Read 1 - Warriors of Mars Online

Authors: Edward P. Bradbury

1 - Warriors of Mars (5 page)

For a long moment we looked into
each other's eyes and all this was there—the pain, the knowledge, the resolution.

Or did I simply imagine that she
was to some degree attracted to me? I must not think such thoughts, in any
case. It was over—and Varnal must be protected.

"Have you more suitable arms
for me than this?" I said, indicating the Argzoon sword.

"Of course.
I will call a guard. He will take you to the arms room where you can select
whatever weapons you wish."

At her command, one of the guards
stepped forward and she ordered him to take me to tie arms room.

He led me down several flights of
steps until we were deeper below the palace than I had been before.

At last he stopped at two huge,
metal-studded doors and cried:

"Guard of the Tenth Watch-it
is Ino-Pukan Hara with the guest of the Bradhinak! Please open." An
Ino-Pakan, I now knew, was a warrior with a rank about equivalent to sergeant.

The doors moved slowly open and I
stood in a long hall of great size, dimly lit by the waning blue bulbs in the
roof. The guard who admitted us was an old man with a long beard. At his belt
were twin pistols. He carried no other weapons.

He looked at me quizzically.

The Ino-Pukan said: "The
Bradhinaka wishes her guest to arm himself as he pleases.
The
Argzoon attack!"

"Again?
But I thought them finished!"

"Not so," said the
Ino-Pukan sadly. "According to our guest here, they are almost upon
us."

"So the Bradhi died in
vain—we are still to be vanquished." The old man's voice sounded hopeless
as he let me wander up the hall admiring the great assortment of weapons.

"We are not defeated
yet," I reminded him, staring at rack upon rack of fine swords. I took
several down, testing them for length, weight and balance. At last I selected a
long, fairly slim sword, rather like a straight sabre, with a blade as long as
the sword I had taken from my Argzoon opponent.

It had a beautiful balance. It had
a basket hilt and, as with swords on Earth of the same kind, one curled two
fingers, the index and the one next to it, around the crosspiece, gripping it
with the thumb along the top of the hilt with the remaining two fingers curled
under. That may seem an awkward grip to some, but it is actually quite
comfortable and also has the advantage of making sure that the sword is not
easily knocked from the grasp.

I found a broad belt, equipped at
the side with a wide sword-loop of leather. It seemed traditional in Varnal
that swords were carried naked and not scabbarded—some old custom from less
peaceful times internally, I gathered.

There were also guns that seemed
operated by a combination of spring and air. I took one of these from its place
and turned to the old keeper of the arms room.

"Do many use these?" I
asked.

"Some, our
guest."
He took the gun from my hand and showed me how it loaded. A
magazine of steel darts was exposed. These, in the manner of airgun darts,
could be slid automatically into the breech. The air was automatically
repressured after a shot—this was done by means of the spring attachment. A
very fine piece of craftsmanship but, as the old man demonstrated, the accuracy
was all but nil! The gun bucked so much as it shot its missile that the target
had to be very close indeed if one was to have much success in hitting him!

Still, my arms belt had a place
for a gun—another leather loop—so I slipped the airgun in. Now with the gun and
sword I felt better and was eager to rejoin Shizala to see how the preparations
were progressing.

I thanked the old man and,
accompanied by the Ino-Pukan, strode back up to the ground level of the palace.
Shizala was not in the hall, but another guard led me up many flights of stairs
that grew increasingly narrower until we were standing outside a room that
obviously was in one of the circular towers rising from the main building of
the palace.

The guard knocked.

Shizala's voice called for us to
enter.

We did so and Shizala stood there
with Telem Fas Ogdai and her brother, the Bradhinak Darnad. Darnad darted me a
quick smile of acknowledgment. Shizala's welcome was a gracious movement of the
head, but Telem Fas Ogdai's smile was stiff and frosty. He evidently had not
forgotten our earlier encounter that day. I couldn't blame him now, though I
still disliked him greatly. I put my feelings about him down to the situation
and made an effort to dismiss them as best I could.

Darnad had spread out a map. It
was a little strange to me, this method of map-making. The symbols for cities,
forests and so on were not pictorial as ours tend to be, but at last I had some
idea of where we were in relation to the rest of that mighty continent—and to Mishim
Tep and our other allies. I could also point out where I had seen the Argzoon
and at what speed they had been travelling, and so on.

"Little time," Darnad
murmured thoughtfully, running his fingers through his long, near-white hair.
His other hand gripped his sword-hilt. He seemed very young just then—probably
little more than seventeen. A boy playing at soldiers, one would have thought
at first glance. Then I noted the look of responsibility he wore, the confident
way he carried himself, the unself-conscious, unstudied mannerisms.

He began to speak rapidly to us,
suggesting where the weakest points would be in the city walls and how they
would best be defended.

Having had some training in
warfare, I was able to make some suggestions which he found useful. He looked
at me with something like admiration and I accepted the look as a compliment,
for I might have been doing much the same. His essential manliness and
clear-headed, objective attitude to the task ahead made me feel that he was
ideal as a military leader, and I felt that to fight beside him would be
reassuring, to say the least. It would also be, in its way, a pleasure. Shizala
turned to Telem Fas Ogdai. "And now, Telem, you have seen what we shall
try to do and will have some idea of what our chances are of holding off the
Argzoon. An aircraft awaits you at the hangars. Lucidly, its motor has been
prepared, since we planned to show it to our guest. Go swiftly and make sure
that reinforcements are sent at once from all cities allied to Varnal. And tell
them if Varnal falls, their chances of withstanding the Argzoon are
lessened."

Telem bowed slightly, formally,
looked deep into her eyes, darted me another of his looks and left the chamber.

We returned to the study of the
map. From the balcony of the tower it was possible to see the whole lovely city
laid
out beneath us—and we could see the surrounding
countryside.

After a while we took the map out
on to the balcony. It was as if we felt something was imminent—as, indeed,
something was!

A short time later Darnad pointed.

"Telem leaves," he said
to his sister.

Although there had been talk of
aircraft I had not expected the sight which greeted me.

The aircraft was of metal, but it
rose and navigated like an old fashioned airship—gracefully, slowly. It was
oval in shape and had portholes dotted along its length. It gleamed like richly
burnished gold and was heavily ornamented with pictures of strange beasts and
symbols.

It swung in the air as if defying
the very laws of gravity and then began to move towards tie south, travelling
rapidly by my standards, but with a stately dignity which could not be matched
by any aircraft ever known to Earth.

It was not out of sight before
Darnad pointed again—this time to our north-east.

"Look!"

"The Argzoon!" gasped
Shizala.

The horde was coming. We could see
the first wave clearly, looking like an army of marching ants from where we
stood, yet the menace implicit in its steady progress could not be ignored. We
all felt it.

"You did not exaggerate,
Michael Kane," Darnad said softly. I could see his knuckles whiten on his
sword-hilt.

The air was still and very faintly
we could hear their shouts. Thin shouts now—but, having already had some
experience of the sounds that the Argzoon warriors could make, I imagined what
the noise must be like at source!

Darnad stepped back into the room
and came out on to the balcony again, clutching what was obviously a megaphone.

He leaned over the balcony,
peering down into a courtyard where a group of guards stood ready.

He put the megaphone to his mouth
and shouted to them.

"Commanders
of the wall—to your posts.
The Argzoon come." He then relayed
specific orders based on what we had discussed a short time before.

As the commanders marched away to
take charge of their men and position them, we watched in awful fascination as
the horde approached.

Rapidly—too rapidly for us—they
began to near the walls. We saw movement from within the
city,
saw warriors taking up their posts. They stood still, awaiting the first attack.

There were too few of them, I
thought—far too few!

 

 

Chapter Five
 
A DESPERATE PLAN

 

AT LEAST we held the wall against the first wave.

The whole city seemed to shake at
their onslaught. The air was ripped by their great, roaring shouts, polluted by
the stink of their incendiary bombs launched from catapults, and by the odor of
their very bodies. Flame licked here, crackled there—and the women and children
of Varnal struggled valiantly to extinguish it. The sounds of clashing steel,
of dying or victorious war-cries, the swish of missiles—blazing balls of some
pitch-like substance—as they hurtled overhead and dropped in streets and on
roofs.

Shizala and I still watched from
the balcony but I felt impatient, anxious to join the brave warriors defending
the city. Darnad had already gone to rally his men.

I turned to Shizala, feeling
moved, in spite of
myself
, at her closeness.
"What of your remaining aircraft? Where are they?"

"We are keeping them in
reserve," she told me. They will be of better use as a surprise
later."

"I understand," I told
her. "But what can I do? How can I help?"

"Help?
It is not for you—a guest—to concern yourself with our problems. I was
thoughtless—I should have sent you away with Telem Fas Ogdai."

"I am not a coward," I
reminded her. "I am a skilled swordsman and have been shown great kindness
and hospitality by you and your folk. I would regard it as an honor to fight
for you!"

She smiled then. "You are a
noble stranger, Michael Kane. I know not how you came to Vashu—but I feel it is
good that you should be here now. Go then—find Darnad and he will tell you how
you can help."

I bowed briefly and left, running
down the stairs of the tower until I had reached the main hall, now in
confusion, with men and women rushing this way and that.

I made my way through them, asking
a warrior if he knew where I might find the Bradhinak Darnad.

"I heard that the east wall
is weakest. You will probably find him there."

I thanked the warrior and left the
palace, heading for the east wall. The main buildings of the city, sturdily
built of stone as they were, were not damaged by the fire-bombs hurled by the
Argzoon catapults, but here and there bundles of fabric and dry sticks had
caught, and single pumps were being operated by women in an effort to put them
out. Thick smoke burnt my lungs and made my eyes water. My ears were assailed
by cries and shouts from all sides.

And outside—outside the mighty hordes
of Blue Giants battered against the city walls.
An invincible
force?

I did not let my thoughts dwell on
that idea!

At last I saw Darnad through the
smoke near the wall. He was in consultation with two of his officers who were
pointing up at the walls, evidently showing him the weakest points. He was
frowning thoughtfully, his mouth set in a grim line.

"How can I assist you?"
I asked, clapping him on the shoulder.

He looked up wearily.

"I do not know, Michael Kane.
Could you magically bring half a million men to our aid?"

"No," I said, "but
I can use a sword."

He deliberated. Plainly he was
unsure of me and I could not blame him for wondering about one who was, after
all, untried.

Just then there came an exultant
shout from the wall—a shout that did not issue from a Karnala throat.

It was one of those roaring,
triumphant shouts I had heard earlier.

All eyes turned upward.

"Zar!
The devils have breached a section of our defense!"

We could see them. Only a few of
the blue warriors had gained the top of the wall but, unless they were halted,
I knew that soon hundreds would be stepping over.

Scarcely stopping to think, I drew
my blade from my belt and leapt for the nearest ramp leading to the wall-top. I
ran up it faster than I had ever thought possible.

A blue Argzoon warrior, towering
above me, turned as I shouted a challenge from behind.

Again he voiced that deep,
maniacal laugh. I lunged with my blade and he parried the thrust with a swift
movement of his own thick sword. I danced and saw a slight chance as his arm
came round. I darted my sword at the exposed upper arm and was fortunate enough
to draw blood. He yelled an oath and swung at me with his other weapon, a
short-hafted battle-axe. Again my faster speed saved me and I ducked in under
his clumsy guard to take him high in the belly. The sword flashed into his
flesh and came out again.

His eyes seemed to widen and then,
with a dying growl, he toppled from the wall.

Another came at me, more
cautiously than his comrade. Again I took the attack to the towering monster.

Twice I lunged, twice he parried,
then
he lunged at me. I blocked his thrust and saw that my
blade was only an inch from his face. I pressed the blade forward and took him
in the eye.

I had now got the feel of my
sword—a marvellous weapon, better even than the best I had used on Earth.

Now reinforcements had come to my
aid. I glanced down on the other side of the wall at what seemed to be a great
tide of turbulent blue flesh, leathern armor and flashing steel. A scaling
ladder had been raised. More of the Argzoon were scaling it.

That ladder had to be destroyed. I
made it my objective.

Although the scene was so confused
and I could hardly tell what the general situation was
,
I felt a peculiar calmness sweep over me.

I knew the feeling. I had
experienced it before in the jungles of Vietnam—had even experienced something
like it in a particularly difficult engagement while fencing for sport.

Now that I had a few comrades at
least, I felt even better. I stumbled on something and looked down. One of my
assailants had lost his battle-axe. I picked it up in my left hand, testing its
weighty and found it was not too badly balanced for me if I held it fairly
close to the blade.

Both weapons ready, I moved
forward in a halfcrouched position towards the next blue invader.

He was leading his fellows along
the wall towards the ramp. The wall was wide enough to take three of us, and
two warriors ranged themselves on either side of me.

I felt rather like Horatius
holding the bridge at that moment, but the Blue Giants were unlike Lars
Porsena's men in that none of them was crying 'back.' They all seemed to have
the same obsession—to press forward at all costs.

Their huge bodies came towards us,
lumbering, powerful. Their slitted eyes stared black hatred at us and I
shuddered as, for an instant, I stared directly into one face. There was
something less than human, something primeval about that gazesomething so
primitive that I felt I had a vision of Hell!

Then they were upon us!

I remember only a fury of
fighting. The rapid cut and thrust of the duel; the desperate sense of having
to hang on, having to win, having to bring out every ounce of energy and skill
if we were to drive them back to the ladder—and destroy it.

Yet it seemed at first as if the
most we could do was hold the wall against these huge beast-men, looming above
us with their great, corded muscles rolling under blue skins, their
hate-filled, slitted eyes, their teeth-filled gashes of mouths, and their heavy
weapons, the weight of which alone could sweep us from the wall to our doom!

I remember that my wrists, my
arms, my back, my legs—my whole body—were aching. Then the aching seemed to
stop and I felt only a strange numbness as we fought on. I remember the
killing, also. We fought against their superior strength and numbers—and we
killed. More than half-a-dozen Blue Giants fell beneath our blades.

We had more to fight for than just
a city. We had an ideal, and this gave us a moral strength which the Argzoon
lacked.

We began to advance, driving the
giants back towards their ladder. This advantage gave us extra strength and we
redoubled our attack, fighting shoulder to shoulder like old comrades—though I
was a stranger from another planet, another time even.

And as the sun began to sink,
staining the sky a deep purple shot with veins of scarlet and yellow, we had
reached their ladder.

Holding the ladder we were able to
stop the giants as they attempted to climb up.

While the others concentrated on
stopping any more of the Argzoon gaining the wall, I chopped at the ladder as
far down as I could,
shortening
it so that it no
longer topped the wall. Spears clattered around me, but I worked on
desperately.

At length my task was as finished
as I could make it. I stood up, ignoring the missiles that flew about my body,
took careful aim with the axe, aiming at the middle section of the ladder. Then
I flung it.

It hit a main strut about half-way
down and it went in deep. Several Argzoon warriors were above the place where I
had hit the ladder. Their weight completed my work for me—the ladder cracked,
splintered and then broke.

With horrible screams the Argzoon
fell upon the heads of their comrades crowding the ground below.

Luckily it was the only ladder
they had managed to raise, and only because the halberd-type weapons the
defenders used to push the ladders back had not been available on this section.

This was rectified as two
halberdiers took up their positions.

I was feeling somewhat shaky after
my efforts and turned to grin at my comrades. One of them was a boy, even
younger than Darnad—a redheaded youngster with freckles and a snub nose. I
gripped his hand and shook it, though he was not familiar with the custom.
Nonetheless, he responded in the right spirit, guessing the meaning of the
gesture.

I reached out my hand to grasp
that of the other man. He gave me a glazed look, tried to stretch out his own
arm and then pitched forward towards me.

I knelt beside him and examined
his wound. A blade had gone right through him. By rights he should have been
dead an hour before. Head bowed, I paid my silent respects to such a brave
fighter.

Then I was up again, looking
around for Darnad, wondering how the battle went. Night soon fell and flares
were lighted. It seemed we were to have some relief, for the Argzoon horde
retreated some distance from the walls and began to pitch tents.

I staggered along the wall and
down a ramp. I learned from a wall commander that Darnad had been called to the
south wall but would be returning to the palace soon.

Rather than seek him along the
wall, I went wearily back to the palace.

In the ante-room of the main hall,
I found Shizala. The guard who had brought me here left and I was again
uncomfortably alone with her. Even in my exhausted condition I could not help
admiring her tall beauty.

At her silent indication I sank
upon cushions that had been heaped on the floor.

She brought me a flask of basu.
Thankfully I drank it down, almost in a single draught. Then I handed the flask
back to her, feeling a little better.

"I have heard what you
did," she said softly, not looking directly at me. "It was a heroic
deed. Your action may have saved the city—or at least a large number of our
warriors."

"It was necessary, that is
all," I replied. "You are a modest hero." She still did not look
my way but raised her eyebrows a little ironically.

"Merely truthful," I
replied in the same manner. "How goes the defense?"

She sighed.
"Satisfactorily,
considering our shortage of men and the size of the Argzoon horde.
Those
Argzoon, they are fighting well and cunningly—with more cunning than I had
suspected they possessed. They must have a clever leader."

"I did not think cleverness
was an Argzoon quality," I said, "from what I have experienced
myself."

"Neither did
I
. If only we could reach their leader—to destroy him would
probably defeat the entire plan of attack and the Argzoon, leaderless, might
disperse."

"You think so?" I said.

"I think it likely. The
Argzoon can rarely be persuaded to fight with overall strategy of the sort they
are applying now. They pride themselves on their individuality—refuse to fight
as an army or under any commander. They enjoy fighting, but not the discipline
demanded for ambitious fighting involving armies and planned strategy. They
must have a superior kind of leader if he has persuaded them to fight as they
are doing now."

"How could we reach the
leader?" I enquired. "We cannot disguise ourselves as Argzoon—we
could dye ourselves blue but could not add eight or ten kilodas to our
height"—a kiloda is about a third of a foot—"so an attempt to reach
his tent would be impossible." "Yes." She spoke tiredly.

"Unless"—a thought had
suddenly struck me— "unless we could attack him from the air!"

"The air—yes . . ." Her
eyes gleamed. "But even then we do not know who their leader is. They seem
to be one great tide of warriors—I saw no obvious commanders. Did you?"

I shook my head. "And yet he
must be out there somewhere. It was too confused today. Let us wait until dawn,
when we will be able to see their camp before they resume the attack."

"Very well.
You had better go to your room and sleep now—you have exhausted yourself and
will need all your strength for tomorrow. I will have a guard wake you just
before dawn."

I got up, bowed and left her. I
went up to my room and stood for a moment at the window. The sweet smell of the
Martian night—cool, somehow nostalgic—was tinged now by the stink of war.

How I hated those Blue Giants!

Someone had left some meat and
fruit on the table next to my bed. I did not feel hungry but common sense told
me to eat. I did. I washed the dried blood, dirt, and sweat of the day's
warfare from me, climbed beneath that heavy fur and was asleep immediately I
lay down.

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