Read 1 - Warriors of Mars Online

Authors: Edward P. Bradbury

1 - Warriors of Mars (10 page)

Chapter Ten
 
INTO THE CAVES OF DARKNESS

 

SOMEHOW I managed to keep them at bay, though I will never
know how. Then I saw Darnad appear behind them, waving a sword he had got from
somewhere. Together, one on each side, we took on Chinod

Sai and his men, but we knew we
must be beaten eventually.

Then there came a sudden, elated
roar, and bursting into the throne room
came
a wild
mob waving swords, spears and halberds.

They were led by a good-looking
young
man, and by the gleam in his eyes—at
once
calculating and triumphant—I guessed him to be the next contender for the
paltry throne of the City of
Thieves
.

Now, while the others helped
Darnad deal with the Argzoon and the guards, I concentrated on Chinod Sai. This
time, I promised myself, he would not retreat.

Chinod Sai realized my intention
and this seemed to improve his skill.

Back and forth across the broken floor
of the throne room, over the bones of the wretches he had incarcerated for his
own perverted pleasure, we fought.

Lunging, parrying, thrusting, the
steel of our blades rang through the hall while to one side the mob fought, a
thick mass of struggling men.

Then came disaster for me—or so I
thought. I tripped over one of the flagstones and fell backwards into the pit!

I saw Chinod Sai raise his arm for
the thrust that would finish me as, sprawled out on the slime, I stared up at
him.

Then, as the sword came towards my
heart I rolled away, under part of the floor that was still intact. I heard him
curse and saw him drop down after me. He saw me and lunged. Raising myself on
my left arm, I returned his lunge and caught him exactly in the heart. I pushed
home my thrust and he fell back with a groan.

I climbed from the pit. "A
fitting burial place, Chinod Sai," I said. "Lie with the bones of
those you have slain so horribly. You had a swifter death than you
deserved!"

I was just in time to see Darnad
dispose of the last Argzoon.

The fight was over and the young
leader of the mob raised his right hand high, shouting:

"Chinod Sai is defeated—the
tyrant dies!"

The mob replied exultantly:
"Salute Morda Kohn, Bradhi of Narlet!"

Morda Kohn swung round and grinned
at me. "Enemies of Chinod Sai are friends of mine. Indirectly you helped
me gain the throne. But where is Chinod Sai?"

I pointed at the floor. "I
slew him," I said simply.

Morda Kohn laughed. "Good,
good! You are even more of a friend for that little service."

"It was no service to
you," I said, "but something I had promised myself the pleasure of
accomplishing"

"Quite so.
I was truly sorry about the death of your friend."

"My
friend?"
I said as Darnad joined us. He had a flesh wound on his
right shoulder but otherwise seemed all right.

"Belet Vor—did you not
know?"

"What has happened to Belet
Vor?" Darnad asked urgently.

I must admit I was not only
thinking of Belet Vor—but of the girl I had sent to him, Shizala.

"Why, that is what enabled me
to arouse the people against Chinod Sai," Morda Kohn said. "Chinod
Sai and his blue friend learned that you had been seen in the house of Belet
Vor. They went there and they ordered him to be beheaded on the spot!"

"Belet Vor,
dead?
Beheaded-oh, no!"
Darnad's face
turned pale with horror.

"I am afraid so."

"But the girl we rescued—the
one we sent to him?" I spoke in some trepidation, almost afraid to hear
the answer.

"Girl?
I do not know—I heard nothing of a girl Perhaps she is still at his house,
hiding somewhere."

I relaxed. That was probably true.
"There is still another missing," Darnad said.
"The
Vladnyar woman—Horguhl.
Where is she?"

Together we searched the palace
but there was ho sign of her.

Night was falling as we borrowed
mounts from the new 'Bradhi' and rushed to Belet Vor's house.

Inside,
  
it
 
had
  
been
  
torn
  
apart.
  
We
  
called Shizala's name but she
did not answer. Shizala had gone—but where?
And how?
We stumbled out of the house. Had we fought and risked so much only to fail
now?

Back to the palace to see if Morda
Kohn could help us.

The new Bradhi was supervising the
replacement of the flagstones. "They will be securely cemented down,"
he said. "They will never be put to the same dreadful use again."

"Morda Kohn," I said
desperately, "the girl was not at Belet Vor's house. And we know she would
hot have gone anywhere of her own accord. Did any of Chinod Sai's guards
survive? If they did, one of them may be able to tell us what happened."

"I think there are several
prisoners in the anteroom." Morda Kohn nodded. "Question them if you
like."

We went to the ante-room. There
were three sulking, badly wounded prisoners. "Do any of you know where
Shizala is?" I asked.

"Shizala?"
One of them looked up with a frown.

"The blonde
girl—the prisoner who was here."

"Oh, her—I think they both
went off together."

"Both?"

"Her and
the dark-haired woman."

"Where did they go?"

"What's it worth to tell you
what I know?" The guard looked cunningly at me.

"I will speak to Morda Kohn.
He owes us a favor. I will ask him to show mercy to you."

"You'll keep your word?"

"Of
course."

"I think they went to the
Mountains of Argzoon."

"Ah-but why?" Darnad
broke in. "Why should a Vladnyar willingly go to Argzoon? The Blue Giants
are no-one's friends."

"There is something
mysterious about Horguhl's association with the Argzoon. Perhaps when we find
her we will learn the answer," I said. "Could you lead us to the
Mountains of Argzoon, Darnad?"

"I think so." He nodded.

"Come, then—let's make haste
after them. With luck we may even catch them before they reach the
mountains."

"Best that we did," he
said. "Why?"

"Because
the Argzoon literally dwell in the mountains—in the Caves of Darkness that run
under the range.
Some say it is really the Bleak World of the Dead, and
from what I've heard it's possible!"

We spoke briefly to Morda Kohn,
telling him to show the guard mercy. Then we strode outside, mounted our
daharas and rode into the nightheading for the dreadful Caves of Darkness.

We were not lucky. First Darnad's
beast cut its foot on a sharp rock and went lame. We had to travel at walking
pace for a full day until we came to a camp where we could exchange Darnad's
prime mount for a rather stringy beast that looked as if it had little stamina.

Then we lost our bearings on a
barren plain known as the Wilderness of Sorrow—and we could understand why
anyone would feel sorrowful on encountering it.

On the other hand, the mount that
Darnad had exchanged was in fact very strong—and my own beast wearied before
his did!

We finally crossed the Wilderness
of Sorrow and emerged on the shores of an incredibly wide river—wider even than
the
Mississippi
.

Another pause
while we borrowed a boat from a friendly fisherman and managed to cross.
Luckily Darnad had a precious ring on his finger and was able to convert this
into pearls, which were the general currency of these parts.

We bought supplies in the riverside
town and learned—to our relief, for there had always been the chance that the
guard was lying maliciously— that two women answering to the description of
Horguhl and Shizala had passed that way. We enquired if Shizala had seemed to
be under restraint, but our informant told us that she did not appear to be
bound.

This was puzzling and we could not
understand why Shizala should seem to be travelling to the terrible domain of
the Argzoon of her own free will.

But, as we told ourselves, all
this would be learned the quicker if we caught up with them. They were still
some three days ahead of us.

So we crossed the
Carzax
River
in the fisherman's boat,
ferrying our mounts and provisions with us. It was a difficult task and the
current drew us many miles down river before we reached the other side. The
fisherman would collect the boat later. We pulled it ashore, strapped our
provisions to our animals and mounted.

It was forest land now, but the
trees were the strangest I had ever seen.

Their trunks were not solid like
the tree-trunks on Earth, but consisted of many hundreds of slender stems
curling around one another to form trunks some thirty or forty feet in
diameter. On the other hand, the trees did not reach very high, but fanned out
so that sometimes when passing through a particular grove of low-growing trees
our heads actually stood out above the trees. It made me feel gigantic!

Also, the foliage had a tinge
similar to the ferns of the Crimson Plain—though red was only the main color.
There were also tints of blue, green and yellow, brown and orange. It seemed,
in fact, that the forest was in a perpetual state of autumn and I was pleased
by the sight of it. Strange as the stumpy trees were they reminded me, in some
obscure way, of my boyhood.

Had it not been for the object of
our quest, I would have liked to relax more and spend longer in that strange
forest.

But there was something else in
the forest that I was to meet shortly—and that decided me, if nothing else
could have done, on the necessity of moving on.

We had been travelling in the
forest for two days when Darnad suddenly pulled his mount up short and pointed
silently through the foliage.

I could see nothing and shook my
head in puzzlement.

Darnad's beast now seemed to move
a little restlessly, and so did mine.

Darnad began to turn his dahara,
pointing back the way we had come. The peculiar, ape-like beast obeyed the
guiding reins and my own followed suit, rather quickly, as if glad to be
turning back.

Then Darnad stopped again and his
hand fell to his sword.

"Too late," he said.
"And I should have warned you."

"I see nothing—I hear
nothing. What should you have warned me of?"

"The heela"

"Heela—what is a heela?"

"That-" Darnad pointed.

Skulking towards us, its hide
exactly the same mottled shades as the foliage of the trees, came a beast out
of a nightmare.

It had eight legs and each leg
terminated in six curved talons. It had two heads and each head had a broad,
gaping mouth full of long, razor-like teeth, glaring yellow eyes, flaring
nostrils. A single neck rose from the trunk and then divided near the top to
accommodate the heads.

It had two tails, scaly and
powerful-looking, and a barrel-shaped body rippling with muscle.

It was unlike anything I could
describe. It could not exist—but it did!

The heela stopped a few yards away
and its twin tails lashed as it regarded us with its two pairs of eyes.

The only thing to its advantage,
as far as I could see, was that it measured only about half the size of an
ordinary dahara.

Yet it still looked dangerous and
could easily dispose of me, I knew.

Then it sprang. Not at me and not
at Darnad— but at the head of Darnad's dahara.

The poor animal shrieked in pain
and fear as the heela sank its eight sets of talons into its great flat head
and simply clung there, biting with its two sets of teeth at the dahara's
spinal cord.

Darnad began to hack at the heela
with his sword. I tried to move in to help him but my animal refused to budge.

I dismounted—it was the only thing
I could do— and paused behind the clinging heela's back. I did not know much
about Martian biology, but I selected a spot on the heela's neck corresponding
to the place where he was biting the dahara. I knew that many animals will go
for a spot on other species which corresponds with their own vital spots.

I plunged my sword in.

For a few moments the heela still
clung to the dahara's head; then it released its grip and with a blood-curdling
scream of anguish and fury fell to the mossy ground. I stood back, ready to
meet any attack it might make. But it got up, stood shakily on its legs, took a
couple of paces away from me— and then fell dead.

Meanwhile, Darnad had dismounted
from the dahara, now moaning in pain and stamping on the moss.

The poor beast's flesh had been
ripped away from a considerable area of its head and neck. It was beyond any
help we could give it—save to put it out of its pain.

Regretfully, I saw Darnad place
his sword against the creature's head and drive it home, wincing as he did so.

Soon dahara and heela lay side by
side. A useless waste of life, I reflected.

What was more, we should now have
to ride double and though my dahara was strong enough to carry both of us, we
should have to travel at about half our previous speed.

Bad luck was dogging us, it
seemed.

Riding double, we left the
heela-infested forest behind. Darnad informed me that we had been lucky to meet
only one of the beasts since there had been others of its pack about.
Apparently it was quite common amongst heelas for the leader to attack the
victim first and, if successful, lead the rest in for the kill, having tested
the victim's strength. If, on the other hand, the heela-leader were killed,
then the pack would skulk off, judging the enemy too strong to risk attacking.
Besides which they would feed off their dead leader's corpse.
In this case, the corpse of the dahara, too.

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