Black Amazon of Mars, p.1Leigh Douglass Brackett
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Black Amazon of Mars
A Novel by LEIGH BRACKETT
[Transcriber Note: This etext was produced from Planet Stories March1951. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.copyright on this publication was renewed.]
[Sidenote: _Grimly Eric John Stark slogged toward that ancient Martiancity--with every step he cursed the talisman of Ban Cruach that flamedin his blood-stained belt. Behind him screamed the hordes of Ciaran,hungering for that magic jewel--ahead lay the dread abode of the IceCreatures--at his side stalked the whispering spectre of Ban Cruach,urging him on to a battle Stark knew he must lose!_]
Through all the long cold hours of the Norland night the Martian had notmoved nor spoken. At dusk of the day before Eric John Stark had broughthim into the ruined tower and laid him down, wrapped in blankets, on thesnow. He had built a fire of dead brush, and since then the two men hadwaited, alone in the vast wasteland that girdles the polar cap of Mars.
Now, just before dawn, Camar the Martian spoke.
"I am dying."
"I will not reach Kushat."
Camar nodded. He was silent again.
The wind howled down from the northern ice, and the broken walls rose upagainst it, brooding, gigantic, roofless now but so huge and sprawlingthat they seemed less like walls than cliffs of ebon stone. Stark wouldnot have gone near them but for Camar. They were wrong, somehow, with ataint of forgotten evil still about them.
The big Earthman glanced at Camar, and his face was sad. "A man likes todie in his own place," he said abruptly. "I am sorry."
"The Lord of Silence is a great personage," Camar answered. "He does notmind the meeting place. No. It was not for that I came back into theNorlands."
He was shaken by an agony that was not of the body. "And I shall notreach Kushat!"
Stark spoke quietly, using the courtly High Martian almost as fluentlyas Camar.
"I have known that there was a burden heavier than death upon mybrother's soul."
He leaned over, placing one large hand on the Martian's shoulder. "Mybrother has given his life for mine. Therefore, I will take his burdenupon myself, if I can."
He did not want Camar's burden, whatever it might be. But the Martianhad fought beside him through a long guerilla campaign among the harriedtribes of the nearer moon. He was a good man of his hands, and in theend had taken the bullet that was meant for Stark, knowing quite wellwhat he was doing. They were friends.
That was why Stark had brought Camar into the bleak north country,trying to reach the city of his birth. The Martian was driven by somesecret demon. He was afraid to die before he reached Kushat.
And now he had no choice.
"I have sinned, Stark. I have stolen a holy thing. You're an outlander,you would not know of Ban Cruach, and the talisman that he left when hewent away forever beyond the Gates of Death."
Camar flung aside the blankets and sat up, his voice gaining a febrilestrength.
"I was born and bred in the Thieves' Quarter under the Wall. I was proudof my skill. And the talisman was a challenge. It was a treasuredthing--so treasured that hardly a man has touched it since the days ofBan Cruach who made it. And that was in the days when men still had thelustre on them, before they forgot that they were gods.
"'Guard well the Gates of Death,' he said, 'that is the city's trust.And keep the talisman always, for the day may come when you will needits strength. Who holds Kushat holds Mars--and the talisman will keepthe city safe.'
"I was a thief, and proud. And I stole the talisman."
His hands went to his girdle, a belt of worn leather with a boss ofbattered steel. But his fingers were already numb.
"Take it, Stark. Open the boss--there, on the side, where the beast'shead is carved...."
* * * * *
Stark took the belt from Camar and found the hidden spring. The roundedtop of the boss came free. Inside it was something wrapped in a scrap ofsilk.
"I had to leave Kushat," Camar whispered. "I could never go back. But itwas enough--to have taken that."
He watched, shaken between awe and pride and remorse, as Stark unwrappedthe bit of silk.
Stark had discounted most of Camar's talk as superstition, but even sohe had expected something more spectacular than the object he held inhis palm.
It was a lens, some four inches across--man-made, and made with greatskill, but still only a bit of crystal. Turning it about, Stark saw thatit was not a simple lens, but an intricate interlocking of many facets.Incredibly complicated, hypnotic if one looked at it too long.
"What is its use?" he asked of Camar.
"We are as children. We have forgotten. But there is a legend, abelief--that Ban Cruach himself made the talisman as a sign that hewould not forget us, and would come back when Kushat is threatened. Backthrough the Gates of Death, to teach us again the power that was his!"
"I do not understand," said Stark. "What are the Gates of Death?"
Camar answered, "It is a pass that opens into the black mountains beyondKushat. The city stands guard before it--why, no man remembers, exceptthat it is a great trust."
His gaze feasted on the talisman.
Stark said, "You wish me to take this to Kushat?"
"Yes. Yes! And yet...." Camar looked at Stark, his eyes filling suddenlywith tears. "No. The North is not used to strangers. With me, you mighthave been safe. But alone.... No, Stark. You have risked too muchalready. Go back, out of the Norlands, while you can."
He lay back on the blankets. Stark saw that a bluish pallor had comeinto the hollows of his cheeks.
"Camar," he said. And again, "Camar!"
"Go in peace, Camar. I will take the talisman to Kushat."
The Martian sighed, and smiled, and Stark was glad that he had made thepromise.
"The riders of Mekh are wolves," said Camar suddenly. "They hunt thesegorges. Look out for them."
Stark's knowledge of the geography of this part of Mars was vagueindeed, but he knew that the mountain valleys of Mekh lay ahead and tothe north, between him and Kushat. Camar had told him of these uplandwarriors. He was willing to heed the warning.
Camar had done with talking. Stark knew that he had not long to wait.The wind spoke with the voice of a great organ. The moons had set and itwas very dark outside the tower, except for the white glimmering of thesnow. Stark looked up at the brooding walls, and shivered. There was asmell of death already in the air.
To keep from thinking, he bent closer to the fire, studying the lens.There were scratches on the bezel, as though it had been held sometimein a clamp, or setting, like a jewel. An ornament, probably, worn as abadge of rank. Strange ornament for a barbarian king, in the dawn ofMars. The firelight made tiny dancing sparks in the endless innerfacets. Quite suddenly, he had a curious feeling that the thing wasalive.
A pang of primitive and unreasoning fear shot through him, and he foughtit down. His vision was beginning to blur, and he shut his eyes, and inthe darkness it seemed to him that he could see and hear....
* * * * *
He started up, shaken now with an eerie terror, and raised his hand tohurl the talisman away. But the part of him that had learned with muchpain and effort to be civilized made him stop, and think.
He sat down again. An instrument of hypnosis? Possibly. And yet thatfleeting touch of sight and sound had not been his own, out of his ownmemories.
He was tempted now, fascinated, like a child that plays with fire. Thetalisman had been worn somehow. Where? On the breast? On the brow?
He tried the first, with no result. Then he touched the flat surface ofthe lens to his forehead.
_The great tower of stone rose up monstrous to the sky. It was whole,and there were pallid lights within that stirred and flickered, and itwas crowned with a shimmering darkness._
He lay outside the tower, on his belly, and he was filled with fear anda great anger, and a loathing such as turns the bones to water. Therewas no snow. There was ice everywhere, rising to half the tower'sheight, sheathing the ground.
Ice. Cold and clear and beautiful--and deadly.
He moved. He glided snakelike, with infinite caution, over the smoothsurface. The tower was gone, and far below him was a city. He saw thetemples and the palaces, the glittering lovely city beneath him in theice, blurred and fairylike and strange, a dream half glimpsed throughcrystal.
He saw the Ones that lived there, moving slowly through the streets. Hecould not see them clearly, only the vague shining of their bodies, andhe was glad.
He hated them, with a hatred that conquered even his fear, which wasgreat indeed.
He was not Eric John Stark. He was Ban Cruach.
The tower and the city vanished, swept away on a reeling tide.
He stood beneath a scarp of black rock, notched with a single pass. Thecliffs hung over him, leaning out their vast bulk as though to crushhim, and the narrow mouth of the pass was full of evil laughter wherethe wind went by.
He began to walk forward, into the pass. He was quite alone.
The light was dim and strange at the bottom of that cleft. Little veilsof mist crept and clung between the ice and the rock, thickened, becamemore dense as he went farther and farther into the pass. He could notsee, and the wind spoke with many tongues, piping in the crevices of thecliffs.
All at once there was a shadow in the mist before him, a dim giganticshape that moved toward him, and he knew that he looked at death. Hecried out....
It was Stark who yelled in blind atavistic fear, and the echo of his owncry brought him up standing, shaking in every limb. He had dropped thetalisman. It lay gleaming in the snow at his feet, and the alienmemories were gone--and Camar was dead.
After a time he crouched down, breathing harshly. He did not want totouch the lens again. The part of him that had learned to fear strangegods and evil spirits with every step he took, the primitive aboriginalthat lay so close under the surface of his mind, warned him to leave it,to run away, to desert this place of death and ruined stone.
He forced himself to take it up. He did not look at it. He wrapped it inthe bit of silk and replaced it inside the iron boss, and clasped thebelt around his waist. Then he found the small flask that lay with hisgear beside the fire and took a long pull, and tried to think rationallyof the thing that had happened.
Memories. Not his own, but the memories of Ban Cruach, a million yearsago in the morning of a world. Memories of hate, a secret war againstunhuman beings that dwelt in crystal cities cut in the living ice, andused these ruined towers for some dark purpose of their own.
Was that the meaning of the talisman, the power that lay within it? HadBan Cruach, by some elder and forgotten science, imprisoned the echoesof his own mind in the crystal?
Why? Perhaps as a warning, as a reminder of ageless, alien danger beyondthe Gates of Death?
Suddenly one of the beasts tethered outside the ruined tower started upfrom its sleep with a hissing snarl.
Instantly Stark became motionless.
They came silently on their padded feet, the rangy mountain brutesmoving daintily through the sprawling ruin. Their riders too weresilent--tall men with fierce eyes and russet hair, wearing leather coatsand carrying each a long, straight spear.
There were a score of them around the tower in the windy gloom. Starkdid not bother to draw his gun. He had learned very young the differencebetween courage and idiocy.
He walked out toward them, slowly lest one of them be startled intospearing him, yet not slowly enough to denote fear. And he held up hisright hand and gave them greeting.
They did not answer him. They sat their restive mounts and stared athim, and Stark knew that Camar had spoken the truth. These were theriders of Mekh, and they were wolves.
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