Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
THE SHADOW moved silently, as all shadows move. I lay tangled in my sleeping silks, half asleep, half awake, not certain even that I was seeing anything. The night air of Llarn is always cold; my sleeping silks had slipped and a freezing wind was blowing across my chest. I half rose on an elbow, staring. And the shadow disappeared. I lay back and slept.
Beside me, Tuarra moaned and shivered. She gave a faint cry. Even in my dreams I heard her voice and came upward out of the coverlets, crouched and wakeful.
A dark figure stood tensed above her, holding her hand, lifting off the green ring that has glinted on her finger since the day I married Tuarra of Kharthol in the temple of Astarra. The dark figure was removing the priceless jewel, but at my sudden movement his head came up and I found myself staring into cold black eyes rimmed in white.
I lunged forward, falling over my silks. Even though I was off balance, I felt the impact of the blow as my fist rammed into the side of his jaw. He went backward as if shot, stumbling and flailing his arms at the air. I freed my feet. I dove forward. I rocked him with a left hook and then a right to his belly. I drove my knuckles into his nose, mashing it.
He gave a harsh cry. The pain of my last blow must have been numbing. The thieves of Llarn are trained to endure pain, taught never to be surprised; but flesh is flesh. The thief was only human. My fist rammed him under the jaw, snapping his head sideways. I had no mercy for this visitor in the night. He had put his hands on Tuarra.
Through lips drawn back against the agony of his mashed nose he hurled a curse at me and whipped out his blade. Sight of that bared steel was like a spur. Men and women sleep on the planet Llarn wrapped only in their sleeping silks, when they are in the privacy of their own homes. As a result I was unarmed, defenseless against the side-wise slash he aimed at my middle. I leaped backward and dove sideways.
My own sword is never far from my hand, even in this city of Kharthol, which is the oldest of Llarn and the only one to survive The War. It came out of the scabbard humming, parrying a thrust, settling into the rhythm of dip and dart.
A blade is a part of me. Always it has been so; I enjoy the flash and clanging of the steel, the quick eruption of the blades into parry and thrust, remise and riposte. I had been born with this fever for the sword. My hand always itched to grip and use one. On Llarn, I was given many opportunities to indulge myself.
With one or another of the thin blades of the fighting men of Llarn, I had fought my way across a quarter of a planet, and this constant battling had honed the edge of my swordsmanship to a magnificent sharpness. As I drove forward, point darting in and out, the thief fell back before my onslaught.
He was a good swordsman, but I was fighting for my beloved Tuarra. Back and back I drove him, not wanting to kill but to disarm and question him. I needed to know why the thieves of Llarn would send a man to rob the Daganna of Kharthol. Fear began to dawn in his eyes.
The Thieves’ Guild on Llarn is a very old one. It has existed since The War, that Armageddon by which men measure time on this planet, when the great powers of Loth and Meradion allied themselves against Kharthol and Pallavamar in a nuclear war that came close to destroying all life on Llarn. From the radioactivity that bombarded the planet then and in the years which were the aftermath of The War, men changed and evolved. The blue apes became the blue men—the Azunn. Men themselves became khorls or here and there in rare instances, the epheloin.
Life had become a gamble. Men stole food; they stole weapons; they stole women. From those early thefts which were a necessary part of staying alive, was evolved the Thieves’ Guild, that powerful organization which continued to steal for profit and for wealth when the necessity of stealing for life itself was at an end.
The professional thief wears black as his working uniform. A black kilt, a broad black leather belt, black scabbards that hold black swords, black sandals, these are the insignia of the thief. To him, it is a sacred costume.
And sometimes, to avoid detection, the thief will smear himself with a black pigment so that only his eyes show any color. It enables him to move among the dark shadows of the city streets with ease and almost perfect safety.
The man who fell back before my darting blade was covered with that ebony pigmentation. He was like a shadow as he moved with feline ease. His eyes alone showed color, and these were wide and white now with fear.
Tuarra was sitting up and staring with wide eyes as I drove the black-clad thief before me, my point winking and shifting past his guard to draw blood in half a dozen places. A sword is a part of my physical body when I fight. I do not explain it; it is as if I own a sixth finger, a long metal finger that goes where I point it, and swiftly.
The corlth—a master thief—was panting now, weakening visibly. He might have been a good swordsman, but I was fighting for Tuarra, and before her eyes. Because of this I was the greatest swordsman who ever lived. Twice more I drove my metal into his hide before he turned with a wail and leaped for the balcony doors. They burst open before his lunge.
Then he dove over the balcony rail to fall headfirst for several hundred feet to the stones of the palace courtyard, far below. He was a brave man, even if he was a thief. I was sorry that he had to end that way.
Tuarra was at my elbow, trailing silks and furs behind her. Her lovely face was flushed with recent sleep, her thick black hair fell like a perfumed veil over her shoulders and down her back. Her green eyes seemed enormous above her heavy red mouth.
“A thief,” she breathed. “Never has a corlth attempted to rob me or any of my family.”
“Well, this one did,” I told her, sliding my arm about her bare shoulders.
Her thin brows wrinkled in puzzlement. “I don’t understand. He was trying to steal my wedding ring, the verdal.” She held out her hand with fingers spread apart as women do when they want the light to catch a jewel. I took advantage of her bemusement to press my lips to her perfumed hair. “What would a thief want with a verdal?” she asked. On Llarn, a verdal is a most precious jewel. It is not a gem, strictly speaking, since only an ephelos can form one from the transmutation which takes place within its golden helix. The ephelos, Vann Tar, had formed the emerald—like gem Tuarra wore. To my knowledge, there were only three verdals on all Llarn. Not even the powerful Thieves’ Guild could dispose of a stone that rare.
“It’s a puzzle,” I admitted. It was close to dawn. The great band of shattered stones and debris, which looked for all the world like jewels themselves as they circled the planet and made the Llarn nights so magnificent a spectacle, was fading with the rising sun. During the daytime the great moon-band appears like silver mist high above the clouds. It is only at night that it comes into its true glory, and is just as romantic as our own moon. Standing on the balcony, I kissed Tuarra, holding her gently. I never cease to marvel at her beauty, at the fortune which brought us together across the six hundred odd light-years between Earth and the little sun Alfan which is three light-years from giant red Canopus. She made her purring sound deep in her throat which indicated either pleasure or applause, and put her arms about my neck.
I told her how much I loved her; I explained that if anything happened to her, I would die. I was quite serious about it, and her green eyes were wide and intent, but after a moment I discovered their gleeful brightness and knew that I was wasting time.
I swung her up into my arms and carried her from the balcony to the sleeping silks from which we had been so rudely roused. I lowered her to the sleeping dais.
There was a knock on the door. Tuarra said something under her breath, and scowled. I would have ignored the knock, but she reminded me that she was a princess of Kharthol and that I was the prince consort. People such as these do not ignore knocks on their chamber doors. Sighing, I slipped on a robe.
An officer was standing there when I opened the door. He saluted crisply, declaring it was his pleasure to inform me that Drakol Tu wanted speech with the daganna and myself, in the council room.
“Now?” I growled. It was dawn on Llarn and a red light was touching the walls of our bedchamber with crimson fire. I thought of Tuarra, warm and lovely. “Must it be now?”
“The dagan has commanded,” the officer said. When the door closed, Tuarra sighed, rolled out of bed, and moved toward her bath. When the dagan commands, even the daganna obeys. It was an old adage. I gathered that Tuarra and I were not to be exceptions to the rule.
We found Drakol Tu in the council room with half a dozen of his highest officers, together with two strangers and the priest of the Temple of Astarra who had married Tuarra and me here in Kharthol. The others I did not know. The emblems on the broad belts of their harnesses were strange to my eyes.
Prakol Tu said heavily, “The temple verdal has been stolen.
Tuarra gasped and sank into a chair. “Just moments ago a corlth tried to take my ring,” she announced.
She held out her hand. Against her golden silk the verdal glittered with brilliant fire. The strangers hissed in their throats at sight of it, and their eyes went from the ring, to the girl, to me. Private individuals on Llarn do not own verdals; they are so precious, they are always state or temple property.
“Then there is something more at stake here than a sneak thief in the night,” the dagan said heavily.
He introduced the two strangers. One was an alkar, supreme commander from the distant city of Kavadar. The other, Dal Kamm, was a prince of the house of Kamm Dor, who ruled in Moorn, a city many thousand of miles Southeast of Kharthol and renowned for the sciences.
Dal Kamm said, “The verdal which is the pride of Moorn was taken from its golden chest two days ago.”
The alkar muttered, “A week before, someone stole the green jewel from its palace setting in Kavadar.”
The old priest who had married Tuarra and me explained, “The people of Astarra have ways of communicating with one another. We in Kharthol learned of these thefts, and asked the representatives of those governments to visit us. Now our own verdal had been stolen.”
“And a corlth tried to make off with your ring,” the alkar of Kavadar said softly to Tuarra. “Everywhere on Llarn, thieves are taking verdals. But why?”
“I didn’t know there were more than three verdals,” I said. Dal Kamm chuckled. “Evidently they are in the nature of a state secret. We in Moorn kept ours so securely guarded, no one but the royal family knew of it.”
The priest of Astarra nodded. “It is so. Always they are kept a secret. And this will help the thieves.”
He made sense. If no one knows what valuables a man has, the search for them becomes almost an impossibility. By the time the theft is discovered, the thief is far away.
“They can’t sell them for profit,” I protested. Drakol Tu scowled at his hands. “I have been in communication with several of the Vrann cities. I have reported these thefts. I have also been informed that all over Llarn, verdals are being stolen.”
He paused, then went on. “And from Dal Kamm I have learned shocking news. As you know, Moorn is renowned for the genius of its scientists. Dal Kamm tells me the verdals are something more than jewels. They have—a queer power.”
“What power?” Tuarra asked. Her father shook his head. “The scientists do not know. They were only beginning their research with a fragment of a verdal brought up from the Sea of Okyl by a diver—when it was stolen. It was no more than a sliver, yet a thief took it.”
His eyes seemed to glow as they studied his daughter and me. “I have spoken to Evdon Thul who is the chief scientist of Moorn. I have offered your verdal, Tuarra—for the Moorn researchers to study, to learn what it is about the verdals that makes them so valuable to thieves.”
Tuarra cried out in protest. Her wedding ring was dearer to her than anything else she possessed. She would not give it up.
Dal Kamm Smiled. “It is only a loan, Highness.” The old priest of Astarra nodded sympathetically. “We understand and sympathize with your reluctance. Yet what you do will be for the good of all Llarn.”
She looked at me, helplessly. Her eyes begged for my support. The value of the verdal meant nothing to her except as it was her wedding band. It was not its worth that concerned her, but its sentimental value. Yet she was too fine a person to put sentiment before security.
“When shall you take it?” she asked tonelessly. “You yourself will deliver it to Moorn,” Drakol Tu told her. “Alan will go with you. The prince of Moorn is not unappreciative of your cooperation. He has planned entertainments and fétes to pass the time while his people make their tests.”
Tuarra turned to me and shrugged. “It is no use to argue, Alan Morgan. We both know we would not have it any other way. I shall deliver the verdal to Moorn as my father asks.”
Everyone at the table looked relieved. I rose to my feet and we made our farewells. Dal Kamm was to remain in Kharthol to sign certain treaties regarding a mutual exchange of information about scientific discoveries, and also to lay out a plan to break the back of the Thieves’ Guild. Our own flier had been readied for departure, and rested now on the landing roof above the palace. As Alfan crept higher in the heavens, Tuarra and I made our farewells to the royal family and ascended to the roof. Our gear was already stowed away in the two—man flier’s little storage compartment,
Moorn lay in the southern hemisphere of Llarn, roughly five thousand erns—an ern is a unit of distance slightly more than an earth mile—from Kharthol. Between us and our destination lay part of that great red desert on which I had landed on Llarn. It stretched for a thousand erns east and west, and for roughly three hundred, north and south. Much of our time would be spent flying over it.
As we approached the flier, I saw a man in the uniform of a Khartholian panar move away from the motor suddenly, with an almost guilty air. His attitude made me think of the thief who had tried to steal the verdal last night, but there was nothing on the flier worth the attentions of a corlth. I told myself I was imagining things.
The storage space was filled with the clothes Tuarra had packed: state kilts and belts, her jewels, her perfume vials. On state missions, she would have traveled in a mighty aerial battleship, with all the pomp and ceremony due her rank. This was an emergency trip, however. There was neither the time nor the room to take all she might want. This added to her wretchedness, so that she said little or nothing as I helped her into the craft.
The two—man flier has small seats, being different from the one—man craft in this regard, which is little more than a flying surfboard. Naturally the single ship is faster, but this was a sleek little vessel, curved to eliminate drag and air friction. By tomorrow at noon we would be settling down at our destination.
A gun signaled clearance. I took the ship up into the third lane above the city, circled once, and set the automatic controls for Moorn. From now on, our time was our own. I tried to tease Tuarra into her normal spirits, but she would only look at her ring and sigh. So I gave my eyes to the landscape far below. It moved swiftly. We were traveling at about four hundred erns for every kor of time, but we were high enough so that I could make out a few houses here and there, and see the vast beef herds that ranged the grassy Khartholian plains in a mass of color.
At last the great meadow-lands fell away, and a line of low hills extended southward in a westerly direction. These were a spur of the Palmarrs, which ranged north and east of Kharthol. And then they too were gone as we fled south and east above a vast lowland where high grasses blew in the winds.
We late cold meat and lakk, a beverage not unlike coffee laced with brandy. Tuarra apologized for her moodiness. I told her I understood. Not every bride is asked to part with her wedding ring so soon after having it slipped on a finger.
“They’ll give it back,” I promised.
“Unharmed, I hope?”
I nodded, though I was none too sure of this, and kissed her. She came into my arms and nestled her head on my shoulder. The hours went fast enough. Time always moves swiftly when I am with Tuarra. Dusk crept up into the sky behind us, on wings of air that moved even more rapidly than our flier. Soon it overtook and passed us. Alfan was a red ball in the lower half of the sky behind us. Then this too was gone, and night was with us.
We stretched out in the open space between the seats and our storage compartments. There was little or no vibration to the progress of the flier, so that it was almost like sleeping on air. We fell asleep holding hands.
The trouble came when I opened my eyes an hour past sun up. The flier was moving slowly through a heavy mist and the alarm beeps were a cacophony in my ears. I scrambled to my feet, staring through the transparent cowling.
According to every Llarn map I had ever seen, we should be over Moorn at this time. Instead of Moorn, there was only heavy mist—and the flier was laboring heavily I leaped for the controls, my hands gripping the levers, my fingertips punching power studs. The flier did not respond.
“What is it, Alan?” Tuarra asked, throwing back her coverlets and coming to stand beside me.
I waved a hand at the mists and at the controls. Tuarra took her seat before the twin panels and repeated what I had done. The flier did not respond to her manipulations, either. Once she shivered and bit down her lower lip, but went on working desperately.
“What is this mist?” I asked. She shook her head, not speaking. She seemed frightened. At last her hands fell away from the small levers and she took a deep breath.
“The motors haven’t enough fuel,” she said softly. “Somehow it’s been drained out. And automatic controls were tampered with. If we hadn’t thrown them on manual just now, they’d have carried us over the south polar region where, when the fuel ran out, we’d have crashed.”
I had been over those polar snows before, when I had brought the red metal ball and the green rod to Vann Tar, the ephelos. I still remembered the utter cold of that icy waste and the winds which swept it. Even in the flier we would have frozen to death within hours.
I remembered the panar I had seen peering at the flier motor. I told Tuarra about him and she nodded grimly.
“The Thieves’ Guild doesn’t want us to take the verdal to Moorn, obviously,” she said. “But why, Alan Morgan? What can be so unusual about the verdals?”
“They might have told us at Moorn. I can’t.” We drifted through the mists for another hour before they broke. These were the Clouds of Comoron, Tuarra told me. They had not existed, as so many things on Llarn had not, before The War. They were not dangerous, but they lay far out of the path of most commercial airships, and were generally given a wide berth. No one had ever come back from a venture into those mists to tell about them.
They were presumed to have been created by the nuclear blasts that had torn Llarn in those ancient days when Meradion and Loth had fought on Kharthol and Pullavamar. No man could explain them, but then neither could anyone explain the ephelos or the khorl who also resulted from The War.
Through the break in the Clouds of Comoron I spotted open land. From our height it seemed that I stared down at lush pasture-lands. When I told Tuarra I was going to land, she only shrugged her smooth golden shoulders.
“It will be an easier death than freezing,” she said. We lost altitude steadily until we were below the vast bank of clouds that must have hidden close to several thousand square erns. A whole new world stretched before us.
There were pasture lands, with winds scented by growing things roaming like lost spirits about the tall grasses. It was a peaceful world, resembling a vast Siberian steppe that went on and on to all points of the compass as far as the eye could see. These grasses were not as the other grasses with which Llarn is covered. These grasses were a pale green, like a pastel shade. The sunlight was filtered by the Clouds of Comoron so that it was like walking through indirect lighting, all pallor and no brightness. It was a nightmare world.
Tuarra glanced around her, shivering again. She tried to smile bravely, looking at me. “Had we fuel in the flier, I might enjoy this adventure, Alan. As it is, I feel I’m in a dream.”
Well, this place had a dreamlike quality. The wind was hushed; there was only the white puffy clouds high above, glittering like spun gold where the rays of Alfan caught them, and the air was sweet and cool. Tuarra in her golden skin and thick black hair, blowing freely now as the wind caressed it, her harness of deep maroon kilt and broad leather belt, afforded a loveliness that tugged at my heart. I could not let her die, here. Somehow, somewhere, I would find an escape.
“Come, Tuarra. We shall search this hidden land in the flier. Perhaps we shall find people who are friendly.”
“On Llarn?” she asked wryly. “Where strangers are killed for no other reason than that they are strangers?”
The War had made men suspicious of one another on this planet. Before The War, there had been the great empires of Meradion, Loth, Pullavamar, Kharthol. Today, of these only Kharthol existed; the rest were names in fables. And the heritage of The War had been a struggle for survival which took thousands of years during which time men fought to stay alive.
Men had changed in that time of nuclear aftermath, with radioactive gales sweeping the great land masses which occupied all but eight percent of the planet’s surface. They had to battle the evolving blue apes, the Khorls, the many and varied manifestations of atomic change and mutation in an animal. The wonder of it was that any survived at all.
Three races inhabited my adopted world now: the golden Vrann, the blue Azunn, and the white dolthoin who lived in the deeps of the twin oceans, Okyl and Ytal. Each was desperately suspicious of the other; each kept to itself, and even within its own group there were bitter rivalries and occasional wars.
No, Tuarra was right. No strangers would find welcome in the land of the cloud cover. Yet we had no other choice. I guided Tuarra back into the flier. I worked the controls to take us slowly and at a level of fifty feet above the pallid grasslands. It might not help us, but it was better than walking.
We cruised for seven hours. Beyond the Clouds of Comoron, the sun was lowering. The puffy clouds turned red from gold, slowly, gradually. At any other time I might have delighted in the beauty of that puffy barrier high above. My aesthetic sense was not working too well, however.
I was getting worried. We had enough fuel for another few hours flight. Then we had no other choice but to walk. Tuarra had discovered another peculiar facet of the Clouds of Comoron: They distorted our compasses, sending the needle whirling wildly at times, or at other moments making it hang quivering, unmoving, at almost any point on the dial beneath it.
And then—I saw the city!