scalp soaked with blood.   I was bound hand and foot.   I tried to move, but found that I was buried in the sand.   They had buried me alive.  In panic, I thrashed and struggled, trying to turn my face about to draw a breath and clear the sand from my mouth and nostrils.   I arched my back, pushing upwards, struggling to crawl from my grave.    Suddenly, gentle hands lifted me and cut my bonds.   My clearing vision focused on members of the committee of freed slaves.

 Behind them, I could see fire burning and hear wails and lamentations.

 “What has happened?”   I croaked, and then threw up.   My head throbbed with pain.

 “Disaster,” one of the freed slaves said.   “We are betrayed.”

 He handed me a sheet of paper.   On it, in a fine if effeminate hand, the slave master had left his message.

 “Greetings Traitors and Ingrates.   You found me the soul of compassion and generosity.  Were ever slaves treated better, their bellies always full, their labours light?   Were Panthans ever so well paid?   When ever were duties so easy?   To you all, I was the soul of tenderness, labouring on your behalves as if it were I, myself, the slave and servant.   To each of you, I all but guaranteed the best of masters, the most fitting rewards.   Many a free man or woman might have pledged themselves to slavery on the bountiful terms I provided.   And for all my good works, I craved but the merest profit to justify my soft heart to debtors and investors.  But for all my beneficience, I did not reckon on the hate and spite within your hearts, the churlish lack of gratitude, the simpering treachery.  You have conspired to wreck and ruin me, each footstep a symphony of costs and delays.  You have hounded me, harassed me, humiliated and embarrassed me at every turn.  You have stolen my hard earned wealth and cast it away in the sand for no profit at all.   Your harsh treatment must be rewarded.   I have departed, but I shall return with soldiers of Tarzhor and any, Panthan or so-called Freedman who does not willingly embrace shackles shall be tortured and put to the sword.    This Oath I Do Swear.    Haja Obol, Slave Trader.”

 “So the Ulsio has made his move?”  I said sourly, crumpling the letter and throwing it to the ground.

 “Yes,” a freedman told me.   “He has run off with a small force of Overseers and Panthans, they have taken many of the Thoats and slaughtered many that remained.   They lamed the Zitidars and destroyed as much of our supplies as they could reach.”

 Thus, the fires, I thought.   I cursed.

 “They took the harem slaves with them.”

 No surprise, I thought sourly.   The Harem slaves might have expected to do far better on Haja Obol’s block than hitched to poor free men.   And of all his potential slaves, they were by far the most valuable.  I would not be surprised if many of them went willingly with him.

 “What of Princess Azara,” I asked.

 “Someone saw her,” they said.  “We heard her crying and weeping, calling your name.  They had bound her.”

 “We cannot make Aztor now before they return with soldiers.   They’ll catch us in the desert and return us to bondage, such of us as are willing to wear chains again.”

 A cold, cold chill settled over me.   Involuntarily, my features twisted and I gave a low guttural snarl such that all around me took a step back.

 “They will never reach Tarzhor.  Find me a thoat,” I said, “and such provisions as they left behind.”

 I was going to show Haja Obol why both the Mad Jeddak and Harkaz Du had learned to fear me.


 My Thoat pounded through the Barsoomian night, its hooves churning the sand, I drove the unwilling beast on.   It would have preferred to rest and sleep, but I was hungry for vengeance.     Dried blood flaked from my scalp and matted my hair, the fierce ride pulled at my wound, and slow red trickles would slide down my neck.   I ignored it, as I ignored the throbbing pain in my head and the roaring ache in my heart.
 I allowed myself two thoughts.   One was to find the slave master and take my vengeance.   The other to take Azara and spirit her away with me.   In my pain and exhaustion and anger, I could not say for sure which of these two took precedence, or even whether I truly distinguished them at all.

 I spared not a moments consideration for the Caravan I had left behind.  I was sick of their endless committees, their meetings, their demands and petitions.   Let them govern themselves, all I wanted was the freedom to pursue my vengeance.   If I succeeded, they would be safe.   If I did not, well, my 

 I followed the tracks of Haja Obol and his cronies through the desert.  There was no time to waste.   They were almost a day ahead of me, and every moment I tarried, the ceaseless winds and shifting sands would conceal more of their tracks.

 A dozen times I lost their trail and had to lose precious minutes or hours casting about carefully, walking and leading my thoat by hand, my senses straining for some hint of their passage.  A solid patch of sand where one of them had paused to urinate, a gap in the rolling crest of a dune which had marked the passage of a large animal.   A spoor or piece of litter left behind carelessly.

 I am not ashamed to say that no Red Man could have followed the trail that I found.  The Red Race of Mars are city creatures born and bred, they have let their senses grow dull.  My life had lead in different paths and so I had honed the natural gifts. 

 Still, to follow the trail taxed me to the limits of my skill, and I cursed each misstep, each lost track.   For each time, I knew the fear that I might not be able to find it again.

 And if I couldn’t?   Then what?

 My Thoat was hardly provisioned for an extended journey in the desert.   I could not even be sure I could make it back to the Caravan.   The chances were very good that if I did not catch up to the slave trader, I might die out in these unforgiving wastes.

 I could die when I found the villain, I knew that very well.   I was caught between the wild Thoat of certainty and the raging Zitidar of fate.    And for what?  Love?   I cursed my foolish weakness, love and the hope of love had always betrayed me and I knew it always would.  What did I know of this strange Princess Azara?  Perhaps she had gone willingly with them after all?  Would she welcome me, or merely scream in horror at my sudden appearance?

 These thoughts tortured me as I grew weary under the Barsoomian night.   I shivered in the cold, and wrapped sleeping furs around my shoulders.

 At length, the morning came.   We passed furtive outcrops of the purple moss that covers to much of the sea beds and provides sustenance to the Thoat and Zitidar herds of the green hordes.   My Thoat struggled to stop and eat, and after we had passed a half dozen, he became so unruly I had to permit him to stop and graze for a few moments here and there.

 But no sooner had the creature’s hunger been blunted, than I climbed his back and we were off again.    We passed the bones of a creature so huge a Zitidar could have walked within its ribs, a miracle thrown up by the desert to be hidden again in a day or so, but I could not be bothered to do more than spare it a glance.   This lost leviathan, whatever it had been, was long gone, and my thirst for vengeance was fresh and hot.

 At length, by the end of the day, my Thoat refused to gallop.  Exhaustion had lamed the creature, and only rest would heal it.   I cursed and struck at it, but to no purpose.

 I had closed much of the gap though.   Their trail was now clear and obvious, I could not lose it.  Even a Red Man could follow this.   How far ahead of me was Azara?    Six hours, Eight?  I could not say.

 But even if my Thoat was lame, I could tell from the tracks that they themselves were in no hurry.  Even at my slow pace, I was now closing the gap between them.

 Where were they going, I asked myself.   There were no living cities, not even villages in this area that anyone knew of.    There were ruins of Orovar towns and cities, abandoned for millenia but for White Apes and craven Ulsios.   I supposed they might be heading for one such, a meeting point perhaps? 

 Or perhaps the site of some cache of supplies they hoped to plunder?   That hardly seemed sensible, any cache would have been despoiled by the hungry and curious creatures that frequented these barren regions.

 A meeting point?  But that made no sense at all.  Surely they hadn’t originally intended to come here, had they? 

 But then, I considered that the slave master and his cronies had waited a good spell for the Caravan to move along its path before departing.   It was as if they were waiting for the Caravan to bring them to a certain point before striking off on their own.

 Perhaps they’d intended to buy slaves here...  Or more likely, dispose of some.   Icy fingers seized my heart as I thought of Azara.

 I could not know.   Hour by hour I approached closer and closer to them.   When I caught them, then I would know their purposes.   I dreamed of my fingers red with the slave masters gore, my hands around his neck as he pleaded for his life.

 Which posed another question:   What exactly was I going to do when I caught them?   The ache in my head had subsided to a dull throb, but I was hungry and thirsty, even more than my Thoat. His men outnumbered me and they were fresher by far.

 I would have to be cautious, I decided.

 By the end of the day, exhaustion caught up with both me and my Thoat.   Between the shelter of two large dunes, his great bulk ceased to move.   I contemplated following on foot, but my limbs had turned to lead, I reasoned that the slave master and his crew must have stopped for the night as well.   I could not be too far behind them, and it would be better to catch them when I was refreshed.   Finally, I laid upon his broad back, hands upon my blade and radium pistol and slept.

 Early in the morning, I woke shivering, the stinging sand blowing into my face and eyes.  It slid down my throat, making me cough.   The Thoat still slept, the blowing sand had buried its legs almost up to its belly.

 Aching and thirsty, I ate and drank as much as I dared, and shared the rest with my beast.   The bleeding had entirely stopped by that time and the pain was mostly gone.   I cleaned my wound as best as I could and wrapped a sleeping silk around my head to protect it from the blowing sands.

 The trail had vanished again, but I had their heading, and after traveling for a few hours I picked up their traces.

 The blowing sand played tricks, exposing the remains of ancient roads, once as I traveled, I watched a sand dune in the distance melt away to a massive worn statue of a crouching Banth, before it was slowly covered over again.

 By noon, buildings began to appear:   Modest stone structures, guardhouses perhaps, way stations, cottages.   Who knew?   In the half collapsed side of one house, I spied a table its legs holding its surface above the sand, and upon it, a few cups and plates.   A meal hastily abandoned?  How many aeons had passed since some warrior was called away from his repast, never to return?

 By the late afternoon, we had come upon the buildings of a substantial town.   This was their destination, I decided.

 Gazing at the buildings, I spotted the traces of life.   Weeds growing in corners and gullies, beds of purple moss in sheltered courtyards.   The traces of Ulsio burrows, and of course the marks of Great White Apes.   I slid my sword out and held my pistol in my lap.  This was a dangerous place we had come to.

 My Thoat rebelled, and I did not blame him.   Instead, I found a sheltered courtyard between two low buildings where he could rest and browse on the purple moss, and stripped off his harness.   Ancient doors, their wood petrified to stone over the ages, still hung on the hinges, and I barred them as best I could.   My creature made no noise, as if he too could comprehend the dangers of this place.

 Stealth was called for and I resolved to go on foot.   I would find their camp, watch and listen, and take my opportunity where I found it.    Moving carefully, so as to avoid the notice of the White Apes that infested this dread place, I crept forward, keeping to the walls and edges, moving from shadow to shadow. 

 Their trail now was laughably easy to spot.  They’d paraded down the center of the boulevards towards the center of the town, disturbing the ancient dust.   My progress was slow on foot, but that hardly mattered, they were so close.   I noted where the trail split, the main body moving on, and a couple of Thoats, perhaps three, heading towards some tall buildings.  Sentries?  Guards?  Or perhaps setting up to be ready to ambush someone like me?

 Instinctively, I followed the lesser trail.   Haja Obol had a couple of dozen men.   I would have to narrow the odds if I were to have any chance of succeeding.   The trail lead to a tall building, a massive tower that thrust up above the town.   Carefully, I slipped inside.  I noted the disturbed dust, the spoor of Great White Apes.   The men had not.   Their Thoats were quartered just beyond the door.   I stayed well away from the vicious creatures.

 Drawing my sword and my radium pistol, I crept stealthily up the ramps, following their trail in the dust.   They’d stopped to rest twice, and I could see the marks of a heavy Radium rifle and large packages.  Supplies?  Ammunition?

 Half way up the building, I heard guttural noises.  The trail lead no further.   I thought I knew what had happened.   But supposition is a fickle Thoat and must needs be fitted with the bridle of reality.

 Carefully, I stole towards the source of the sounds and came upon a doorway.   There, within the chamber, two Great White Apes squatted over the rendered bodies of two red men.  I stood frozen for a second, not daring to breath.

 The hulking brutes stood well over ten feet tall.  Their skin was a pale white, they had six limbs like the green men, a pair of legs, a pair of arms and an intermediate pair of limbs midway on their bodies which could serve either purpose.   Their heads were unlike the green men, of course, with massive jaws and short heavy fangs.   They had prominent flat noses and heavy brow ridges beneath which fierce close set eyes glared at the world.  Their foreheads sloped away to a peak, upon which a single shock of dark hair grew.   These were the most feared creatures upon Barsoom, Banths shied away from conflict with suck, and even the fearless green men trembled to face them.

 Their backs were to me, they had not noticed my presence.   Carefully, I began to back away.

 Suddenly, hands seized me from behind!


 Strange arms wrapped around me from behind, a hand was clapped over my mouth.   I was dragged backwards.   I went stiff, terror surging through me.   Silently, I twisted against the arms, holding them and broke away, just as my assailant drew his knife.   My sword was out.

 It was one of the Panthans, Reed Ipsos, who had vanished with the slave master, Haja Obol.   We faced each other with cold steel, not a hundred feet away, White Apes feasted on his friends.   We each had pistols, but a single shot would bring the monsters down on top of us, as would a clash of steel or a death cry.   He held up his hands indicating peace, and then put a finger to his lips.   I nodded.   Silently we crept away, continually glancing at each other, trying to be sure we were a safe distance apart, our senses straining for the quick sound of footsteps that would mean cold steel in one of our backs.

 It was a tense passage through the building.  Every time we came to a corner, there was the possibility of a White Ape looming before us.   At every step, we feared that one of the creatures upstairs had spotted our footsteps and decided to follow.   Finally, we made it to the main floor, where we judged a degree of safety.

 “Kar Thor,” he grunted, “it is good to see you.”

 “My name is Torakar,” I snapped, and rushed him, slipping his guard aside and striking him a savage blow with my fist against his chin.   He fell, stunned.  Quickly, I snatched up his radium pistol, shucked it of its shells and threw it down beside him.

 “Have you come to join the madman,” he whispered, “or kill him?”

 “I come for Azara,” I said.  “She is all I want, the rest of you can rot in the desert, for all I care.”

 He chuckled, glancing past me into the empty street.

 “Haja Obol claims that one is worth as much as the rest of his slaves put together,” he told me, “why do you think we’ve come to this forsaken dead city?”

 “For Azara?”  I said.   “This place?  That makes no sense, if she were so valuable, a Jeddak or Noble or Merchant rich and powerful enough to buy her would have her delivered to his place of power.”

 “Perhaps Haja Obol fears such a place,” he whispered.  “All I know is that the meeting place was to be this dead city all along.  Or so the Overseers tell me.”

 Ipsos eyes flickered as he glanced around us.   So this city had been a destination for the Caravan?   That explained our route, I supposed, and why Haja Obol had betrayed us when he did.

 “Who is the purchaser?” I demanded.  “Why?  How is she so valuable?  She is beautiful, yes, and noble yes.  But there are girls as beautiful and high born among the harem slaves.  What makes her so special?” 

 “If she’s not special, then take any of the other girls,” Ipsos Reed told me, his eyes searching for any sign of tracks or traces that might suggest I had companions, “and Haja Obol will give her up gladly.  Take all the rest.”

 “You lie,” I said.

 “And you’re all alone,” he snarled, and lunged for his pistol.  I leaped to stop him, but the barrel of the pistol was suddenly between my breasts.  He pulled the trigger and the hammer struck with an empty sound.   He barely had time to look surprised, before my swing parted his head from his body.

 Ipsos Reed’s body flopped between my legs, its blood spilling out, as the head rolled away.  It came to rest against some broken furniture, half upright, looking at me.  Still wearing an expression of shock, it blinked.

 “You could have lived,” I told it softly. 

 I left that place, eager to be away before the smell of blood drew hunters.  I returned to the trail, noting another departure from the main group.  Again I followed that trail and found three Red Men.   Two died before they knew I was among them, and the third barely had time to draw his blade.  I had no regard for honourable combat, these men would have shot me in the back, had they the opportunity.

 There were no more departures.  The main group had proceeded to a large square at the center of the city, a place surrounded by ancient and broken statues, where the boulevards converged.   They’d made camp by a small cluster of statues about forty degrees from me.

 I slipped into a derelict building, climbing it until I reached a rooftop.  From there, I leaped to another rooftop, and then down, finding my way from there to an adjacent building through a gap in the walls.   Cautiously I made my way until I had judged myself as close as I could get.

 I saw Azara, my heart leaped.   The Panthans and overseers, even the harem slaves walked freely, all except Azara.  She was chained to one of the statues, a pair of bored guards watched over her.  She sat with her head bowed, the image of hopelessness.

 The afternoon was drawing late, and as I watched patiently, waiting for any opportunity, another pair of guards eventually came to relieve the watch.   As they passed by her, Azara boiled into life, leaping for the passing guard and clawing for his pistol.  For a second, her fingers scrabbled against the metal, the weapon lifted from the guard’s hip, and I held my breath.

 Then the guard tore it away and stepped out of the range of her chains.  Azara fell to her knees, covering her eyes and sobbing.   I could hear them clearly.

 “Kill me,” she wept.  “If you have a human feeling, if you have a trace of mercy, then you must kill me!   Place your pistol to my head, you must destroy my brain.   He will be here soon, you must, you must!”

 “Is she mad?” the guard swore.

 “Mad if she thinks we’ll let her have a pistol,” one of the sitting guards said, “I think she’d find other things to shoot than herself.”

 “You don’t understand, he’s coming.  You cannot conceive of what he’s like!” she sobbed.

 “I can conceive of the wealth we are promised for doing our job,” the guard said easily.

 “Fools,” she cried, and would speak no more.

 “She’s like that,” the sitting guards said, rising and stretching.  “Is Vair Vel’s tent open, I need more pleasant company.”

 “Wait long enough and it will be.”

 The sitting guards left, and after a time, the new guards grew bored and settled down to a game of Jetan, with board drawn crudely on the dust and pieces from one of their pouches.

 Patiently I waited until I was sure they were engrossed in the game, and then very carefully, I picked up a pebble and flung it at Azara.  It struck the sand inches from her feet, startling her.  With wide eyes, she followed its path and spotted me instantly.

 “What was that?” one of the guards asked, looking up quickly.

 “Nothing,” Azara said quickly, and hid her hand.   The guard stood and quickly strode over, grabbing her wrist and pulling a fragment of rock from her hand.   He examined her chains critically.

 “Nothing indeed,” he said, “if it amuses you to try to wear your chain away with this, you’ll be a long time at it.”

 He laughed. 

 “We should let her have it,” the other guard said, “it will keep her out of trouble.”

 “Until she decides to brain one of us with it?”

 After they went back to their game, Azara looked directly at where I had been and smiled.  She had found hope.

 For myself, I was not so confident.   I had but two pistols and a handful of shells, and I was facing twenty men.  I could see no way to attack, I might kill a half dozen before being riddled or cut to pieces myself.   I had some idea that I could pick off stragglers as they left the camp, but none did.   I could not even think of sneaking forth to slip her away, not with those chains and those guards.  Even if I defeated the guards, there was no way to loose the chains without being exposed.  I ground my teeth in frustration, wracking my brains for a plan, but nothing would come. 

 For another hour, I watched them sit at their camp fires, arguing and sulking.   The harem slaves wandered among the Panthans, flirting.   Haja Obol, the slave master frequently got up to peer down the boulevards as if expecting something.   There was a tension in the air, a sense of expectation.

 Then, as I knew must happen, a White Ape appeared, stepping boldly into the square on the opposite side, as if it did not see the puny humans camped.   It was a bluff, I knew, the buildings behind and around it would contain its brethren, waiting their opportunity..

 However, I was astonished when, instead of unloading a volley of gunfire at the creature, the slave master raised his voice in greeting. 
 “Kaor, my friend,” he called.   “It is good to see you, we were afraid that we were too early.  Come, share our company.”

 You could have knocked me over with a pebble, for never had I heard a Red Man address a White Ape in such familiar tones.

 The great ape growled at the puny humans.   After a moment, it was joined by another, and then another of his kind.   Gradually, their numbers increased until a full half dozen were facing the red men from across the square.   They paced back and forth in short bursts, staring at the men, but not growling.

 Again, the slave master hailed them, his voice ringing out. 

 “Is he among you, or have you come alone,” he said, and chuckled.   “It is of no moment, as long as you have the promised reward, for we have the prize.”

 He addressed them as if they were men like himself.   Amazed, I watched as he and some of his men walked casually forward to greet the creatures like old friends.   This was utter madness.   Their insanity must have astounded the White Apes since they made no response as the men approached, until they were almost upon them.

 Suddenly, with a savage roar, the tallest of the Apes attacked, throwing itself upon the slave master and rending his body with its limbs and fangs.   At his scream, the other apes leaped upon the men who fell quickly.   The remaining guards and Panthans scrambled for their weapons, but already, white apes were boiling out of buildings, rushing at the puny humans who had invaded their domain.

 In the confusion and excitement, I saw my opportunity and leaped from the building where I had been watching.   Dashing to Azara, I grabbed her.   She screamed in fright and tried to strike with her chain.

 “Azara,” I said, “it’s not an Ape, its me.  Come, we must flee.”

 “Tora!” she cried, “I had thought he had come, I had lost hope!  But it was only Apes.”

 Only Apes?

 “We’ll lose more than hope if we tarry,” I said, and lead her to the nearest building, my pistol ready to shoot the first monster that approached me.

 Luckily, both men and beasts were preoccupied with their battle.   We heard the screams and roars behind us long after they were out of sight.   Carefully, we made our way back to the Thoat.  A single pistol shot warned us that the battle was over.  There were no longer human screams behind us.

 “Will they come after us?”  she asked.

 “The men?”  I said.  “I think they’re all dead by now.”

 “What about the Apes?”

 “No,” I said, “they’ll feast first before they think to search for other intruders.”

 But I’d spoken to soon, for in front of us leaped a bull White Ape.   It snarled.  I glanced around, I could not risk a pistol shot for fear of summoning its brethren.

 My lips curled and my brow furled, from deep within me came a low answering rumble.

 It tilted its head for a second and then bellowed.

 I gave forth a series of barks and growls, keeping myself between it and Azara.

 Again, it tilted its head.   I crouched, waiting for its charge.

 Then it was gone.

 “Come,” I whispered, dragging Azara.

 “Why did it spare us?”  she wondered.

 “Move,” I hissed, “don’t ask questions.  Don’t speak, we don’t want to attract any more.”

 We reached our Thoat without incident, and in a moment more, we were galloping into the freedom and safety of the desert, me and my strange beauty.   Then, as we rode, I felt her lean forward to whisper into my ear, words that caused my guts to twist.

 “You spoke to it,” she whispered, “and it spoke to us, to you.”

 “It was nothing, just animal growls.”

 “No,” she repeated firmly, “I heard, you spoke to it.”

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