Authors: Edward P. Bradbury
Our plan was simple. The ship
would swoop down over the tent of the Argzoon commander. I would drop swiftly
down the rope ladder. The oval tent had holes at the top, covered with thin
gauze—presumably for better ventilation. The hole would just take a man. I had
to drop through it and thus surprise the commander, engage him quickly and
despatch him with expediency.
plan—but one that would require swift reactions, excellent timing, and absolute
As we began to move over the enemy
camp, their great catapults sent huge stones hurtling into the air towards us.
We had expected this. But we had also expected what happened next—the falling
stones, of course, landed back in the Argzoon camp and the warriors naturally
objected to being crushed by the artillery of their own forces. Soon the
Within a short time our objective
At a signal from Shizala, I went
to the entrance and began to pay out more of the rope-ladder from the drum near
I darted a glance at her but she
did not turn to look at me. I gazed down. I could see the Banner of the N'aal
Beast stirring in the faint breeze that was beginning to blow.
The faces of hundreds of Argzoon
were watching me, of course, for they had expected some sort of attack from us.
I hoped they didn't realize what form it would take.
Looking down at them, I felt like
a fly dropping into a nest of giant spiders, I gathered my courage, made sure
of my sword, drawing it in a single gesture, shouted once to Shizala and swung
down the rope-ladder until I was directly over the gauze-covered opening of the
Argzoon were shouting and milling
about. Several spears flashed past me. More then ten feet over the opening I
decided it was now or never.
I let myself go and dropped
towards the tent.
THERE was a momentary roaring in my ears and then I was
plummeting through the opening, dragging the gauze cover with me.
I landed on my feet but staggered
as the air was forced from my lungs. Then I whirled to confront the occupants
of the tent.
There were two of them—a large,
battered Argzoon warrior, resplendent in rudely-beaten bangles and rough-hewn
gems—and a woman! She was black-haired, dark-complexioned and had a haughty
bearing. She was wrapped in a thick, black cloak of some velvet-like material.
She stared at me in surprise. She was as far as I could tell an ordinary human
woman! What was she doing here?
Outside came yells from the
Ignoring the woman, I gestured to
the battered Argzoon to draw his sword. He did so with a sharp grin and came at
He was an excellent swordsman and,
still recovering from my drop into his tent, I was forced to fight a defensive
duel for a few moments.
I had little time to do what I had
come to accomplish. I met his thrusts with the fastest parries I have ever
made, returned them with thrusts and lunges of my own. Our swords crossed
perhaps a score of times before I saw a break in his guard and moved in
swiftly, catching him in the heart and running him through.
At that moment several more
Argzoon rushed into the tent. I turned to meet them but before we could engage
the woman cried imperiously:
"Enough! Do not kill him yet.
I wish to question him."
I remained on guard, suspecting a
ruse of some sort, but the warriors seemed to be in the habit of obeying the
woman's orders. They stood their ground.
Cautiously I turned to look at
her. She was exotically beautiful in her wild, dark way, and her eyes
"You are not of the
Karnala," she said.
"How do you know that?"
"Your skin is the wrong
texture, your hair is short—there is something about the set of your shoulders.
I have never seen a man like you. Where are you from?"
"You would not believe me if
I told you."
"Tell me!" She spoke
I shrugged. "I come from
Negalu," I said, using the Martian name for Earth.
"That is impossible. There
are no men on Negalu."
"Not now. There will
She frowned. "You seem to
speak truthfully but in some sort of riddle. You are perhaps a—a . . ."
She seemed to regret what she was
about to say, and stopped.
"What do you know of
This seemed to satisfy her. She
put her knuckles to her mouth and seemed to gnaw them. Suddenly she looked up
at me again.
"If you are not of the
Karnala, why do you fight with them? Why did you jump into this tent and kill
Ranak Mard?" She indicated the fallen Argzoon.
"Why do you think?"
She shook her head. "Why risk
your life just to kill one Argzoon captain?"
"Is that all I did?"
She smiled suddenly. "Aha! I
think I know. Yes, that is all you did."
My spirits sank. So I had been
wrong. The tent did not hold some great Argzoon battle-leader. Perhaps it was a
deliberate blind and the leader was elsewhere.
"What of you?" I said.
"Are you a prisoner of these folk—a prisoner with some power?"
"Call me a prisoner if you
like. I am Horguhl of the Vladnyar nation."
"You do not know? It lies to
the north of Karnala, beyond Narvaash. The Vladnyar are ancient enemies of the
"So Vladnyar has struck up an
alliance with Argzoon?"
"Think what you like."
She smiled secretively. "And now, I think, you will d—" She broke off
as there came a great sound of fighting outside the tent. "What is
I could not think. It was
impossible that the small force of Karnala warriors in the city had attacked
the Argzoon—that would have been folly.
But what else?
As Horguhl and the Blue Giants
turned towards the sound, I seized my opportunity, stepped forward and ran one
of the Argzoon through the throat. I fought my way through the others and found
myself outside the tent, staring into the darkness as the remaining warriors
came after me.
I ran in the general direction of
the noise of battle. I darted a quick glance back above the tent, looking to
see if Shizala had made good her escape.
The ship was still there—hovering
above the tent!
Why hadn't she left? I stopped,
uncertain what to do, and in a second found myself engaging several of the
gigantic warriors. It was all I could do to protect my own life, but as I
fought I got the impression that something was happening close by and suddenly,
out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of splendidly-armored warriors of
about my own height break through a mass of blue swordsmen.
The warriors were not from the
was plain. They wore helmets, for one thing—helmets
from which nodded brightly-colored plumes. Phobos and Deimos, coursing across
the heavens, gave illumination to the scene around me. The new warriors also
had lances and some carried what looked like metal crossbows.
Soon their foreguard had pressed
forward until I found myself with several allies helping me to engage the
Argzoon who were attacking me.
said one of them in an accent only slightly different from the one I was
Your presence here has saved my life," I replied in relieved gratitude.
"Who are you?"
"We are from Srinai."
"Did Telem Fas Ogdai send you
"No." The man's voice
sounded a trifle surprised.
"We were originally on our
way to deal with a large force of bandits who fled into Karnala. That is why
there are so many of us. A detachment of your border patrol were about to help
us when a messenger came with news that the Argzoon were attacking Varnal—so we
left the bandits and rode to Varnal as fast as we could."
"I am glad you did. What do
you think our chances are of defeating them?"
"I doubt that we can—not
completely. But we might be able to drive them away from Varnal and give your
reinforcements time to come to your aid."
This conversation was carried on
while fighting Argzoon warriors. But the Argzoon were becoming increasingly few
and it seemed we were winning in that particular area, anyway.
At last we had them on the run and
the combined force of Srinai and Karnala chased the retreating Argzoon towards
the Calling Hills from whence they had come.
The Argzoon stood their ground on
the crest of the first range of hills, and then we withdrew to count our
strength and plan fresh strategy.
It was soon obvious that the
Argzoon still outnumbered us and that the Srinai and Karnala who had attacked
them from behind had had the advantage of being fresh and able to take the
Argzoon by surprise.
But I felt much better. Now, I
decided, we could withstand the next attack and hold the Argzoon off until help
Then I remembered the ship and Shizala.
I returned to the now ruined Argzoon camp. The tent with the banner was still
standing, unlike most of the others and, rather strangely, the ship still
hovered above it. It seemed to me, peering through the moonlit darkness, that
the ship was now lower above the roof, the rope-ladder brushing the top of the
I called her name, but silence
greeted me. With a feeling of foreboding I climbed up the yielding sides of the
tent. It was a hard climb, but I made it rapidly, almost in panic. Sure enough,
the rope-ladder was closer, the ship lower. I grabbed the ladder and began to
clamber up it.
Soon I was inside the ship.
A brief glance showed me that it
Shizala had gone!
What had happened to her? What had
she done? Why had she left the slip? What reason was there for doing such a
All these thoughts raced through
my brain and then I was dropping down the rope-ladder again, hand over hand,
until I was above the now uncovered roof-opening. I dropped through it as I had
Save for the corpse of Ranak Mard
the tent was empty. Yet there were signs of a struggle and I noticed that Ranak
Mard's sword had been removed from his dead grasp and now lay on the other side
of the tent.
Something else lay beside it.
A gun of the
It could only be Shizala's gun.
The mysterious, dark-haired woman
Horguhl and the Argzoon warriors must have taken part in a struggle soon after
I had left.
For some reason best known to
, Shizala had decided to follow me into the tent. She
had found me gone, of course, and confronted Horguhl and the Argzoon. There had
probably been a fight and Shizala had been overpowered and captured. She had
not been killed—that was a mercy—or I should have found her corpse.
My misguided plan to kill the
absent mastermind behind the Argzoon had been worthless. All my plan had
succeeded in doing was putting a hostage in the hands of the Argzoon.
The best hostage they could ever
The ruler of
I began to curse myself as I would
never curse another, even my greatest enemy.
THEN I was running from the tent, blind with remorse and
anger. I rushed through the corpsestrewn field towards the Calling Hills, bent
on Shizala's rescue!
I ran past startled warriors of
the Srinai and the Karnala, who called after me enquiringly.
I began to run up the hill towards
the spot where the Argzoon had taken their stand.
I heard more shouts behind me, the
sound of fast-moving feet. I refused to pay them any attention.
Ahead and above,
the Argzoon stirred, evidently thinking that we were launching another surprise
attack on them.
Instead of holding their ground as
I expected, they began to turn and run in twos and threes.
I yelled at them to stop and
fight. I called them cowards.
They did not stop.
Soon it seemed that the whole
Argzoon force was in full flight—pursued by one man with a sword!
Suddenly I felt something grapple
my legs. I turned to meet this new adversary, wondering where he had come from.
I raised my sword, striving to keep my balance.
More men jumped on me. I growled
in fury, trying to fight them off. Then my head cleared for a moment and I
realized that the one who had grappled me was none other than Darnad— Shizala's
I could not understand why he
should be attacking me. I cried out:
"Darnad—it is Michael Kane.
Shizala—Shizala— they have . . ." Then came a blow on my head and I knew
I awoke with a throbbing headache.
I was in my room in the palace at Varnal. That much I could understand.
Why had Darnad attacked me?
I fought to think clearly. I sat
up rubbing my head.
The door suddenly opened and my
attacker entered looking worried.
Why did you-?"
"How do you feel?"
I would if your comrade had not knocked me out.
Don't you realize
"You are still excited, I
see. We had to stop you, even though your madness resulted in the Argzoon
fleeing in complete disorganization. As far as we can tell, they are now
scattered. Your plan to slay their leader must have worked. They seem to have
broken up completely. They no longer represent a threat to Varnal."
"But I slew the wrong man.
I—" I paused. "What do you
"It sometimes happens that a
warrior who has fought long and hard, as you did, is gripped by a kind of
battle-rage in which—no matter how tired he might be—he cannot stop fighting.
We thought this was what happened to you. There is another thing that concerns
"Don't you realize what you
have done?" I spoke in a low, angry voice. "You speak of Shizala. Is
she here? Is she safe?"
"No—we cannot find her. She
piloted the ship that took you to the Argzoon camp, but the ship was empty when
we recovered it. We think that..."
"I know what has happened to
"You know? Then why did you
not tell us?
"I was seized by no
battle-rage, Darnad. I discovered that Shizala had been abducted. I was on my
way to try to rescue her when you set upon me. How long ago was this?"
night—about thirty-six shatis ago."
I got up, giving an involuntary groan. Not
head ached. The exertions of the previous two days had taken their toll of my
body. It seemed a mass of bruises and minor wounds. My worst wound—the one on
my armwas throbbing painfully. Thirty-six shatis—more than four hours ago!
As quickly as I could, I told
Darnad all the details of what I had learned. He was as surprised as I had been
to learn of Horguhl the Vladnyar woman.
"I wonder what part she plays
in this?" he said with a frown.
"I have no idea. Her answers
were ambiguous, to say the least."
"I am sorry that I made that
mistake, Michael Kane," he said. "I was a fool. I heard you shouting
something. I should have listened. With luck we should have rescued Shizala and
all would be over. The Argzoon are scattered. We and our allies will soon have
cleansed Karnala of them. We will be able to question prisoners and discover
how they managed to reach Varnal undetected."
"But while we are doing this
Shizala could be taken anywhere!
How are you to know where they will carry her?"
Darnad dropped his eyes and stared
at the floor.
"You are right. But if you
think Shizala is with this Vladnyar girl,
hope that some of our prisoners will have seen which way they went. There is
also the chance that in our general routing and capturing of the Argzoon we
will manage to rescue Shizala."
"There is no time for
recriminations of any kind," I said. "So let us forget the errors of
judgment we have both made. The heat of the battle must be held to account.
What do you intend to do now?"
"I shall be leading a force
with the specific intention of capturing Argzoon and questioning them on the
whereabouts of Shizala."
"Then I shall accompany
you," I told him.
"That is what I hoped you
would say," he said, patting my shoulder. "Rest while the last
preparations are being made. I will call for you when we are ready to
leave—there is nothing else you can do until then, and you had better regain as
much strength as possible—you are going to need it. I will have food
"Thank you," I said
gratefully. He was right. I must make myself relax—for Shizala's sake.
As I lay back on the couch, I
again wondered just why she had risked such danger by going into the Argzoon
tent. There had been no need for it— and as ruler of her folk she should have
returned at once to Varnal.
I decided that the sooner we found
her the sooner we should have answers to these and other questions.
I slept until a servant entered
with food. Then I ate the food and, on receiving a message that Darnad and his
warriors were ready, washed hastily and went down to join them.
The day should have been grim and
stark and full of storm-clouds. It was not. It was a lovely, clear day with the
pale sun brightening the streets of the city and obscuring most traces of the
strife that had so recently ended.
At the foot of the palace steps
was a company of warriors mounted on dahara. Darnad was at their head, holding
the reins of a dahara that was evidently meant for me.
I mounted the beast, stretching my
legs out along it. Then the whole company turned into the street leading
towards the main gate.
We were soon riding across the
Calling Hills, tracking our fleeing enemy.
It was still a mystery why the
Argzoon had fled so precipitately—particularly in the face of such a small
But we did not ask ourselves these
questions as we rode grimly after our quarry, even though it seemed that Ranak
Mard had, indeed, been the master-mind behind the Argzoon attack—for it was
plain that he was dead and the Argzoon were now in confusion.
Yet why had Horguhl told me
No questions. Not yet.
Find the Argzoon—they will answer
On we rode.
It was not until late in the
afternoon that we managed to surprise a group of some ten weary Argzoon who had
camped in a shallow valley far, far from the Calling Hills.
They rose up at our approach and
stood ready to fight. For once we outnumbered them. Normally, this would not
please me but I felt that in this case it made a pleasant change to have the
advantage over the Argzoon.
They put up a token fight as we
attacked them. About half were killed and then the others lay down their arms.
The Argzoon have no code of
loyalty such as we understand it, and little sense of comradeship with one
another. This made it easier to question them in one way—but harder in another.
They did not stay silent because
they did not wish to betray their fellows. They stayed silent out of
It was not until Darnad
significantly fingered his long dagger and hinted that, since they were no use
to us, it would be as well to dispose of the
one of them broke.
We were lucky. He knew a great
deal more than we had expected one simple warrior to know.
They had not crossed from Argzoon
to Karnala by land at all but had spent over a year travelling by sea and
river. They had gone round the coast, thousands of miles out of their way—for
Varnal lay many thousands of miles inland—and then sailed down the Haal River,
the largest of the rivers on the continent. They had assembled in a place
called the Crimson Plain and then gone in small groups from there, moving at
night all the time, until they reached Karnala undetected. We learned that one
or two parties of Karnala warriors had discovered detachments of Argzoon, but
the Karnala had been wiped out.
"Simple," Darnad mused
after hearing this. "And yet we never credited the Argzoon with such
ingenuity or patience. It just isn't in their nature to spend so much time and
thought on a raid. It is good that you slew Ranak Mard, Michael Kane. He must
have been a strange sort of Argzoon."
"Now," I said, "let
us try to discover where Shizala has been taken."
But the Argzoon could not help
beyond telling us that as far as he knew all the Argzoon were fleeing north. It
seemed instinctive for them to go north, back to their mountains, in defeat.
"I think he is right,"
said Darnad. "Our best chance would be to try the north."
said—"that takes in a lot of territory."
"True—but . . ." He
looked at me directly and there was a misery in his eyes that was only half
I reached out and grasped his
shoulder. "But all we can do is search on," I said. "We will
make more prisoners soon and with luck we shall be able to get a better
indication of where they have taken Shizala."
Our prisoners were tied securely
and one of our
undertook to escort them back to
Now we rode across a vast plateau
of short, waving crimson fern. It was the Crimson Plain. It was like a great
sea of bright blood, stretching in all directions, and I began to feel hopeless
of ever finding Shizala.
Night fell and we camped, building
no fires for fear of ambush from Argzoon or from the marauding bandits who
apparently roamed these plains, nomadic bands made up from the riff-raff of all
the nearby nations. The Crimson Plain was a kind of no-man's land hardly
touched by law of any sortsave the savage dog-eat-dog, weakest-to-the-wall law
of the lawless.
I slept little. I was beginning to
feel frustrated, wanting to find more Argzoon to question.
We moved off early, almost before
dawn. It was no longer fine and the sky was full of grey clouds, a light
We saw nothing of bandits or
Argzoon until the next afternoon when suddenly in front of us some fifty Blue
Giants rose up in our path. They looked ready for a fight—ready for vengeance
on us for their defeat!
We scarcely paused as we drew
lances and swords and goaded our mounts towards them, yelling as fiercely as
Then we clashed and the fight was
I found myself engaged with a blue
warrior who wore around his waist a girdle of grisly spoils from the earlier
encounter—severed human hands.
I decided to claim some recompense
for those hands.
Being mounted, I was more at an
advantage than I had been, for the Argzoon were not. Apart from the advance
guard I had originally seen, there seemed to be few mounts among them and I
concluded that their need for secrecy had made them wary of using too many.
The warrior struck at me
left-handed, catching me by surprise. The weapon was a battle-axe, and it took
all my skill to block the blow and at the same time avoid the lunge of his
He pressed down on my sword with
both weapons and we remained in that position for several moments, testing each
other's strength and reflexes. Then he tried to raise the sword to aim a blow
at my head, but I whipped my own blade out from under his axe and he was
unbalanced for a second. I used that second to pierce him in the throat.
Meanwhile there was general
confusion around me. Though it seemed we were beating the Argzoon, we had many
casualties. It seemed we had only about half our original strength left.
I saw Darnad having trouble with a
couple of blue warriors and rode in to help him.
Together we quickly despatched our
From the fifty Argzoon we had
fought, only two had surrendered.
We used the same technique on them
as we had used with the previous prisoners. At last they began to answer our
"Did you see any of your
comrades take a Karnala woman with them?"
Darnad fingered his knife.
"Yes," said the Argzoon.
"In which direction were they
riding?" I said.
"But where did you think they
"Where is that?" I asked
"About three days' ride—a
brigand town near the borders of the Crimson Plain."
town—dangerous for us, eh?"
"It could be," Darnad
admitted. "But I doubt it if we don't make trouble. They prefer not to
antagonize us if we make it plain we are not seeking any of their number. In
fact," Darnad laughed, "I have a friend or two in Narlet.
Rogues, but pleasant company if you forget that they are thieves
and murderers many times over."