THORNE was awakened by a touch on his brow. He looked up into the eyes of Thaine.
“We must begin our journey if you would make Castle Takkor by midday,” she said.
He threw off his fur and stood up. “I’m ready,” he announced.
“First we will eat,” she told him.
When they had finished, the girl began packing the utensils and furs together. Thorne helped her to make two large bundles of them, which Tezzu carried down to the boat.
“The Ma Gongi have discovered this camp,” she told him, “so it must be abandoned forever.”
“But where will you go?”
“I have many better places hidden in the marsh,” she replied. “This was merely an outpost.”
They gathered up the weapons and went outside. Then the girl poured a small quantity of the sparkling firepowder against the door jamb and dashed a cup of water over it. The logs instantly burst into flame, and when they reached the boat, Thorne, looking back, saw that a thick column of smoke was mounting skyward.
The morning sun was, by this time, halfway to the zenith. Most of the ice had melted in the stream. He noted, also, that many of the leaves where the sun had not yet penetrated were coated with hoar-frost that was rapidly melting into glistening beads of dew.
When they had their cargo stowed, and had taken their places, the girl tossed the tow-rope to Tezzu and indicated with a wave of her hand the direction she wished to go. He plunged into the stream and set off rapidly.
They had only gone a short distance when Thaine cried: “Look there! The boat of the Ma Gongi!”
Thorne looked in the direction she was pointing, and saw a flat boat drawn up on the bank.
“Stop, Tezzu,” ordered the girl. Then: “Bring us that boat.”
The beast dropped the tow-rope, and swimming in to shore, dragged the boat into the water. Then, seizing its rope he towed it out to where they drifted. Save for a bundle, wrapped in a silky covering, and a half dozen spade-shaped paddles, the boat was empty. Thorne was about to reach for the bundle when the girl checked him. “That is their food,” she said, “but it will do us no good.” Then she called to the dalf. “Sink it, Tezzu.”
Instantly, the beast seized the side of the boat in his huge and powerful jaws. A single crunch crushed the heavy planking as if it had been an eggshell. Tezzu backed away, spitting out the slivers, and the boat filled and sank. Then he took up the tow-rope once more and proceeded on his way.
“I’m curious to know more about these Ma Gongi,” Thorne said, “and this strange, forbidden food they eat.”
“Legend has it that they did not originate on this planet, but, as their name indicates, on Ma Gong, the planet which now circles your world, but which revolved in an orbit of its own, between your world and mine.
“We know that there was once a mighty civilization here on Mars, and that it was destroyed in a terrible catastrophe. It is just within my lifetime that our scientists have begun to uncover old records—fragments of records—and piece them together. We know now that the catastrophe came about through an interplanetary war, fought with weapons almost beyond imagination. The Ma Gongi had a cold, energy-decreasing interrotating green ray. Any substance touched by this ray would contract to less than one-hundredth of its normal size, with a corresponding increase in density.
“The toughest metals, under this ray, would become as brittle as glass and more dense than lead. But there is a limit to the contractile endurance of all matter, and once that limit is reached the atoms, which have been pushed in upon themselves, explode and disintegrate.”
“And did your scientists have this weapon, too?”
“We do not know. Ma Gong was shifted from its orbit to where it now lies, and it is believed that our two moons came from some aspect of the struggle, too. We know that Ma Gong itself was rendered uninhabitable and that our own world was greatly damaged. Some of the Ma Gongi must have been stranded on Mars when the war ended in mutual ruin.”
“Remarkable,” said Thorne.
“The Ma Gongi are our enemies still,” she went on. “I have often seen them. But other than them, my father, the Takkors and Yirl Du, I have seen no one except the Little People.”
“The Little People?”
“They are the friends and allies of my father and me. But the Ma Gongi eat them. That is why I told you the food you saw in their boat would be useless to us. It was the flesh of one of the Little People.”
“But who is your father, and why do you two live here in the marsh, instead of among your own kind?”
“My father’s name is Miradon. Once he was Vil of Xancibar. There was a revolt, led by a man named Irintz Tel. In order to avoid the calamity of a civil war, my father abdicated, and fled here with me, aided by Sheb Takkor and the Jen of his Free Swordsmen, Yirl Du. These two, alone, knew where we had gone. Here my father reared me. We have been constantly harassed by the minions of Irintz Tel, and lately by the Ma Gongi as well. For three days, now, my father has been absent, and I fear that he has either been slain or captured.”
“Then let me help you search for him.”
“No, you must return to the castle for the ceremony, or if it has been performed, to assume your rightful place. After that, come if you will, and bring Yirl Du, but no other. He will know how to find me.”
For some time now they had been gliding tortuously through a chain of shallow pools connected by narrow, half-hidden channels. Now there suddenly came into view a broad lake which mirrored at its far side an immense castle of odd and beautiful design, the translucent masonry of which gleamed like burnished gold in the sunshine. A short distance from it, and also bordering the lake, rose the cylindrical, flat-roofed buildings of a teeming city. A large number of gawrs were swimming on the lake and many boats were moored at the docks.
“This is as far as I dare take you,” said Thaine. “Yonder, beside Takkor City, lies Castle Takkor. You can reach it by following the lake shore to the right.”
Thorne rose and stretched his limbs, cramped from long sitting. Then he bent, took her hand and pressed it to his lips. She seemed startled. “Why did you do that?”
“On my world it is homage one pays to a lady at greeting or parting.”
“What a queer custom,” she exclaimed. “But I rather like it.”
Thorne smiled. “Farewell, little comrade,” he said. “Again I thank you for my life, for my entertainment, and most of all for the pleasure of having been with you. As soon as I have attended to my duties at Castle Takkor I will return with Yirl Du, and together we will search for your father.”
“Deza go with you, and keep you safe from harm. I will be waiting for you and be expecting you.”
Resolutely he turned away and stepped over the side of the boat. He stood there in the shallows watching until the little craft vanished around a bend in the narrow channel.
Keeping to the margin of the lake, he eventually reached the docks without mishap. Most of its occupants were fishermen, and those whose duty it was to tend the gawrs. But he saw a number of warriors standing about, and was surprised to note that they wore the insigna of the Kamud. As he made his way toward the gate which led to the castle, two of them stopped him.
“Where are you going, fellow?” asked one. “And whom do you seek?”
“I go to Castle Takkor,” replied Thorne, “and whom I seek is my own affair.”
“None of your insolence,” growled the other soldier. “When you speak to us, you address the Kamud.”
“When you speak to me, you address the Rad of Takkor,” Thorne retorted. “Out of my way!”
“Sharp words call for sharper weapons,” said one soldier. “Throw down your sword, or you die.”
For answer, Thorne came on guard. Then both men attacked him simultaneously. While he could easily have bested either of them alone, he was sorely put to it to keep the two blades from reaching him. Presently, however, one soldier left his head unguarded. Instantly Thorne’s sword sheared down through his brain.
For a moment Thorne’s blade was held by that cloven skull; then, with a desperate jerk, he freed his weapon and easily disarmed his remaining foe, who instantly turned and fled, bawling lustily for help.
At this juncture a big man, resplendent in purple head-cloak and gold trappings came down the steps that led from the castle gate, followed by a group of lesser officers and a file of soldiers.
“What’s all this?” he roared. “Must I have brawling on the first day of my arrival?”
Thorne looked up and recognized Sel Han, against whom the Martian code of honor now forbade him to raise his weapon. Instantly he was surrounded by warriors.
“This imposter who murdered Tir Hanus claims to be the Rad of Takkor,” cried the disarmed soldier, “yet we scattered his ashes this morning.”
Sel Han looked at Thorne. “You have heard the words of this soldier,” he said. “Do you still cling to your preposterous claim?”
“You scattered the ashes of Sheb Takkor the elder. Not mine.”
“We also scattered the ashes of Sheb Takkor the younger,” replied Sel Han. “His two comrades, Lal Vak and Yirl Du, reported his death yesterday. He fell from his gawr, a distance that would crush him to pulp, therefore it is impossible that he could be alive today. Word was sent to Irintz Tel, and the Dixtar appointed me to administer the estates in the name of the Kamud. As we could not obtain the body of the unfortunate Rad, who fell in the marsh, we performed the ceremony by proxy, using ashes of the aromatic sebolis tree, as is the custom.”
“Am I to understand from this that I am officially dead?”
“You are to understand from this that the Rad of Takkor is dead. Also, the title has been abolished. Hereafter the estates will be strictly administered in accordance with the rules of the Kamud. As to who you are, that has not been established. You came to us armed with a sword of the Ma Gongi, and impersonating the dead Rad. When questioned, you slew a soldier of the Kamud. Under the circumstances, it is my duty to arrest you and send you to Dukor for trial.”
“You make yourself absurd by claiming that I am dead.”
“Yield your sword, or you soon will be,” promised Sel Han. “Seize him, men. If he resists, cut him down.”
Seeing that resistance against such odds would be foolhardy, Thorne handed his sword to the nearest soldier. Another removed the medal that hung around his neck. Then he was led away by two warriors. They took him into the castle courtyard, where one of the large flying machines he had previously seen stood ready to take off. He was hustled up a set of metal steps and into the body of the craft, where a score of prisoners, guarded by two armed warriors, were chained by metal collars to rings in the wall. A collar was snapped around his neck.