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Volume 1591
Torakar Thor of Mars
Den Valdron
An Extraordinary Adventure on John Carter's Mars 
A 100,000-Word Novel Serialized in 53 Chapters 
Part XI: Chapters 41-44


PART XI: Chapters 41-44


 The group of men and Thoats broke into full gallop, pounding towards us.

 “Run!”  I called to Azara.   She was further off the path than I was.  The Thoats would have to slow as they pursued her over broken rock, and if she could make it to the ruins of buildings, she might escape.

 I stood my ground, pulling my pistol.   It barked and the leading Thoat crashed to the ground, tumbling its rider.   In a situation like this, it caused far more confusion to wound the beasts than to kill their riders.   As it rolled, thrashing, several other Thoats were caught up in its struggles.   The rest flowed around it.  I fired again and again, taking down the beasts as they came at me. 

 Despite my shots, they did not return fire, though I saw pistols holstered.   No surprise, it is almost impossible for Red Men to shoot effectively from the back of a moving Thoat.  I counted myself lucky, had these been Green Men, I would have been taken to pieces before I even drew.

 Then my pistol was empty.  There was no time to reload.  I drew my sword and waited.  A trio of Thoats took off towards Azara and I cursed.   But there was no time to do anything, the first Thoat came at me, dodging aside at the last instant.   It’s rider swung low from his beast to cut at me with his longsword.  I ducked, letting his blade ring off my shortwsord, and then directed a slash at the beasts flank.  It bucked and the rider tumbled off a few yards from me.  I leaped towards him, kicking him hard in the face.  He went down and did not get up.

 But my path took me into the gallop of a Thoat, I collided with the beast and bounced back, the wind knocked out of me.   I stumbled and a passing rider clouted me with the flat of his sword.   Stunned, my blade dropped from nerveless fingers.   A weighted net dropped down on me.

 That was it, my battle was over.   The warriors broke from their mounts and began to kick and punch at me with great enthusiasm.   My arms were pinned down.

 A pistol was pointed inches from my face.   I judged that on steady ground and from this distance, even a red man could make the shot.   I spat at him, and he cracked me on the head with the barrel.

 “She-Banth,” one of them said.   “She’s got more fight than any we’ve seen so far.   What’s our damage?”

 “Three Thoats hit or lamed,” someone said, “I think one, maybe two might recover.  Mas Had broke his neck, and Ort Bok has yet to wake up.  Cof Char has a broken arm.  The rest is just bruises.”

 Their officer snarled.

 “All that from one lousy hormad?”  he said.  “If this is the new breed, we’re all in trouble.”

 “I’m no hormad,” I protested, which only earned me a blow across the face.

 “Finish her quickly, Sir,” one of his men cautioned, “shots have been fired and this place is infested with White Apes.  We need to get out of here.”

 Again, the pistol was in my face.   I stared levelly at the man wielding it.

 “You’re making a mistake,” I whispered.  “I’m not a hormad.”

 He hesitated.

 “Tie her up and put her on one of our Thoats,” he said.  “The commander will sort her out.”

 He grinned at me.

 “Instead of a clean bullet through the head,” he told me, “perhaps we’ll have a fine bonfire for you.”

 I was gagged and bound in short order.   A moment later, the other group returned with Azara, also bound and gagged.   I thanked Issus that she had not been executed on the spot, though I could think of no reason why.

 With that, they mounted us all up and headed back to their camp.   Ah well, I thought sourly, I had wanted to see it after all.  Now I was going to get a better view than I’d anticipated.

 The camp itself was impressive.   It was larger than I’d expected, and well camouflaged, having been built into the buildings of the dead city.  I noted careful demolitions of certain buildings to make a defensive perimeter.  Other buildings had been linked.  We passed areas that I identified as stores, barracks and a mess. It seemed larger than it should be, perhaps a warehousing facility?   It was clearly a military establishment, that was obvious from the discipline I saw everywhere.  But to what purpose?

 Azara and I were dumped unceremoniously on the dust in front of what I assumed to be a command center.   A guard was set upon us.

 “We still live,” Azara whispered to me.

 “I admire your optimism,” I said, trying to work at my bonds.   All I needed to do was slip my bonds, defeat the guard, fight our way out of the center of a camp, steal a Thoat and then off we go.  Simplicity itself.

 I had no luck at all, the knots were tied too well by soldiers who knew their craft.  The guards attention never wavered.

 “Why do you even bring these creatures to me,” the commander said. 

 “They were on foot,” the officer said, “that was unusual.   And one of them...  You have to see her face.  We thought you might want to interrogate them.”

 “They’re on foot because we shot down one of their damnable birds,” the commander snapped.   “Do you have a brain in your head?   When has any of these creatures been worth the interrogation.”

 He drew his pistol and advanced on me, pressing its barrel to my forehead.

 “How many times do I have to explain it,” he said.   “Destroy the brain, burn the body.”
 “Wait,” I cried out, “I am no hormad.”

 “It works for natural people too,” he said.   His finger tightened on the trigger.

 Then he stopped and stared.   Slowly, he moved the pistol aside, focusing his attention upon my face.

 “Torakar Thor?” he whispered.

 “Do I know you?”  I asked.

 “Kal Jor,” he said, “I served under you with the Council of the Six.   I was commander of the Red Army after you.”

 “And you’re still alive?”

 “After you vanished, many of us fled to escape the pogroms.   It was all over by that time anyway.  Helium was counting victory after victory and the Council seemed dedicated to killing its officers faster than the enemy could.”

 I thought hard.

 “You were with us at Fulda Gap,” I said, “you held my left flank.”

 He grinned.

 “Aye,” he said, “where you handed Helium its greatest defeat since before the days of Tardos Mors.   We could have won that war, but for betrayal from within.”

 “It is good to think so,” I said, “but we merely defeated one army and one fleet.  Helium had more armies and more fleets.   The best we could have hoped for was a stalemate.”

 “Still,” he said, “it could have ended better, had not the Council began purging itself.   There were many who supported you when you tried to take over.”

 Kal Jor, I remembered, was not among them.   He’d commanded loyalist forces who had struck at a critical moment, my revolt had fallen to pieces.   Caught between the Council and Helium, I’d been forced to flee.   The Council had torn itself to apart, six cities went up in flames and Helium had marched in to collect the pieces.

 “I had no choice, I was among the first named in the pogroms,” I replied.   “It was either fight them or die.”

 “Better had you won,” he said.   I had a thousand occasions then to regret my choices.

 “So,” I said, “does this mean you aren’t going to kill us.”

 He laughed.

 “Kill you?”  He said.  “I should bend my knee to you.  At the very least, I should offer you an officers commission on the command staff.  Perhaps you can see a way out of this damnable mess.”

 “Sir,” the Thoat commander interrupted, “I think you should take a look at the other prisoner.”

 Kal Jor glanced over towards Azara.   He stiffened then, and swore an oath, stepping quickly over to examine her face carefully.   He swore again.   Then in one swift movement, he turned back to me, swinging his pistol, pointing it directly at my face.   His features were flushed and tense with rage, his whole body shook.

 “What fresh madness is this?”


 The Council of Six had been a coalition of two great and four lesser city states united to oppose Helium’s expansion.   Six Jeddaks vowed to forge one nation.   With their pooled resources, they had hired Panthan’s all over Barsoom.

 I had been one of these, and quickly rose through the ranks, attaining a position as one of the generals of armies for one of the lesser cities, just two ranks below the Jeddaks themselves.   The campaign against the Council had been delegated to Mors Tagos, one of the Admirals of Helium.   He had planned a great assault, and I’d been sent on a suicide mission to delay him while the Six saw to their defenses.

 Instead of dying gloriously, however, I had split my forces, feinting with a modest cavalry and drawing his fleet from his army.  My cavalry had retreated to a dead city prepared in advance where Tagos fleet could neither crush them nor withdraw from the engagement.   Then I’d taken my remaining cavalry and used it to draw out his stranded army, eventually cutting it to pieces.  When his fleet finally returned, battered and bruised from their fruitless chase, we blasted them from the sky.

 Unfortunately, while I was winning their battles for them, the Jeddaks of the two great cities on the Council took advantage of the occasion to purge two of the lesser Jeddaks.  New Jeddaks, safely under control, were appointed to these cities and took their place on the council.  A round of purges was ordered to eliminate disloyal elements, and I was named.

 Still, I commanded an army in the field, so this did not trouble me overmuch.  If they wanted me, they could come and get me.   But then, one of the great Jeddaks was assassinated, and in the confusion, one of the new Jeddaks joined with the two remaining lesser Jeddaks to try to seize power.   Open warfare broke out, with factions changing daily.

 It was at this point, that I made my own move, pulling my army in from the frontier and coming within a hair of victory.  But my plan depended on speed, and my forces were held too long at the palace.   The warring Jeddaks patched up their differences long enough to deploy their armies against me.   We barely escaped, I disbanded my army, some fleeing to other cities, some joining factions in the six and some surrendering to Helium.

 Left to their own devices, the Jeddaks purged each other again and again, and then extended their purges, first to their own officers, then to their armies, and eventually to their own citizens.  By the time Helium marched in, there was not much left at all.

 As for myself, I had been forced to flee as always.   Searching for a new land to sell my sword.

 All this I explained to Azara in order to pass the time.   We’d come up in the world a bit.  We were still bound hand and foot, but we were now in a comfortable tent.  Kal Jor had called an assembly of his officers and politicals to discuss these remarkable new developments.   Whatever they were.

 “Where does Kal Jor enter into it,” she asked me. 

 “He was one of my lieutenants at the battle of Fulda,” I replied.   “Thereafter, he’d been seconded to the third army back at the cities.   When I turned on the Council, it was he who chose to oppose me at the palace gates and so ruined my plans.”

 “You didn’t recognize him?”

 “I’d heard he’d been named in one of the later pogroms,” I said, “I thought he was dead.”

 “I notice,” Azara said quietly, “you aren’t all that good at recognizing people.”

 I shrugged.

 “Red Men all look alike.   It can be hard to tell them apart.”

 “It strikes me that he owes you,” she said.

 “It strikes me that he has us bound hand and foot in his power,” I said.  “I don’t think he’s troubled overmuch by any debt to me.”

 We were interrupted when the tent began to fill.   Servants brought chairs and set us upright.   Soon, we were facing an assembly of officers and apparent civilians.   Scribes stood in the corners, to record the proceedings.
 “You are Torakar Thor,” Kal Jor asked. 

 “I am.”

 “Are you in service to Vulkan Volk, the usurper?” he asked.

 “I’ve never heard of Vulkan Volk,” I replied, “who has he usurped.”

 Kal Jor nodded and a Panthan stepped forward and slapped me.

 “Who is this creature that accompanies you?”

 “She is Princess Azara,” I replied, “of Aztor.”

 Kal Jor nodded and the Panthan stepped forward to slap me again.   This wasn’t going well.

 “That is a lie,” he said, “The Princess Azara is dead.  And more to the point, she was a hopeless cripple.   So who...  Or what is that creature?”

 “She speaks the truth, Kal Jor,” said Azara, surveying the assembled throng.   “I am the Princess, and I remember you from the palace guard.   You are all men of Aztor.”

 “You cannot be her,” he said.   “You are a spy or an artificial creature sent to trick us.”

 “But I am your Princess,” her eyes searched among the officers, “test me.”

 But she did not allow them the initiative.  She spotted a man, a seasoned warrior with a long rangy frame and too many scars.

 “Gulan Tab,” she called, “step forward.”

 Several men stared at Gulan Tab.  With considerable embarrassment he stepped forward.

 “Gulan Tab,” she said, “you were my guard when I was a child.   I remember that you made me laugh with your jokes.   You taught me to sing the Panthan’s songs.   Do you remember the day you brought your children to play with me and they began screaming the moment they saw me?”

 Everyone watched Gulan Tab as he flushed dark and gave the barest nods.

 “Do you remember the night I caught the shivering fever.   It was raining then, and you rushed me to the baths, carrying me in your arms.  I remember the strength in your arms as you held me, and I knew that I would not die that night, because you would not allow it.”

 “I remember,” Gulan Tab said, “I was so afraid we would lose you that night, my Princess.”

 Then, as if hearing his own words, a strange expression came over his face.

 “It is you,” he said, and fell to his knees.  “By a miracle, you are restored to us and made whole, to rescue us in our hour of need.”

 All around him, one by one, the assembled men dropped to their knees.

 “Well,” I said, “this is a pleasant turn of fortune for once.  But perhaps someone could loose our bonds?”

 Once freed, the hearing became a discussion.   Azara related briefly some part of her history, at least as it related to her kidnaping and transformation by Pew Mogel.   Then, acting as the Princess, she called for reports.

 The story, briefly, was that after the fall of Jahar, Aztor regained its independence.   The Jeddak and Jeddara returned to the throne, much debilitated by their captivity, and a foreigner named Vulkan Volk came to the fore as their regent and minister.   Vulkan Volk was a peculiar being, as it was said he could not be killed.   One story had him being run through by an enemy, and he had simply pulled the sword from his body and dispatched the man with it.

 Things became strange in Aztor.   There were sightings of White Apes within the cities borders, something that had never happened before.  Even stranger was that these Apes sometimes spoke the language of Red Men.  Great Birds appeared at night, flying too and from the palace.  Important people disappeared, and sometimes monstrous corpses were found in the alleys.   A pleasant and generous city enjoyed only a brief dawn in its liberation from Jahar.  Step by step darkness returned, as strange forces moved and consolidated their grip.

 Moreover, this strange malady was not confined to Aztor.  Travellers from other cities reported similar phenomena, though in many cases not with the same intensity.   Nevertheless, there was a slow pattern of Jeddaks or nobles disappearing and either returning oddly changed in speech and behaviour, or replaced altogether by unusual strangers.

 It was Pew Mogel, Azara and I agreed later in discussions.  He had obviously manufactured dopplegangers of her parents.   The news disturbed both of us, since it clearly suggested that Mogel was no longer hiding in his desert refuges, but was stealthily extending his power into the nations of civilization.

 Of course, something went wrong as it always does.   A populace increasingly burdened by stress and terror became restive.  A rumour passed that the Jeddak and Jeddara were prisoners.  Vulkan Volk, attempting to secure his authority, attempted to present them before the public.  But something had gone wrong, there were riots, and the Jeddak and Jeddara shortly disappeared entirely.   A civil war broke out between the loyalists and Volk’s mercenary legions.   The loyalists had lost in the city, but had managed to retreat to the countryside.   There, they found themselves stalemated.   Volk was unable to dislodge them, but they found themselves unable to unite for lack of leadership, for while there were no shortage of competent officers and brave soldiers, they had neither Jeddaks nor Generals.

 “I have returned,” Azara said, “to lead you as your Princess.”

 They cheered her.

 “And I have brought you a general.”


 “You are never pleased,” Azara teased me.   “You wish for a Princess, and here I am.  You ask for an army, and one drops into your lap.   But are you happy?”

 She turned in my arms and kissed me.

 “Am I going to have to call you Princess from now on?”  I asked.

 “Only when you are on your knees before me,” she laughed.

 “Practically all the time then,” I groused.  She giggled.  “Seriously though, our situation is far from good.”

 “But we have an army?”

 “Of sorts,” I said.  “We have a modest force, deficient in many particulars.  If I’d known our standings, I might have shot the men and not the Thoats yesterday.   We have more force than bandits, but not enough to mount a serious challenge to Aztor.   Many of our units are scattered in small bands and difficult to coordinate.”

 I sighed.

 “I’ve seen this before,” I said.  “What we have is a tyrant’s sponge.”

 “I’ve never heard that term before.”

 “It’s where a tyrant allows his enemy to escape and hover on his fringes, rather than destroying him outright.   The tyrant ensures that the enemy is too weak to challenge him, and sometimes even controls it from the behind the scenes. 

 “It is an excellent repository for political opponents who are too awkward to kill outright and inconvenient to imprison.  It provides a gathering point for malcontents, ensuring that they are kept under control and not running wild or plotting conspiracies that might be truly dangerous.   When the tyrant’s sponge grows too large, it can be carefully pruned or quashed.   It is not a true opponent, but rather, a safety valve for the tyrant to let off steam before it becomes dangerous.”

 “That’s disheartening,” she said.  “Is there no hope?”

 I shrugged.

 “Sometimes the tyrant loses track of his sponge,” I said.  “Or resistance grows so quickly that it becomes dangerous.   Sometimes new allies or resources emerge, or the tyrant’s own power is divided and part of it allies.   All sorts of things can happen.”

 “Can you make it happen?” 

 I shrugged. 

 “I have some notions,” I told her, “clear out the spies, organize for attack.   Perhaps the news of your return will galvanize the citizens.  Perhaps some nearby city may be persuaded to throw us their support.”

 “Do we have spies among us?” she asked.  “I don’t like the sound of that.”

 “Most certainly,  but for the most part, they’re hardly as dangerous as the stories make them.   Our real handicap,” I told her, thinking out loud, “is the fact that our forces are scattered in small groups, as well as a shortage of hard numbers.  If I could have a single army group, even as little as a thousand, we could be dangerous.”

 “Mmmm,” she said, cuddling against me, “you are always dangerous.   I think its time you called me Princess again.”

 I laughed.

 “And what do you call me when you are on your knees?”

 She smiled and issued a bubbling growl, “sharp fingers,” in the language of the White Apes.

 “Do you even know what that means?”  I grinned.

 “I know that when I say it down there, it tickles you.”

 I kissed her then.

 “My Princess,” I whispered.

 A neutered force, I decided later, is still a force.   This army might be a mere residue, a tyrant’s sponge, but I was pleased to discover that we had inherited a contingent of real soldiers.  There were shortages of course, the most damaging being an almost complete absence of air power.   Without flyers we could defend ourselves well enough, especially on grounds we controlled.   It made it difficult to attack or communicate quickly.  Still, I had to admit that there was the skeleton of an effective military organization scattered about.

 There was also a fair network or our own spies and agents, carefully cultivated by Kal Jor, whose tentacles stretched back to Aztor.   I discounted a lot of Kal Jor’s spy network.   Pew Mogel had almost certainly infiltrated it.  But with careful management it was likely to produce worthwhile information, and it could be used quite effectively for minor tasks, like spreading the news of Azara’s return, or for major projects like launching a sudden uprising. 

 The first step, I decided, was to establish control of the territory.   Kal Jor had efficiently surveyed the deployment of Vulkan Volk’s key depots and fortifications, as well as identifying other occupied sites which were not Aztor, but which I judged to be part of Pew Mogel’s network.

 Volk or Mogel controlled the approaches to Aztor, veritably, he controlled Aztor itself, through an ancient fortress in the desert a few dozen miles beyond the city.   The importance of the fortress had diminished with the use of fliers for transport and war.   But nevertheless, there was still a great deal of traffic that took place on foot or by Thoat or Zitidar.

 Aztor itself, resting in a broad fertile valley, was a vulnerable city.   Its defense had traditionally lain in the fortress, which could not be overcome.   Thus, in the cities history, there had been raids and sieges, but no attack on the city could succeed with the fortress laying in wait to cut the attacker down from behind.   I knew this well enough, for it had deterred Tul Axtar time and again.

 I contemplated my options.   I had not the forces to take Aztor, and even if I did, the fortress would unmake all my gains in a day.    I could roll up Pew Mogel’s and Vulkan Volk’s outposts easily enough, but the Fortress could roll them all back out again.

 It all came down to the fortress.

 “I should see this fortress,” I said to Kal Jor, finally.

 That evening, under cover of darkness, Kal Jor and I took a small reconnaissance party to  examine it.   The fortress itself seemed built on the tip of an ancient rocky peninsula jutting into a dried sea bed, much like the tower of abominations.  Unlike the tower of Korvas, its architecture was not visibly alien, but rather, it had been quarried from and dug into the living rock of the reef itself.   Its back lay to shattered and broken rock, an impassable, barren countryside that extended for dozens of miles.

 I contemplated it.   The fortress was a high winding wall, with thick battlements, encircling a large courtyard surrounded by a complex of buildings and hangars literally built into the living rock.  Behind the buildings, on the rise of the peninsula were secondary courtyards, adequate landing fields, overlooked by short towers.

 We approached as closely as we dared.   Kal Jor had a spyglass, and so I watched the tower for a couple of hours.   It is hard to make judgements of a great building from a distance.  But discipline seemed to be lax, the change of shifts was erratic, the patterns of lights and fire visible at our distance bespoke a sloppiness that suggested overconfidence.

 Difficult for a large force to approach easily, I decided.   And once they saw the force approach, all they need do was seal up tight and shoot it to pieces as it approached.   From the fortress, you could launch endless attacks with impunity.

 Still, the shadow of an idea tugged at my mind.    I might take this place, if I had the manpower to hold it.

 “This place intrigues me,” I said, “I wish I had plans for it.”

 “We have a complete set of blueprints back at the camp,” Kal Jor told me.

 I blinked at him, astonished.

 “During the uprising, when it was clear that we would not succeed, I raided the hall of records and took every document that might be useful,” he said.   “We have blueprints for palaces, brothels, banks and outposts, as well as military maps for the whole of the territory.”


 “We were in a hurry.”

 I shrugged.

 With this news, we determined to return back to our camp.   Halfway on our journey, however, a breeze carried an odd scent.   I stopped.

 “What’s wrong?”  Kal Jor asked.

 “Thoats and Zitidars,” I said, “and red men, a large number.   I can smell them.”

 “I smell nothing,” Kal Jor said.   He glanced uneasily at his men.

 I surveyed the ground.  We were in a low wash, the remains of an ancient river that had flowed for a time after the seas receded.  Air would trap and trickle down here, a scent might carry a long, long way.   It could be a mirage, sometimes that happened in low places where breezes were heavy.  You could catch a scent and figure something was close by, when in actuality, it was far away or long gone.

 I pointed.

 “What lays out that way?”  I asked, pointing out in the rough direction of the wash’s upwind.

 “Nothing,” Kal Jor said.   “Scrub desert, rocks, empty towns, white apes.”

 The scent came again.

 “There’s something out there,” I said quietly.  “Do Caravans come this way?”

 “No,” Kal Jor replied, “The local Caravans come from the south.  The big desert Caravans end at cities far to the east.   Nothing comes from that way.”

 I nodded quietly.

 “Military?” he asked.

 A large movement of forces? 

 “It could be,” I said.

 But enemies or allies?   Was this a convoy of Pew Mogel’s, come to reinforce his garrisons, perhaps to build up and launch a new campaign.   Or some other city, taking advantage of what they saw as Aztor’s weakness?

 “We should check it out,” I said quietly, and guided my Thoat up the wash.

 It was many, many miles before we found them.  I had to locate them by main scent, sweeping back and forth until I caught a faint tinge on the breeze.  But eventually, we homed in on them.

 “I can smell cooking,” Kal Jor said finally.   I grunted.

 It was a giant camp we approached.  I could tell that easily enough.  I put the numbers here at over a thousand.   A military convoy?  A desert Caravan that had lost its way?  We had to approach closer.   Using the spyglass, I noted the careful organization of the campsite, the placing of wagons and beasts, the deployment of fires.  Armed sentries and mounted riders patrolled the edges of the camp.   They were more disciplined than most Caravans, I granted that.

 As we approached, an overwhelming sense of familiarity came upon me.   This was a massive Caravan of Thoats and Zitidars dragging their great wagons.  But there were too many men and women, marching along with it.   It put me in mind of an infantry convoy. 

 Or an escaped slaves Caravan?   Impossible!   Or perhaps not.  So they’d managed to survive, I thought in wonder, and they’d made it all this way?

 Green men sat atop the Zitidars.   Their sightlines would be very good.  Green Men were noted for the acuity of their vision over great distances.

 “They saw us coming,” I told Kal Jor.   “A long way off.”

 Outriders peeled from the Caravan to meet us.   I nodded.

 “There will be squads behind us,” I said conversationally, leaning upon my Thoat, “at least two or three, to cut off our retreat.”

 “How do you know that,” Kal Jor asked.

 “Because I taught them,” I said.

 The outriders had approached closely enough that we could recognize each other.

 “Kaor Han Osar,” I called, “well met.  Have you come to offer your hospitality?”


 “Mar Dahol,” I said recognizing the man, “you’ve done well for yourself.”

 He nodded stiffly.   I felt powerful.  Kal Jor sat at my side, barely comprehending the goings on.  But I felt an almost supernatural sense of self assurance.   The fates, I was certain, had finally decided to throw things my way.  Or if there was no fate and merely random chance, then I had endured such consistently bad luck, it had become inevitable that the dice should favour me sooner or later.

 “I am the assistant co-chairperson, pro-tem, of the recording subcommittee of the people’s navigation committee of the steering council’s governing assembly.”

 I digested all that.   They certainly had been busy with their committees.

 “So you have returned?” he asked.

 “Yes,” I said.

 “We thought you were dead.  We thought Haja Obol had killed you.  You seemed half dead when you rode out of here.”

 “Haja Obol,” I assured him, “is dead, as are all his cronies.   His threat is ended.”

 “We guessed as much,” he said, “when he did not reappear to attempt to re-enslave us.  On behalf of all of the parties of the governing assembly and the steering council, we owe you a debt of gratitude.   I’d like you to know we posthumously awarded you a Medal of Honour.”


 “Well,” he said, “you didn’t return, so we assumed you were dead too.  But the Medal of Honour is very nice.  We keep it in a special place.”
 “I’m sure,” I said dryly.

 “What are your intentions now?” he asked carefully.

 “You all owe me your lives twice over,” I said.   “I have need of you.”

 “That was many, many haads ago.  We have survived since then.  We have fought and triumphed.”

 “The debt remains,” I snapped.

 “How do you propose to collect it?”

 “Ahead of you,” I said, “lies Aztol, which is in the power of Haja Obol’s master.  If you proceed, your journey will end in the slavery which you have fought to overcome.  Have you seen giant birds in the sky?”

 He nodded.

 “Those are his creatures.   He knows where you are.   He has been content to let you march into his arms.   If you try to strike out elsewhere, he will simply come for you.”

 “Then what do you propose,” he asked.

 “I am leading an army of resistance to overthrow the tyrant,” I said.  “Join my army, put yourselves under my command, and when he is overthrown, you shall all be free citizens of Aztor.”

 He nodded.

 “I’ll have to discuss it with my subcommittee,” he said.

 I nodded.   Mar Dahol withdrew.

 Five minutes later, he was marching back.   He fell to one knee before him.

 “On the condition that we are recognized each of us as free citizens of the City of Aztor, without reservation, we will pledge ourselves and each man, woman and child among us, to your cause.   We are your army.”

 Then he leaned forward and whispered in my ear.

 “And not a moment too soon, if I had to sit through one more endless committee meeting, I would have killed myself.”

 I smiled, remembering my bedroom banter with Azara.   I would not complain about this gift of the fates.

 What’s better than the skeleton of an army?  I thought to myself.   A thousand hardened ex-slaves fighting for their freedom to give it heart. 

 I left Kal Jor to lead them to a suitable camp site near the broken lands, and returned to the base to pick up Azara.

 “I have half an army,” I told her gleefully, kissing her.   “Now come, ride with me.”

 “Where are we going?” she asked.

 “To get the other half.”

 We took time out to stock up on provisions and to collect a handful of Thoats and three carefully chosen men.   Then we rode back to the main part of the ancient dead city, and camped in the middle of an empty plaza.   As the night fell, I shed the trappings of the red men and walked into the darkened buildings.

 A Great White Ape appeared out of the shadows.

 I grunted a greeting.

 “Oh, its you,” he complained.   “So, we’re not eating anyone tonight, I suppose?”

 “Where are my brothers?” 

 “On the other side, watching.”

 “What of Reflections?”

 “Close by.”

 “Tell her to come and see me.”

 I walked back to the campsite and sat down. 

 “Soon,” I told Azara.

 She nodded and we simultaneously trained our pistols on our companions.

 “We are having visitors,” I said, “who do not like guns.  Surrender your weapons.”

 “What is this?” one protested, but their exclamations were silenced as great white apes began to clamber out from the surrounding buildings.   Calmly, I watched them stride towards us.  Reflections squatted before me.

 Bent Toe and Throws Stones appeared as well.  Bent Toe exchanged quick fierce grins with Azara.
 “What is it with you and pets?” she asked irritably.

 “Not pets,” I grunted back in the language of apes.

 “By Issus,” one of our companions exclaimed, “those are real apes!”

 And, I thought to myself, you’ve just cut your own throat.

  “Not pets,” I repeated, waving towards the three men and their Thoats, “gifts.”

 With my words, a gleeful hooting broke out among the white apes.

 “You are such a good sister!” Throws Stones exclaimed.

 Reflections grunted.

 “I may have to call you daughter,” she said with grudging enthusiasm, as the apes moved in on the frightened men.

 “What’s happening,” one of our companions cried out.

 “You are spies,” Azara snapped.   “But not very good ones.  You are about to meet the fate of spies.”

 “No,” another cried out, “have mercy!”

 “The creature you serve spent years cutting me apart and stitching me together,” she whispered quietly.   “This is mercy.”

 The apes fell upon them.  I looked away, but she watched impassively as the men were torn to pieces.  I touched her hand, taking it in mine.   She looked at me, her face flecked with bits of blood.

 “Well,” Reflections grunted to me, when it was all over, “you are a very good daughter, to bring such gifts to your tribe.  But I must wonder if you have something in mind?”

 “I do,” I growled.  “I have need of my tribe.”

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