Authors: Edward P. Bradbury
Next morning the same girl servant
awakened me. I received glances from her which were even more overtly admiring
than before. It seemed I was something of a talking point in Varnal. I felt
flattered but a little bewildered. After all, I had only done what anyone else
would have done. I knew I had done my chosen task well, but that was all. I
felt myself grow a trifle red with embarrassment as I accepted the food she
It was not yet dawn, but would be
in a very short time—less than two shatis, I guessed. A shati is roughly an
eighth of an Earth hour.
Just as I was buckling on my
sword-belt, a light knock sounded on the door. I opened it and faced a guard.
"The Bradhinaka awaits you in
the tower," he told me.
I thanked him and made my way up
to the tower-chamber where we had met the previous day.
Shizala and Darnad were both there,
already on the balcony, tense and waiting for the sun to rise.
It began to rise as I joined them.
They said nothing as we exchanged nods.
Soon the sun was flooding golden
light over the scene. It struck the lovely walls of Varnal, gleamed on water and
illuminated the dark camp of the Argzoon surrounding our city. I say 'our' city
because that is how I was already thinking of itmore so now.
The Argzoon tents were affairs of
skin stretched on wooden frames—oval in shape mainly, though a few were circular
or even square. Most of the common warriors seemed to be sleeping on the ground
and were beginning to stir as light pervaded the scene.
But from one tent—no larger than
the others—a banner flew. All the others were undecorated and tended to
surround that solitary oval tent sitting in their centre. There was no doubt in
my mind that the cunning Argzoon leader slept there.
"So now we know where their
leader is," I said, staring hard at the waving Argzoon banner. It seemed
to depict some sort of writhing, snake-like creature with eyes not unlike those
of the Argzoon themselves.
"The N'aal Beast,"
Shizala explained with a shudder when I asked her what it symbolized.
"Yes, it is the N'aal Beast."
"What—?" I broke off as
"Look," he cried,
"they are already preparing to attack!"
He rushed back into the room and
came out bearing a long, curling trumpet. He blew on this with all his might
and a high, melancholy note echoed through the city. Other trumpet-calls
sounded in reply.
The warriors of Varnal—many of
whom had slept at their posts—began to make ready for another day's
It could well be their last.
Shizala said: "Although it
will take Telem Fas Ogdai another day before he reaches Mishim Tep, he will
have stopped off at nearer cities on the way and relief might come by tonight
or tomorrow morning. If we can hold out until then ..."
"We may not need to if I can
borrow one of your aircraft," I said. "It only needs one man to drop
from the air on to the Argzoon commander— and despatch him."
She smiled. "You are very
brave. But the aircraft motors take the best part of a day to warm up. Even if
we switched them on now they would not be ready before evening."
"Then I suggest that you
order them to be switched on at once," I said disappointedly, "for
the opportunity might still arise and be welcomed by you when it does."
"I will do as you say. But
you would perish in a venture such as you contemplate."
"It would be worth it,"
I said simply.
She turned away from me then, and
I wondered why. Perhaps she thought me stupid—an unintelligent boor who only
knew how to die. After all, I had offended her earlier by behaving tactlessly
and unsubtly. Again I controlled my thoughts. It did not matter what she
thought, I told myself.
I sighed. Knowing nothing of the
science that had developed the aircraft, I could not suggest any way of getting
their motors ready faster. Obviously, I thought, it was some sort of slow
reaction system—probably very safe and foolproof, but at a time like that I
would have preferred something faster even if more dangerous.
I felt as if Shizala were
deliberately hampering me for some reason, as if she did not want me to put my
plan into operation. I wondered why.
Darnad now put down the trumpet
and clapped me on the shoulder. "Do you want to come with me?"
"Willingly," I said.
"You must tell me how I can be most useful."
"I was unsure of you
yesterday," he said with a smile. "But that is not true today."
"I'm glad. Farewell,
"Farewell, sister," said
She replied to neither of us as we
left. I wondered if I had offended her in some way. After all, I was unfamiliar
with the customs of Vashu and might have done so unknowingly.
But there was no time for such
Soon the walls of the city were
shaking again to another Argzoon attack. I helped with the siege weapons,
tipping cylinders of flaring fat down on the attackers, hurling stones on them,
flinging their own javelins back into their ranks.
They seemed to care little for
their own lives and even less for the lives of their comrades. As Shizala had
pointed out, they were individualistic warriors and, though they were taking
part in an organized mass attack, you could still see that they
to control their own instincts. Once or twice I
saw a couple of them fighting between themselves while their fellows milled
around them and our missiles rained down.
By midday little had been gained
or lost, save that whilst the defenders were weary almost to the point of
dropping, the attackers could bring in fresh reserves. I learned that the
system of reserves was alien to the Argzoon normally, and this was another
puzzling factor of their attack.
Though fierce and feared, the
Argzoon had never been a really important threat since they could not be
organized into one mass for long enough. Also, this monstrous attack so far
from their homeland— an attack without warning—spoke of fantastic planning and
ingenuity. It might also speak of treachery, I thought privately—an ally
letting the horde through his land by pretending to ignore it
I still did not know enough of Vashu politics to make
any fair guesses.
In the afternoon I helped the
members of an engineering squad force up special barriers in places where the
wall had been badly weakened by Argzoon rams and catapults.
Turning and wiping sweat from my
brow after a particularly difficult piece of manipulating, I discovered Shizala
at my side.
"You seem able to turn your
hand to anything." She smiled.
"The test of a good
scientist—the test of a good soldier," I replied, returning her smile.
"I suppose it is."
"How is the aircraft coming
"It will be ready just before
"You are sure you want to
make the attempt?"
"You will need a specially
"Then I hope you'll supply
She dropped her gaze. "That
will be arranged."
"Meanwhile," I said,
"have you stopped to thinkthat the Argzoon may have been able to arrive
undetected here through the connivance of one of your 'allies'?"
"Impossible. None of our
allies would stoop to such treachery."
"Forgive me," I said,
"but though I am impressed by the code of honor possessed by the Karnala,
I am not sure that all the races of Vashu possess it—particularly since I have
seen another Vashuvian race almost as unlike the Karnala as it could possibly
She pursed her lips. "You
must be wrong."
But my explanation seems the likeliest. What if Mishim Tep were
Her eyes blazed. "So that is
the foundation of your suspicion—jealousy of Telem Fas Ogdai! Well, let me
point out that the Bradhi of Mishim Tep is my father's oldest friend and ally.
They have fought many a battle together. The bonds of mutual help that exist
between the two nations are centuries old. What you suggest is not only impertinent—it
"I was only going to say
"Say no more, Michael
Kane!" She turned on her heel and left.
I may tell you, I had little
stomach for further fighting just then.
Yet, scarcely three shatis later,
I was part of a small body of warriors defending a breach that the Argzoon had
made in the wall.
Steel clashed, blood spilled, the
stench of death was everywhere. We stood on the broken masonry and fought off
ten times our number of Blue Giants. Brave and ferocious as they were, the Blue
Giants lacked our intelligence and speed—as well as our burning ideal to hold
the city at all costs. These three advantages just seemed to balance the savage
attacks which we somehow managed to withstand.
At one time I was engaging an
Argzoon even larger than most of his kind. Around his huge throat he wore a
necklace of human bones and his helmet seemed constructed of several large,
wildbeast skulls. He was evidently some sort of local commander.
He carried two large swords, one
in each hand, and he whirled them before him so that facing him was rather like
facing a propeller-driven plane!
I stumbled before the force of his
attack and my foot slipped on a blood-wet stone. I fell backwards and lay there
while, grinning jubilantly, he prepared to finish me.
He raised both swords to hack at
my prone figure, and then somehow I swivelled my body and cut at his calves,
deliberately slashing at the muscles just behind his knees.
One leg bent and he opened his
mouth wide in a great roar of pain. Then the other leg bent and suddenly he was
falling towards me.
Hastily I scrambled up and flung
myself out of his path. With a tremendous crash he fell to the broken stones
and I turned and finished him with a single sword-thrust.
on our side that day. I cannot explain
how else we managed to hold the city against the invaders.
But we did. Then, just four shatis
before sunset, I left the wall and headed for the aircraft hangars that had
been pointed out to me the day before.
The hangars were domed buildings
near the central square of the city. There were three of them, side by side.
The domes were not of stone, but of some metallic substance, another alloy with
which I was unfamiliar.
The entrances were small, barely
wide enough or high enough for a man of my size to squeeze through. I thought
this strange, and wondered how the aircraft could get out.
Shizala was in the first hangar I
tried, supervising some male servants who were swinging one of the heavy
aircraft round on davits. It was cradled in the davits, which swung slightly as
they moved it.
The strange oval ship was even
more beautiful at close view. It was evidently incredibly ancient. There was
the aura of millennia of existence about it. I looked at it in fascination.
Shizala, tight-lipped, did not
welcome me as I entered.
I gave her a slight bow, feeling
A low thrum of power came from the
ship. It looked more like a piece of sculpture in bronze-like substance than a
vehicle. The complicated, raised designs spoke of a creative intelligence
superior to any in my experience.
A simple rope-ladder led to the
entrance. I walked up to this in silence and tested it.
I darted a look of enquiry at
At first she refused to meet my
glance, but at length she did and said with a gesture at the ship: "Go
aboard. Your pilot will join you in a moment."
"There is not much
time," I reminded her. "This should be accomplished before
"I am aware of that,"
she replied coldly.
I began to climb the swaying ladder,
reached the top and entered the ship.
It was richly furnished, with
padded couches of some deep green and gold material. At the far end were
controls, as beautifully made and as finely decorated as the rest of the ship,
with levers of brass—perhaps even gold—instruments encased in crystal. There
was a small screen in a cabinetsome kind of television equipment which gave a
wider view of what lay outside the ship than could be obtained through one of
the rather small portholes.
After inspecting the interior of
the ship I sat on one of the couches to work out my plan of assassination—for
that, in essence, was what it was—and wait impatiently for my pilot to join me.
In a while I heard him climbing
the rope-ladder. My back was to the entrance so I did not see him as he
"Hurry," I said.
"We have very little time!"
"I am aware of that,"
Shizala's voice as she walked towards the controls and
seated herself at them!
This is dangerous! It is no job for a woman!"
"No? Then who else do you suggest?
Only a few pilots exist for the ships—and I am the only one available."
I was not sure that she spoke the
truth, but there was no time to waste.
"Then be very careful,"
I said. "Your people need you more than I do—do not forget your
responsibility to them."
"That I could never do,"
she said. For some reason I thought she spoke bitterly, though I could not
determine why at that time.
Now she operated the controls and
the ship began to
, light as a feather, towards
the roof. As the roof slid open, I realized how the ships left the hangars. The
dark blue sky of late evening was above us. The ship's motors began to murmur
with greater intensity.
Soon we were winging over the city
towards the camp of the Argzoon. We noticed that they were beginning to retreat
again, as was their night-time custom.