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This is the first of the stories of Ghek, a Kaldane, and friend to Tara of Helium, her spouse, Gahan of Gathol, and Tara’s parents and her grandparents, John Carter, the Warlord of Mars, and the incomparable Dejah Thoris.
Ghek, a Kaldane from the tribe of Luud, was creature with only a hideous head and small spiderlike legs. Without lungs, he didn’t breathe and he ate but little. His kind had bred a slave race of headless humanoids as slaves, the rykors, which they controlled by inserting a tentacle into the opening in the rykor’s necks. The rykors fed themselves and breathed through the opening, and inside it allowed the Kaldane masters to connect to the nerves of the spinal column and control the rykor body the same way that a human brain controls its body.
After helping defeat Luud, who was powerful enough to control a rykor without physical contact, and who could hypnotize other Barsoomian humanoids, Ghek took the most magnificent rykor for his own. It was a male of perfect physique, tall and muscled. It would have been quite attractive if only it had a head.
When Ghek rode his rykor around the streets of Greater Helium, the citizens marveled at the incongruity between his hideous head, which was about the size of a basketball and brightly colored, and the perfect body that carried it. His eyes glowed yellow and orange. His flesh ranged from purple, to blue, to bright crimson.
Ghek had thought himself quite attractive in the lands of Luud, but as the only kaldane in the city, he became self-conscious about his appearance and spent more and more time in his secluded quarters in the Warlord’s castle.
With nothing else to do, Ghek practiced the skills that Luud had perfected. He learned to control his Rykor without contact. Indeed, he could make it do anything he wished from any distance, as long as he could see his mount. His skills at mesmerization reached a point where he could hypnotize any Red Martian with a moment’s concentration. Once any Red Martian was so spellbound and enthralled, he could be reached repeatedly and controlled with a casual thought.
Ghek didn’t wish anyone harm. There wasn’t an evil bone in his spindly little legs. He limited his control of the citizens to practical jokes. He amused himself by making a warrior spill his own drink in his lap or causing a woman to sneeze and drop whatever she was carrying. Many’s the man who blamed his aging thumbs for a mishap which was caused by Ghek for his own amusement.
He found a practical use for hypnotism and was able to bespell the citizens so that they saw his hideous multicolored head as a perfect head, a male head, crowned with raven hair, even features, symmetrical nose, lush, but firm lips, and a noble brow. Once he’d mastered this illusion, he walked the streets once more.
Ghek, who had dined alone for a full Barsoomian year, once more dined with the royal family. John Carter, from Earth, a planet known to the Red Martians as Jasoom, perceived no difference in Ghek’s appearance, but when the other members of his family commented on Ghek’s fine looks, he asked, “Ghek, why do they see you differently than I see you?”
“Great Warlord, do not be angry with me. I’ve mastered the skill of mesmerism, as it was practiced by my parent and ruler, Luud. I’d never do anyone harm with the power, but I was lonely and your people feared my appearance. I made myself look to them as they would have me look. That and nothing more, save the occasional joke on one who might be a bit overpompous and arrogant.”
John Carter exchanged whispers with Dejah Thoris and laughed before he answered. “Dejah says that if I were to punish everyone who used their wiles and other skills to make themselves appear more attractive, I’d have to imprison half the men and all the women in the city. As for the jokes, show me what you mean.”
Ghek smiled a multi-colored smile and pointed at a visiting envoy seated at the far end of the table and extolling the virtues of his city and himself in a loud voice. The envoy sipped his wine, dabbed his face with a lace napkin, and then picked up his bowl of soup and poured it over his own head. “Like that, Warlord, like that.”
The envoy sputtered and stood, prepared to be angry, but where is one to direct his anger because of a self-imposed mishap. He spoke, “My apologies, perhaps the wine is too strong for me. Your leave, sire, I would depart and clean up.”
“No need. I’m enjoying your company. Pray allow the servants to attend you and stay for the rest of the evening.”
Carter lifted his glass to Ghek. “Well done. I thought he’d never shut up. I caution you to not misuse this ability.”
When the meal was concluded, the envoy asked John Carter if the story about how he’d arrived on Barsoom was true. John simply nodded, but Dejah Thoris said, “Oh, John, tell him the story. I never tire of hearing it myself. After all, it’s how we met.”
“Of course. I’d never refuse any request from the most beautiful woman on the planet.”
Ghek, who’d heard the story before, nevertheless listened intently. His large luminous eyes glowed even brighter when Carter explained astral projection. “I thought I was dying inside a cave and I focused my eyes on this planet. Visible through the cave mouth, it glowed red in the clear western sky. The red planet beckoned me and it grew brighter and its light filled my vision and my mind. Suddenly, I felt myself bodiless. I looked down and saw myself on the cave floor. I looked up at the red planet and I passed out. When I awoke, I was here. Since then, I’ve learned to use the process intentionally, but I no longer choose to do so.”
Ghek let his rykor sleep while he sat on the balcony of his chambers. Jasoom glowed blue in the clear Martian night. The kaldane focused on it until the two hurtling moons, Cluros and Thuria, hurtled through the darkness and broke his concentration.
Three days later, Ghek mastered astral projection. He didn’t try to change planets, but he moved himself from tower to tower within the city, being careful to only shift his astral body into empty towers. He kept his journeys brief before returning to his body. A kaldane needed his rykor for transportation and defense and he needed to learn how to take his rykor with him.
Eventually, it worked. Ghek had to be in full control of his rykor. Every point of contact between the rykor’s nervous system and Ghek’s control tentacle had to be perfectly connected. The two creatures had to be functioning as one when Ghek focused his mind and projected the pair across the city.
Finally, he was ready to leap across the cosmos, but what happened to his bodies when his mind was out visiting? His next fencing lesson with John Carter was the next morning. He’d ask the Warlord.
“Are you tired of my hospitality, my friend?”
“No, sire, but I’ve become bored. Your stories of other worlds and other civilizations are fascinating and I would see them for myself. With your permission, I would visit Jasoom, and maybe other planets after that. I’m worried that my body and the body of my rykor will die while my mind’s away,”
“My body survived in the Arizona desert inside a cave for a long time the first time I left it. Now, my earthly body is hidden safely inside a tomb where it is protected and waits for me should I ever return. I will ensure that your body here is safe. Simply lock your chamber door. I will permit no one to enter until you return.”
“I thank you. I’ll visit Jasoom tonight.”
“Be cautious when you arrive. Folks on Jasoom like their bodies clothed. You’ll arrive naked and that can be a problem”
“I’ll mesmerize them and make them think that I’m clothed.”
Carter laughed and used the tip of his longsword to flip Ghek’s sword into his hand. “Safe trip. Let’s work on your overhead riposte parry combination a few more times. I’d think you’d be more concerned about protecting your big head.”
Ghek countered Carter’s downward slash and thrust forward at his chest. Carter twisted his sword and disarmed the kaldane. “Ghek, it would be best that you arrive on Jasoom in an era without swordplay.”
Ghek woke his rykor near midnight. Jasoom was a brilliant sapphire well above the horizon. He double checked his connection with the rykor, and with a brief thought about his poor swordsmanship, focused on the distant planet. He performed the now familiar mental ritual and felt his mind separate from his body. He glanced down at his head mounted on the rykor and then upward at Jasoom. He blinked once and they were gone.
Ghek and his rykor were naked when they left Barsoom and Ghek didn’t expect they’d be wearing clothes when he arrive on another planet. He wasn’t disappointed. He was in a lush forest. A stream was to his left. Running water, imagine that. Ghek had never seen running water. A party of a dozen people traveled on a dirt road to his right.
It was hot, but the people were clothed from head to foot. Ghek marveled at the beasts pulling the two wagons. He was shocked that they didn’t fall over. They only had four legs. The people were pale in color and slightly smaller than Ghek and his rykor. They carried knives, swords, and something similar to a radium rifle, except that barrel grew larger in girth the further it was from the triggering mechanism.
Ghek peeked through the bushes and chose one of the men to touch mentally. He didn’t expect success, because in spite of his mental powers, he’d never been able to touch the Warlord’s mind, and these were his people, were they not.
Surprisingly, there was no resistance. Ghek found himself inside the man’s mind faster than a calot swallows an ulsio. After a few seconds to orientate himself, Ghek learned the man’s name was Otto van Buren. He stayed inside the man’s mind long enough to learn his language and gain some understanding of his customs. He was sure of two things. These people didn’t trust strangers and public nakedness was taboo.
The van Burens arrived at their farm. The frame house was roofed with wooden shingles and its door divided into lower and upper sections. A large barn stood next to stables that housed creatures not unlike thoats, but much better tempered and only four-legged. How could they even walk?
Ghek stayed hidden in the bushes while the family unloaded the wagons. At sunset, he pushed a little harder and took control of the Otto person and found ragged clothing saved to be woven into rugs. He sorted through the pile and selected the largest trousers and shirt he could find. Otto, under Ghek’s control, left the clothing behind the barn.
During the night, Ghek separated from his rykor, leaving it to forage for itself, and fetched the clothing. Just before sunrise, he remounted the rykor and dressed. The clothes were too tight, but they’d have to do. He used his power to project his assumed face into the minds of the van Buren family and at the first scent of food called bacon, frying, he stood in the yard facing the front door and shouted. “Hello, the house.”
The top half of the door opened and Otto faced him, weapon in hand. “Who be ye and what do ya want? Speak quickly before I fire this blunderbuss. I can’t miss from here. She’s filled with nails and such and will no doubt blow your head clean off.”
“My apologies. I was beaten and robbed yesterday. They left me these rags and nothing more.”
“What’s your name, stranger?”
“Alas, I do not remember.”
A female creature shoved Otto out of the doorway. “Can’t you see the man’s injured? A little charity if you please.” She hurried Ghek into the house and offered him food, which he declined.
The woman said, “You’re a big man, you are. The largest I’ve ever seen and your skin color looks like bronze. What race are you?”
“My skin was burned this color by the sun. I’ve walked here from where my ship landed at…” He paused and thought. “New York City, I came ashore in New York City.”
Otto grumbled, “Never should have changed the name from New Amsterdam.”
“My name is Alita, but you should call me Frau van Buren. We’ve a passel of children and they all started work in the fields at sunrise. You’ll meet them at lunch. We have to call you something. I can’t just tell the children that you’re a bronze skinned big-boned man who walked from the harbor in New York.”
Otto laughed. “Well, I’ll name him right enough. He’s big-boned, as you say, so we’ll call him Bones, Bronze Bones!”
“Almost, Bronze is no name for a man.” said Alita. “Brom Bones, we’ll call him Brom Bones. Will that suit you, stranger?”
Before Ghek could answer, Otto said, “I need to be in the fields. It’s harvest season. I could use your help,”
Ghek said, “I thank you for my name and your kindness. I’d be happy to help.”
“Let me fetch you better clothing. I can’t have you dressed like a scarecrow. We don’t have any boots that’ll fit you, so you’ll be barefoot until our next trip to town.”
Ghek worked hard and learned to harvest wheat, pumpkins, apples, and other crops. The rykor hated wearing shoes, but adapted. Ghek became as one of the family, even going to church with them on Sundays.
After harvest season, Ghek drove the wagon loaded with the van Buren children to school every morning and picked them up in the evening. The teacher, one Icarus Crow, was a tall rail-thin man with a stern demeanor. He dressed perfectly. The children gossiped about Mr. Crow, who considered himself a ladies man. He was paying court to the banker’s daughter, Margaret. The banker, Derek Hedrikson, operated the only bank in the town of Marktrode and was the richest man in the city.
Ghek visited Icarus’s mind believing there was much to be learned from a school teacher. He learned math and reading, but writing was beyond him. He also learned about Icarus. The man was not an honorable school teacher as he seemed. At heart he was an evil man who sought only riches and beautiful women – especially when the two came in one package.
Ghek learned that Icarus Crow had many names. He had been Isiah Canary in Dungarford, where he depleted the riches of the miller’s daughter and abandoned her with child. In Zalteen, a small hamlet in Connecticut, he’d used the name, Indigo Swan, and had impoverished a farmer’s daughter and left her to raise twins. Irving Skylark had been the lead character in a scandal in Macbay, Maine, a hamlet where he’d seduced the tailor’s wife and convinced her to give him her husband’s savings.
Ghek wondered how one man could cause so much unhappiness, but he came to understand the provinciality of the people. Most of them never traveled to another town. A city twenty miles away might as well be on another planet. People didn’t carry identification, they were who they said they were.
Ghek decided to warn the banker and his daughter about Icarus Crow, but winter came and with the cold and snow, all travel to town stopped. After winter came spring and the hard work of plowing and planting.
The van Burens didn’t attend church or school during the planting season. So many seeds, so little time and Ghek lost touch with Icarus Crow’s adventures. The family, accompanied by Brom Bones wearing new store-bought Sunday go-to meeting clothes, attended church once the crops were in the ground.
The school teacher, Icarus Crow, had left and with him he’d taken the honor of the banker’s daughter and her jewelry.
Ghek stayed with the van Burens until after the harvest. He thanked Alita and Otto for their kindness, but insisted that he wished to see more of the world than one small town. He asked if he could have a large plow horse in lieu of his wages, but the couple insisted he take a big black stallion instead. They even gave him a saddle. Otto said, “I’m known for my frugalness, so don’t spoil me reputation by telling folks about my generosity. You’ve earned it. Take the horse and saddle with our blessing and your wages as well. Come back anytime.”
Ghek continued to use the name, Brom Bones, and that winter he traveled as far south as Pennsylvania, before making his way north in time to sign on as a farmhand outside the town of Slaperifhol in upstate New York. Using his skills and perceived good looks, he soon became a welcome addition to the community’s young people. He was much sought after by women of a certain age and one of the women drawn to him, was Katrina van Tassel, a beautiful heiress to a fine farm who had attracted the attention of the new school master, Ichabod Crane.
Ghek recognized Ichabod as Icarus Crow and considered confronting the man or controlling him and forcing him to leave town, but he thought better of it. Any efforts to expel the teacher had to be secret. The townsfolk mustn’t know. After all, Ghek couldn’t prove anything, and Ichabod was a smooth-talking man, and much more likely to be believed than Brom Bones, a burly farmhand.
Slaperifhol residents were quite superstitious, and Icabod was no exception. One of the local legends was about a headless horseman, a Hessian mercenary who’d lost his head during the revolutionary war. Brom befriended Crane and repeated the tale many times, embellishing it as he thought of new ways to make it more frightening. He went so far as to take brief control of other citizens from time to time had them tell the tale to Ichabod.
The town, Slaperifhol, could only be reached from the south by crossing a river. There was one wooden bridge. Brom said that the ghost of the Hession, the headless horseman, protected the citizens of Slaperifhol, and especially the womenfolk, from evildoers. He patrolled the town and, having been evil in his life, could sense the evil in others. He’d been cursed to redeem himself by serving as a guardian for the small town.
Ichabod gulped his drink and asked. “Is there no escape?”
“Only one,” said Ghek. “Any man pursued must reach the south bridge and cross it, for the horseman has power only within the city limits. Once across the bridge, a man is safe unless he returns to Slaperifhol, where he’ll meet certain death, for the horseman’s steed is fast, his steel is sharp, and being a ghost, he never tires, he never forgets, and he never forgives.”
Being a man of superstition, the tale certainly frightened Ichabod, but not enough that he stopped courting the beautiful Katrina van Tassel. Brom continued his plan to frighten the school teacher, and while he had some success, the man was relentless. It was time to do something.
The van Tassel’s planned a large party for All Hallows eve at their townhome. The crops were in, the wine was pressed, and the beer was fermented. Most of the town attended.
Icabod confided to Brom, that after the party’s conclusion he’d ask Herr van Tassel for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Ghek decided that tonight would be Crane’s last night in Slaperifhol.
He borrowed an old cloak from the farm where he worked. The cloak was as black as his horse. He went to the party with the cloak hidden in his saddlebags. During the evening, Brom worked to keep Icabod away from Herr van Tassel and he plied her father with compliments, wine and beer. By evening’s end, van Tassel was too drunk for Icabod to ask for his daughter’s hand.
Ghek poured a beer and gave it to Icabod. “Talk to the old man tomorrow when he’s sober. For now, you’d best be getting home. Midnight approaches and the horseman rides tonight.”
“I’m an honest man. I don’t fear the horseman.”
“As you say, Icabod. But who knows what evil lies in the hearts of men. Not I, the truth lies in the shadows. As for me, I’m going home. Better safe than sorry. You should do the same.”
Icabod realised that a sleeping man can’t give consent and Katrina was nowhere to be seen. His desires could wait another day, and who knows, it was All-Hallows Eve and ghosts were afoot. Maybe that that damned headless Hessian knew that Icabod was also Icarus Crow, Indigo Swan, and Isiah Canary - embezzler, thief, and despoiler of women.
Ghek waited by his horse. When Icabod rode away from the townhouse, Ghek put on the black cloak, mounted his black stallion, and followed the pedagogue. Clouds scudded through the night sky and obscured the full moon at intervals casting the cobblestone streets in darkness.
Icabod moved slowly through the darkness and paused at the cross streets. He peered both ways in case the spirit of the long-dead German mercenary lied in wait. He was frightened and there wasn’t anyone around to give him any reason to pretend otherwise.
Ghek gently probed his mind and intensified the man’s fear. Every dog’s bark seemed a dragon roar, a cat’s footstep boomed as loudly as canon fire, and the brush of a moth’s wing stung like the cut of sword.
Ghek guided his mount into the street behind Icabod and waited for the clouds to clear the moon. He removed his body from his rykor and held himself overhead in the rykor’s right hand. He let himself appear as he truly appeared. “Icabod Crane, Icarus Crow, face me.”
Icabod slowly turned and gasped. He tried to speak, but his throat was dry. The headless horseman held his own hideous head aloft, gleaming red and orange in the moonlight. The eyes were as bright as fire. Icabod gently pulled the reins and backed his horse. The bridge, he thought, I have to cross the bridge.
The horseman tapped the horse with his heels and the black stallion walked toward Icabod. Ghek waved himself about and said, “You’re thinking about the bridge. I’d run if I were you.”
Icabod turned his horse and urged it into a gallop. The horseman dashed after him. The stallion was faster by far and Ghek gained on the school master, but he deliberately held back and let the man reach the rude wooden bridge.
Icabod almost fell, but he held on. His horse clomped on the oak crossbeams. The hooves of the Hessian’s stallion echoed behind him. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair. The horseman can’t cross the bridge. He can’t. He can’t.
The school teacher looked back, his horse stumbled, and Ichabod rolled across the bridge decking. He scrambled up to run, but when he looked back the horseman had stopped at the point where water flowed underneath. Thank the Lord, it was true, the ghost couldn’t cross the bridge.
Icabod has escaped, he stood in false bravery and laughed at Ghek. The kaldane smiled a horrific smile and hurled himself at the school teacher.
His body flew across the water and struck Icabod in the face. Ghek grabbed the man’s ears and hair with his spiderlike legs and bit him his nose. He gagged Icabod briefly with his control tentacle. “Run little man, run. Run away and never come back.”
Icabod was never again seen in Slaperifhol. Ghek moved on that summer, but month’s later he heard that Katrina had married well.
He woke one night in a blackberry thicket when the red star of Barsoom caught his eye and with a brief wistful surge of nostalgia. Ghek and his rykor woke up in their chambers in Greater Helium.
The next morning at breakfast with the Warlord of Barsoom, Ghek recounted his adventures on Earth, that is to say, Jasoom. Carter said, “That isn’t quite the way I remember it, but I know that story, I read a different version of it years ago. Icabod Crane was a well-intentioned dandy and Brom Bones was bully and never-do-well. It took place years before I was born. It would seem that you’ve mastered the art of astral projection through time as well as space. I’d love to learn that skill.”
“You read the story? I don’t understand.”
“Ghek, it appears that you are the source of one of my country’s most beloved stories, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” After all, Slaperifhol means ‘Sleepy Hollow’ in Dutch. Are you back for a while?”
“No, I think I’ll go back to Jasoom. I heard stories about a time and place where a noble king named Arthur fought for right and justice. I’d like to see that.”
“Careful, a man could lose his head in Camelot. I suggest a few more weeks of fencing lessons before you go on that quest.John Carter© and Dejah Thoris©
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