Authors: Edward P. Bradbury
AT FIRST I had thought that the warrior was going to slay me
himself for some obscure reason. But this was not the case. Swiftly he slashed
"I know you," I said in
surprise. "You are the warrior I fought near Varnal."
"I am the warrior whose life
you refused to take—whom you spared from the insults and swords of his
comrades. I have thought much on what you did, Michael Kane. I admired what you
did. It meant something to me. And now—I can at least help you to fight for
your life against this creature."
"But I thought your folk
feared it because of its supposed supernatural character."
"True. But I begin to doubt
that this is true. Quickly—take this
always been a better axe-man than a swordsman."
With this unexpected—and
welcome—ally, I turned to face the N'aal Beast.
The Beast seemed
out by this turn of events. Its gaze went from one to
the other of us as though uncertain which one to attack first, for we had
spaced out now—both crouching, waiting.
The Beast's great head suddenly
whipped towards me. I stumbled backwards until I stood against the wall,
desperately hacking at its snout with the great Argzoon blade.
It was evidently unused to its
victims retaliating and it hissed in apparently puzzled anger as my sword
gashed a wound in its snout. It drew back its head and began to uncoil, so that
soon the head had
high above me and I was in its
shadow. Down came the gaping maw and I thought it would take me in one gulp. I
raised the sword point-first and as the mouth was almost upon me, the fetid
breath almost overpowering, I dug the sword-point into the beast's soft palate.
It screamed and threshed
backwards. Meanwhile, the Argzoon warrior had come in and hacked at the beast's
head with his axe. It turned on him and the sweeping head caught him off
He fell and the N'aal Beast opened
its mouth, about to snap off his head.
Then I saw my chance. I leapt on
to the N'aal Beast's back—on to its upper head and, running over that flat
head, straddled it just above the eyes.
All this took only a few seconds, as the Argzoon below tried desperately
to fend off the snapping jaws.
I raised my sword in both hands
over the creature's right eye.
I plunged the blade downwards.
The steel sank in. The head jerked
backwards and I was flung—swordless now—from my perch.
The N'aal Beast turned again
towards me. The sword still protruded from its eye so that it made an even more
grotesque sight as it came at me.
The Argzoon axe-man leapt up again
and came to stand by me, evidently intending to protect me now that I was
The beast let out a chilling,
reverberating scream, and the gaping mouth, forked tongue flickering rapidly,
flashed down on us.
Only inches before it reached us,
the head suddenly turned and flung itself upwards. The beast uncoiled its whole
length and began to shoot up so that I felt it would leave the pit altogether.
I caught a glimpse of spectators scattering—and then it flopped down, almost
striking us and finishing us by crushing us beneath its weight.
My sword had done the trick. I had
killed it. It had clung on to life longer than anything should have. I
half-credited its supernatural origin then!
I bent towards the great head and
removed my sword. It slid out easily.
Then I realized that nothing was
really saved. I was still imprisoned and, though armed, there were some two
hundred Argzoon above us, ready to destroy us at a word from Horguhl.
"What do we do?" I asked
my new friend.
"I know," he said, after
some thought. "There is a small opening—look there, at the base of the pit
on the other side." I followed his pointing finger. He was right. There
was an opening large enough to take a man but not large enough for the head of
the N'aal Beast.
"What is it?" I asked.
that leads to the slave pens.
Sometimes slaves are forced down it from
the other side to feed the beast." My new friend chuckled grimly. "It
will feast no more on human flesh! Come, follow me. We have slain the N'aal
Beast—that will impress them. They will be even more impressed when they see we
have vanished from the pens. With luck, we shall escape in the confusion."
I followed him into the tunnel.
As we moved along it, he told me
Movat Jard of the Clan Movat-Tyk—one of the great
Argzoon clans in the old days, before Horguhl had reorganized the Argzoon
He told me that though the Argzoon feared Horguhl's power, they
were now muttering against her. Her ambitious schemes of large-scale conquest
had come to nothing—and Argzoon was decimated.
After some time, the dark runnel
became a little lighter and ahead I saw some sort of slatted grating. It was of
wood. Peering through it I saw a cavern lighted by a single torch.
Lying about on the floor, in
attitudes of the utmost dejection, closely packed like cattle, naked and dirty,
bearded and pale,
the remains of the great army
that had been ambushed here earlier.
Some hundred and fifty
undernourished, spiritless slaves.
I felt pity for them.
Movat Jard was hacking at the
wooden grille with his axe. It soon fell and some of the slaves looked up in
surprise as we entered. The smell of humanity was almost too much to bear, but
I knew it was not their fault.
One fellow, who held himself
straighter than the rest and was as tall as I, stepped forward. He had a heavy
beard which he had endeavoured to keep clean, and his body rippled with muscle
as if he had been deliberately keeping himself in training.
When he spoke his voice was deep
and manlyeven dignified.
"I am Carnak," he said
simply. "What means this? Who are you and how came you here? How did you
evade the N'aal Beast?"
I did not only address him. I
addressed them all, since they were all looking at us with something akin to
hope in their eyes.
"The N'aal Beast is
dead!" I announced. "We slew it—this is Movat Jard, my friend."
"Possible—and my life is
witness to that!" I smiled at Movat Jard, who made an attempt to smile
back, though when he bared his teeth he still looked menacing!
"Who are you?" asked the
bearded man, Carnak.
"I am a stranger here—a
stranger to your planet, but I am here to help you. Would you be free?"
"Of course," he said. A
murmur of excitement ran round the cavern. Men began to get up, a new
liveliness in their manner.
"You must be prepared to win
such freedom dearly," I told them. "From somewhere we must get
"We cannot fight the whole
Argzoon nation," Carnak said in a low voice.
“I know," I said. "But
the whole Argzoon nation is not here. There are perhaps two hundred warriors in
all—and they are demoralized."
"Is this true?
Carnak was grinning excitedly.
"It is true," I said,
"but you are outnumbered as well as unarmed. We must think carefully—but
first we must escape from here."
"That should not be difficult
in our present mood," replied Carnak. "There are usually more guards,
but at present there are only two." He pointed to the other entrance to
the cave. It was made of
"Normally the cave beyond is thick with guards and all who have tried to
escape that way have been cut down or forced back and sacrificed to the N'aal
Beast. But now..."
With Movat Jard close at my heels,
I strode to the door and immediately began hacking at it with my sword.
Movat Jard joined me, using his
axe. The prisoners crowded eagerly behind us, Carnak well to the fore.
From the other side of the door we
heard a grunt of surprise. Then an Argzoon yelled:
"Cease—or you'll be food for
"The N'aal is
dead," I replied. "You address the two who slew it."
We forced the door down. It fell
outwards and crashed to the floor, revealing two baffled-looking guards, their
swords in their hands.
Movat Jard and I rushed at them
instantly and had soon despatched them in as swift a series of strokes as I
shall ever witness.
Carnak bent down and took one of
the swords from the fallen guard. Another man also took a sword and two others
helped themselves to a mace and an axe respectively.
"We must go to the Weapon
Chambers of Argzoon," Movat Jard said. "Once there, we can equip
these dungeons?" I asked.
"Why, under the
. There are several
the Weapon Chambers?"
If we are quick we can get there before they
return to the city. They must be in some confusion."
"Movat Jard, why do you help
us against your own folk?" Carnak asked. He seemed just a little
suspicious, for he had already experienced one clever Argzoon trap.
"I have learned much from a
little that Michael Kane here said, and what he did, once, for me. I have
learned that ideas can sometimes rise above blood loyalties. And besides, it is
Horguhl whom I fight, not the Argzoon. If we beat her, then I shall have to
decide again what my attitude is—but not until she no longer rules the
Carnak seemed convinced by this.
We rushed up the slopes leading away from the dungeons and had soon reached an
iron gate kept by a single watchman. When he saw us and noted, perhaps, the
desperate looks in our eyes, he did not draw his weapons but flung out his
hands before him.
"Take my keys—do not take my
"A fair bargain," I
said, accepting his keys and unlocking the
"We will also borrow your weapons." Two more men were armed with a
sword and an axe—making eight in all. We bound the Blue Giant and passed on
into the streets.
Beyond the walls of the
we heard the confused babble
of voices, but the Argzoon had not yet reached the gates. We headed towards the
nearby castle, pouring through the streets towards the Weapon Chambers, with
Movat Jard, Carnak and myself in the lead.
We swarmed into the castle,
cutting down the few guards who attempted to stop us.
Just as we were breaking into the
Weapon Chambers, the first of the Argzoon returned and shouted the alarm.
We burst into the Weapon Chambers,
less well laid-out but not unlike the Weapon Room of Varnal in appearance,
though the weapons were, of course, more barbaric.
While the joyful prisoners went to
arm themselves with the best weapons of the Argzoon—not to mention the heaps of
captured weapons they found lying therein—we eight, who were already armed, met
the initial wave of Argzoon warriors.
We must have made a strange sight,
the three of us who led—a blue man of the Argzoon nearly ten feet in height; a
wild-eyed, naked man covered in hair; and a tanned swordsman who was not even
of that planet. But one thing we all had in common— we could use swords.
We stood shoulder to shoulder,
fending off our attackers while our comrades armed themselves. It seemed that I
faced a veritable wall of swords raining down upon me from the Blue Giants.
Somehow we held them off—and
succeeded in depleting our enemies.
Then, from behind us, came a great
The prisoners were all armed and
ready to fight. The slaves had become warriors again—warriors with a lust for
vengeance for the years of servitude and fear, revenge for the treacherous
ambush which had wiped out a great percentage of the flower of southern
We pressed forward now, driving
the Argzoon before us!
Along the corridors of the castle
we fought. In halls and rooms we fought. In Horguhl's deserted throne room we
fought, and in her private rooms, too. At one stage I took the opportunity to
tear down the N'aal tapestry hanging there.
Out into the
streets until the whole of the
with fighting men.
Our numbers were few. Our men had
all but forgotten their old training. But our hearts were full of exultant
battle-lust, for at long last we were able to strike back at our old enemies.
By the time all our force was in
the streets, the Argzoon had cut down more than a third of our men—but we had
taken more of them!
And the longer we
the more of their old skills the ex-slaves
remembered. The fighting in the city became more sporadic as the Argzoon
attempted to re-form.
We used the pause to check our own
strength and discuss strategy. We held a large area around the castle, but the
Argzoon still held most of the city.
Somewhere were Horguhl and
Shizala. I prayed that Horguhl would not order Shizala slain in the pique of
defeat; that the Queen still had confidence in her warriors' ability to win.
The Argzoon attacked first, but we
were ready for them, with warriors deployed in every street.
For a time neither side gained any
advantage. We held our position and the Argzoon held theirs.
"It is deadlock," said
Movat Jard as he, Carnak and I conferred.
"How can we break it?" I