Sword of the Seven Suns
Originally published in PLANET STORIES, Spring, 1947
Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
Their world was dark. Their Machine-God was dead. Savage hordes threatened to overrun them, smash them. What, then,was Flane doing out in the desert, alone with the wreck of a space-ship—and a strangely-wrought sword?
THE SPACE-SHIP fled like a silver bullet across black nothingness. Rows of round windows stared outward from its curved sides. Beyond the windows whirled clouds of interstellar dust. An occasional lump of meteoric rock rebounded from the metal hull.
To port shone the triple stars of a constellation utterly foreign to those in the ship. To starboard gleamed the strangely altered pattern of the constellation Hercules. Straight ahead lay the great star Deneb, and circling around it, giant orbs shimmering in its light, were the planets it held in its awful grip.
Closer and closer swept the ship, trailing billows of space-dust Over one of the planets that closely resembled the voyager’s home planet in size and density, the vessel thundered. It rocketed downward, sweeping sidewise into the gravitational pull of the planet. It dropped into swirling clouds, swept into sun-lighted sky, roaring gustily.
Inside the ship a voice cried hysterically, “Calling captain’ Calling captain”
“The forward jets are shot, sir! Unused for too long. Ever since we left Earth, they’ve remained untested. Can’t fix them now. No time. Inside gravity of planet. Over.”
THE MAN in the captain’s uniform bowed his head, eyes tightly shut. There was bitterness in his heart, but no despair. Six hundred light years from Earth, farther out among the stars than any man had ever trespassed, and now, this! A hand squeezed his shoulder. He glanced up, found the blue eyes of his wife smiling at him, heard her voice whisper, “At least we’ll go together, darling.”
He patted her hand.
Through the compressed quartz panels they stared at the world unfolding beneath them. Rolling plains covered with long grasses that swayed gracefully before the wind bordered high, black mountains that cupped mounds of snow at their peaks. In the distance was the blue of a sea.
“A lovely world,” he whispered.
“You were right, Jon. Your calculations proved the habitability of Deneb’s planets. You would have been famous.”
He chuckled, “This is one consolation, darling. But I’d hoped for so much more than that . . . a land to bring the restless spirits, where they could dwell apart from the regimented ones, to form a new country to call their own . . .”
He broke off. The ship was quivering, shuddering in the mad pace of its unchecked flight. Thunder rolled like monumental cannon-fire behind it, as the air was displaced and rolled together.
The captain worked the controls feverishly. His hands sought by their swiftness, by their strength, to fire those frontal jets, to stop this deadly dash through planetal atmosphere. He bit his lips and shook his head, whispering, “No use— no use !”
There was desert under the silvered belly of the ship. Heat waves glimmered up from the hot sands, distorting everything. Far in the distance lay a round yellow thing. The spaceship headed toward it, as though at the bulls-eye of a target.
“We’re going to hit it,” said the man.
“What is it, Jon?”
Yellow and glittering, it lay like a giant’s plaything, half buried in the sand. It was a prism with clean, straight facets fitted together that seemed to stretch out at every angle to gather in the heat from the desert. Like a yellow diamond, it coruscated in the sunlight.
“I don’t know,” the man said softly. “It could be something that dropped from the skies to bury itself in this spot, or it could be the—the work of intelligent creatures !”
Their trajectory of flight shortened. The nose of the ship fell lower, aimed at the prism. The noise of its passage startled two white birds that ran on the sand. The birds ran faster, blurring along on the amber desert.
From behind the amber prism a two legged thing came running. In his hand there was a flash and glitter.
“It’s a man !’’ the woman shrieked, a red-nailed hand to her lips. “And he has a sword in his hand.”
“Poor devil,” sighed the captain. “We’re heading right at him. He can’t get away.”
The ship came down with unbelievable rapidity. The man on the sand had taken only a few steps from the prism when a black shadow overhauled him. He had no time even to turn his head.
There was an explosion that ripped metal apart, that tore gaping holes in the smooth facets of the golden prism, that sent geysers of desert sand upward in dry showers. When the sands came down, there was only scattered wreckage.
Like a twisted, broken toy, the spaceship lay on the sand, partially obscuring the prism. Gaunt girders stuck up through the opened hull. Smoke swirling from the ship’s insides mixed with the falling sand.
Somewhere in the wreckage, a voice wailed in agony and despair.
THE MACHINE stood in the domed end of the dark temple, gleaming dully. Above it a hemisphere of translucent metal filtered pale moonbeams that drew flashes of silvered fire from the great metal bulk. Against the black basalt walls, the Machine brooded sullenly. It was great, was the Machine. It was worshiped. It held power of life and death over all Klarn. It possessed all power. It was god.
And yet, the Machine was—dead.
A figure slipped forward from the shadows that ringed the marble floor. From pillar to ivory pillar he crept, a hand ever on the stained leather hilt of his sword. Moonlight flicked over the close-cropped black hair and the tight uniform of the dulars that moulded his chest, and sheathed his long, lean thighs. Emblazoned on the chest of his jacket was the resurgent red dragon with fire spouting between its fangs, symbolic of his rank. A broad belt suspended his scabbard and blade, and sweeping upward from his shoulders were the metal epaulettes that bespoke his connection with royalty.
Flane looked around him, grinning.
He had eluded the mekniks. He could keep his appointment with Vawdar, unless the mekniks got to him first. Most of the mekniks were celebrating the death of his mother, the Princess Gleya. There would be rich liqueurs and much singing, and temple harlots to dance on the planked tabletops, sodden with the lees of spilled wine.
Flane was bitter, and savage. There was a fire in his heart that made him lust to kill. The mekniks were glad that his mother was dead, for she was all that held the mekniks and the dulars together. Now the mekniks would rule Klarn, with the aid of the Darksiders. Only Vawdar had a chance of keeping peace among the factions. And Vawdar was a hunted man, even as was Flane.
He came and knelt before the Machine, and touched his forehead to the cold marble floor. This was the ritual insisted upon by the mekniks, who insisted that the Machine was a deity, and there was enough shrewd caution in Flane to bow before it, just on the off chance that they might be right.
Then he rose and went to the grilled metal girdle that kept the Machine enclosed in its niche. He took out a strangely wrought key and dangled it in his hand.
Engraven on the sides of the Machine were a series of symbols. Diamond-shaped, they were, with the tracery of a star surrounding each diamond. One of those diamonds was the lock that would restore to life the dead Machine. Flane hoped that the key he held would unlock the slumbering power of the Machine. If not—well, Vawdar and he were as good as dead, themselves.
He inserted the key in the slit-like hole of one of the diamonds and tried to turn it.
He whispered curses, attempting to move the key by sheer force.
Another failure, he thought bitterly. Just one of the hundreds that had failed since that day, over a quarter of a century ago, when the Machine had hummed madly, and stopped. Those others had not mattered; every dular and meknik who thought he knew the answer had tried it. There was no penalty for failure. But now, with the mekniks hot after Vawdar who might still hold mekniks and dulars together, failure meant death if they should catch him.
Flane ran his fingers over the tiny hole. He saw the star pattern bordering the lock, like a frieze ornamenting it. He sighed. All the diamonds had holes.
Sound came to him as he stood before the machine, in the light of Klarn’s three moons seeping in from the dome. He whirled, and half-drew his sword. Voices floated to him, riotous with laughter and derision.
“Vawdar! They got him at last. As he was trying to get out the Dragon Gate.”
“Good news. Now if we could get the Princess!” whelp, Flane!”
The man in the shadows showed his white teeth in a silent snarl of pure hate. His knuckles tensed on the sword-hilt until they threatened to burst the tightened skin.
“The dulars would be leaderless, then. They’d have to obey us, or we’d pull in the Darksiders—let them loot!”
One of the men grumbled, “If we have Vawdar, what use for us to miss the celebration? Why stand guard at the Temple here?”
“The council thinks Flane might try once more to make the Machine work. If he succeeded—well, that would mean that Klarn will spring to life. The Darksiders, though they outnumber us all, will never dare attack. They remember too well the weapons of the Klarnva.”
Flane stirred himself, stepped forward into the shadows, stalking toward the temple entrance where the guards talked. There were only two of them, and Flane had a great deal of confidence in his sword-arm, confidence that had been justified again and again.
He leaped from the darkness, his blade a thing of lightning in his hand. The guards came around on their heels, yanking out their weapons, laughing gutturally.
“Flane! We have him, too!” rasped one of them.
“Pig birds” whispered Flane.
His blade drove in like a beam of light, twirled the blade of the nearest guard in a circular envelopment, wresting it from his fingers to send it flashing high in the air. Sidestepping the lunge of the other guard, Flane slithered his blade through his opponent’s neck, watched him gargle blood in his throat as he plunged.
In a moment the second guard lay beside his fellows, lifeless. Flane stepped across their still legs, out into the cool night air. Above his head the three moons of Klarn whirled high in the heavens, flooding the court with light. “The
Dragon Gate,” Flane whispered, and ran.
AS HIS FEET pounded on back streets and alleys, he dwelt on the threat of the Darksiders. They were like the Klarn, yet they possessed none of their scientific ability. Centuries ago, so many that the Klarnva had lost count of them, the Darksiders ruled all of Klarn. Then had come the Klarnva, who consisted of the dulars and the mekniks, in ships of the sky, from somewhere beyond the triple moons of Klarn. From where, had been lost in the shrouding veils of antiquity.
Their leader had been Norda, a thin genius with a mind as curious as a question. It was Norda who put the machine together, who directed that the people should live in walled city-states against the inroads of the vast numbers of barbarie Darksiders. In the machine Norda had stored power, endless quanta of it. That power gave the Klarnva their lights, their heat, their luxuries. They grew used to it. The Machine even furnished them with weapons, so far superior to those of the Darksiders that the latter looked on them with awe.
When the Machine went dead twenty five years ago, the city-states of the Klarnva went dead, too. There was no light, no heat. Gone were the power-driven vehicles, the entertaining-screens. People groped upward as from a fog, seeking the source, of that power. They recalled that the Keeper of the Machine had disappeared around the same time as the Machine stopped. Moreover, the vast prism in the desert was smashed. Something from outer space had crushed it.
All knew that there was a key to the Machine that would start it into motion. Many of them had tried to move it, from the Princess Gleya down to Flane. None of them were successful.
“Neither was Vawdar,” grated Flane, racing beneath a balcony, skidding on restless feet around a corner.
There was clamor ahead of him. Hearing the hoarse cries of men fighting, the rasp of blades meeting and falling away, Flane went forward like the arrow from the bow. His blade was naked in the night, a length of glittering steel. He could see the Dragon Gates now : tall red blocks of stone hewn into the royal emblem of Klarn, red dragons, with real flame spurting from between their teeth to light the gateway below.
In the crimson glare, men struggled. As Flane shot into the mass of men, he saw Vawdar, bound at wrist and ankle, leaning against the wall of a building.
“For Gleya!” snarled Flane, and ran his blade through a meknik’s heart.
Now the hands of men were all around him, and their shoulders, smelly with sweat. He heard curses rasped in his ears, caught the glitter of a dagger raised to Smite. Flane went in low on steel-thewed legs, lurched a shoulder to catch a meknik off balance and send him reeling into others with the keen edge of Flane’s sword across his throat, severing his jugular vein.
The sword in his hand sang a strident song as it slithered around steel and drank from the heart of men. The blade danced and leaped. The best steel in Klarn was in that sword, and the finest hand for a hilt was wielding it. The mekniks gave stubbornly, but the dripping point that sprang out of the night for throat and chest would not be denied.
For the first time, the swordsman beheld his allies. They were Klarnva, all of them; muffled in long black cloaks from which only their arms that held their blades appeared. Klarnva, but unfamiliar to him.
In the press of battle, groups of cursing, fighting men swirled around Flane and Vawdar as they sought to back away. Five mekniks glimpsed his lean face beneath the black hair and howled, “Flane! Flane!” to the starry, three-mooned sky.
Now the dular fought for his life. With his spine to a wooden door, he snarled softly, green eyes following the points that faced him, his long-sword alive to each thrust. Parry, lunge, recover. Riposte and thrust. He fought five men in that doorway, and one stepped out untouched. Over five fallen bodies the swordsman leaped, to keep death from the throat of Vawdar.
The black-cloaked men reformed their ranks, swept around them as a shield. There was one of them who did not fight, who stood, still and silent, looking on. Flane went for him, crying, “Who are you? Why do you make our fight your fight?”
THE ARM he held in his powerful hand was soft and slender. The hood fell back, and in the moonlight Flane gazed into a white face in which red-brown eyes stared back at him. Massy coils of red hair that blew in the breeze came loose, and flicked across his face. He breathed in the faint perfume of the girl, and looked at her full, red mouth.
All red, she seemed, and the smooth sheen of her skin was like the satin-stuffs that came from distant Yeelya. Flane grinned at her.
“Girl,” he whispered, “you walk with death tonight!” and drew her with him out of the path of a thrown knife that clanked against a brick wall behind where they stood.
“Fall back!” a tall stranger cried to him, and Flane drew the girl and Vawdar with him into an alleyway.
“We have mounts beyond the Dragon Gate,” she said hurriedly, stumbling along. “We came for Vawdar, knowing the rebellion that threatens his life.”
“The key you gave me,” he said hurriedly. “It didn’t work.”
“I know. I’ve learned the real key in the meantime—”
The girl whispered swiftly, “Can you use it? Turn the machine on tonight? That’s why we came, knowing that any hope of using the machine depends on you, Vawdar !”
The man shook his head. A laugh sat in his throat, almost evil in his bitterness. Against the background of clashing blades and grated oaths, and the rasping breathing of men fighting in the street, it was hollow in despair.
“Tonight? No. And not for many nights after this, and perhaps never. Because, you see—”
A shout hurtled upwards from the throat of a man who was turning into their alley. Men raced behind him, shouting. With his naked left arm, Flane swept the girl behind him, grinning, whispering “Now they’ve caught us. Between two gangs, in this alley.”
“Can’t we reach that gate with the dragons?” said the girl, “We have megathon stallions waiting there. We could go across the desert together, all of us—”
Flane disengaged his blade from the sword of the first meknik, and lunged beneath his guard. As the man fell, Flane shoved him back into the others, working his blade, butchering calmly. In the closeness of the mob who rushed him, there was no room for finesse. He shortened his blade, and stabbed.
“Megathons,” Flane whispered to the night. “They are native to the southern regions. One-horned horses.”
There was only one city-state of the Klarnva in the South: Moornal. Yet Moornal was remote from Klarn; SO remote that, since the Machine went dead, it was looked upon almost as a myth.
“Yes,” said the girl in answer to Flane’s quick questions. “From Moornal. We, too, have felt the bite of Want without the Machine to feed us. We are desperate.”
The last man fell in front of Flane. He whirled and raced toward the blue-coated men who were fighting at the alley’s entrance.
Flane fought like a man gone mad. His feet danced the incartata, even as his bare left hand swept aside point and blade; with lunge and caricado he played his blade in the torchlight, engaging the mekniks. They cursed, but in their breath was the fright of grim death. These men had seen Flane fight before; they knew his reputation, and the magnificent steel of his sword. They broke slowly, but when they finally did, they ran.
The girl was staring at Flane with dark moons for eyes, standing solitary under the stone lintel of the gate. He shot toward her, put out an arm and swept her up against him, racing beyond the gate.
The hooves of the megathons were stamping on the stone causeway as they came into the open. Flane saw Vawdar already high in an ornate saddle, gesturing. A horse reared against a moon, fore-hooves pawing wildly. A Moornalian shouted something, swinging his mount’s head toward the gate.
But Flane only saw and heard these things dimly. For the girl that was in the crook of his arm, pressed soft against him, was working a strange magic on him. He saw her face framed by the wild red hair, and the dark, mysterious eyes, and the generous mouth. Under moonlight she was enchantment come to life.
He bent and kissed her.
Dimly, he realized that he was mad to stand kissing this girl while men shouted and horses whinnied, but he put the thought from him.
The storm broke, then.
There were men with swords all around them, shouting triumph. Shoulders bumped them, drove them against a horse. Flane heard Vawdar yell, saw him bend from the saddle and stretch an arm toward them.
“I tried to warn you. The mekniks have come in force. Man, move yourself!’’
Flane threw the girl high in the air, across a saddle. With the flat of his hand, he slapped the rump of the plunging megathon, Then Flane was leaping, grasping reins with sure hands, his foot feeling for the carven stirrup.
“We’ll divide,” Flane yelled to a Moornalian.” The mekniks want us most of all !”
They were off in a clatter of hooves striking sparks from the cobble stoned driveway, leaning forward over the necks of the megathons, reins loose. Flane looked at Vawdar, positive that he grunted, but Vawdar waved a hand, and they went on.
For once in his life, Flane was glad that the Machine was dead. If it were alive, the mekniks could have swept their group with guns that would have turned them into drifting powder. But now only a few arrows fell and bounced on the stones behind them.
They were going away from the Moornalians now. Flane saw them, bobbing shadows moving into the night. He flung up an arm, and waved. There was red hair blowing free in the wind, over there, and Flane felt as though he watched his life ebbing from him, staring across at her.
The megathons were swift. Flane thought with surprise that they were even faster than the horses of the Klarn. Then he saw the thin horn protruding up from the forehead of the beast. It was filed to a fine point, and coated with metal. He grinned. This was a fighting megathon, spawned and bred for a special job. He gave the animal its head, and let him run into the night.
AFTER many hours, Flane became aware that Vawdar rode too silently. He himself was full of the flame of the red-haired girl, but Vawdar should be talking, revealing the secret of the key to the Machine.
He turned—and then cursed softly.
Vawdar lay across the neck of his mount. In the moons’ light, Flane could see the haft of a dagger distending from the middle of his back. Up and down he bobbed, arms interwoven with the reins to prevent his falling.
With gentle hands Flane drew him down; made him easy on the sands, with cloak at his neck, and a flagon of wine at his lips.
Vawdar whispered, “They got me in front of the gate, just as we were clearing them. Someone threw a dagger.”
Flane was bitter. “My fault. Fool, fool! Forgive me Vawdar!”
But the dark-haired youth would not be soothed. He said things about himself until Vawdar writhed suddenly on the ground, back arched.
“I haven’t—much time,” the man on the sand whispered.
Flane bent, ear to his mouth.
“The key of the Machine. it—it isn’t what—we think. It—”
Flane held his breath, staring at the closed eyes. The thought came to him that this man lying so still and silent on the desert at his knees was the last hope of the Klarnva. If he dies without speaking, the Machine will never work, And if the Machine does not work, then the Darksiders will overrun the city-states of the Klarn. The mekniks may call them in to fight the dulars, and that will hasten their coming; but come they will, some day. For the Klarnva were sliding back to their level, swiftly, without the Machine. There would be no rays to wipe out hordes at one swipe. Instead, there must be arrow to meet arrow, and Sword for sword; and there were few of the Klarnva who could match the Darksiders with these weapons!
He moved Vawdar with an arm under his shoulder, staring at the pallid face. “Vawdar ! Speak to me!”
The man moved his head from side to side. His eyes opened, staring. They focused, after a moment. “The prophecy, Flane. The prophecy—”
Flane scowled. Prophecy? He knew no prophecy. Yet wait—
There was something Crazy words about a man who would come with stars in his hands, who would unite all Klarn, dulars and mekniks and Darksiders alike, who would bring them the blessings of the Machine, and lead them to greatness. But such a man must be a giant. Stars in his hands ! Flane grunted disbelief.
There came to Vawdar that false strength that some experience before death. He said strongly, “The key is lost, Flane. It may never be found. In certain records that your moth—the Princess Gleya, rather—kept, there was mention of it. She never knew, apparently. When the Keeper disappeared so long ago, he had the key with him.
“If you can find the Keeper, he will have the key. Search, Flane, Search!”
The man stiffened, opened his mouth wide for air.
Flane said softly, “But what is the key like? Is it big? Small? Is—”
Flane opened his eyes wide and put out a hand. The flesh he touched was yet warm, but—
He sat on his haunches for long minutes, numb. The key was gone now. Only Vawdar knew what it was like, and he could never tell.
Flane buried him beneath a hillock of sand, with flat stones from a small mesa to mark the spot. Weary, Flane stood and stared at the grave, quiet with grief. He had buried the hope of all Klarn here in this lonely spot. Without Vawdar, the Klarnva were a lost race.
Light glimmered on the horizon. Flane stared at it uncomprehendingly, a still, lean figure leaning on a sword.
FOR MANY DAYS, Flane rode across the desert. This was the Barren-land out here, uncharted, unexplored. For a thousand miles, the dune sands flung their sheathing blanket over the earth. Only here and there was anything other than this deadly sand: a rocky escarpment, or a stone plateau with dry weeds blowing in the breeze. And the rock was as dead as the sand.
A man could die easily out here, from thirst or hunger, or the terrible heat. When he was two days on an aimless trail, Flane found water bubbling under a lip of rock; that gave him strength to run down a sand-hare and spit it with his blade. After that it was much the same, for the hares abounded, and there was always Flane’s deep spring.
The megathon ate the sparse weeds, and thrived. Flane shared the cool water with him, and rubbed him down nightly after stripping off the ornate saddle and blanket. Together, they roved the Barren-land, always learning. Affection born of the great still places of a world grew between them, as it will wherever there are planets that bear diverse forms of life.
On the roan’s back, Flane ranged far and wide. He came to know the vermilion sunset coating the sand in blood and the sunrise tinting it with gold. In the saddle he stared at strange ruins poking above the hiding sands, puzzled and wondering. He discovered olden roads beneath scudding dust, and queer little beasts who scampered from his shining sword.
Mount and rider grew lean and hard. Flane lost track of the days, being too concerned with keeping soul fastened to his body to care much about anything else; though often he sat and brooded on the lost key to the Machine.
And over the fires that he made from weed-roots at the entrance to his little cave, he thought of the girl with the flaming hair. Her features nestled there amid the darting flames, eyes wide and searching as they met his, her mouth seeming to yearn toward him. Occasionally he would bury his face in his hands, and shudder.
Then came the morning when he filled his flagons with spring water, and walked toward the roan megathon. Holding the beast’s head on his shoulder, he stroked the satiny jaw and pulled the short ears. “We rot here, Saarl,” he whispered, looking out across the desert. “We could die as well by riding forward to seek our fate.”
The megathon tossed its shapely head and whinnied.
Flane grinned and hit his heavily muscled shoulder lightly. He threw blanket and saddle on him, and buckled the cinch. Swinging upward, he kicked a heel into Saarl’s ribs.
Flane found the going not too difficult. The months they had spent at the cave inured them to the mad sun, and to little water. And Flane already knew the signs that meant the sand-hares were about. They rode on and on, into the sea of sand, week after week.
It was the stallion that first sensed the thing in the distance. He stood with nostrils flaring, head up, looking to the west. Flane rose in his stirrups, staring. There was something yellow and sparkling there, with something else twisted and caught around it.
“Let’s go see, Saarl,” he whispered, and let the roan run.
They circled the spaceship warily, the megathon stepping on dainty hooves, alert to fly. Flane had a hand on his sword hilt, but when his eyes beheld the evidence of years that had dwelt here a while and gone away, he relaxed.
When they were closer to the ship, Flane saw the gigantic prism, and awareness came upon him.
“It’s the Great Prism,” he told the animal, in awe. “We always thought it half a legend, though the Princess assured me that it was real. But, without the Machine, there were none who dared to seek it, for only a few knew the way that led here.”
FLANE walked on foot around it. Built of sheets of glass, fitted and joined together with the cunning of a master scientist, it glowed like amber fire in the blaze of the sun. Though it nearly blinded him, Flane went nearer and stared down through the sheets of glass, into the interior. He saw great whitish globes standing on coiled Springs, and where the whiteness was, was a glowing fire that looked like the heart of the sun.
Flane rubbed his eyeballs, turning away. The rusted hull of the spaceship lured him. His gaze found a burst-open section and he peered within. Backing out, he stared from prism to ship, and back again. “This fell from the sky,” he mused, in the manner of men long used to their own company.” It broke the prism, and—”.
Could it be that this had something to do with the stopping of the Machine? But no, no. In that event, there would be no need for a key to operate the Machine. Yet deep inside him, Flane thought that this tragedy might have to blame itself for what had happened to the Klarnva. Somehow, at least.
Nimbly he went inside the ship and walked its metal floor. Here was wonder piled upon wonder. This vessel was a city-state all by itself. In the domed ceilings were lights, and in the rooms he passed were machines, many and varied, strange. The lights and the machines were dead. Had they been alive, it would have been even more miraculous to Flane, for he had been brought up in a world where everything that moved by motor depended upon the Machine. Curious, he went and ran his hands over the smooth sides of the things he saw.
Do they, too, lie quiet because the Machine is dead? he puzzled. Yet this thing that must have come out of the sky in this deserted place was not like the magniships that the Klarnva had. It could not depend on the Machine. No. It must have power of its own.
Elated, he ran from chamber to chamber, until he stood in a small room with compressed quartz for windows. Dust was piled thickly on floor and bench, and there were two queerly human heaps of dust sprawled on the floor. Flane felt that he stood in the presence of a very great sorrow.
Childlike, he searched throughout the ship. In a drawer he found pictures on paper, pictures far more lifelike than the paintings that hung in the Museum of Art back in Klarn. He held the photographs to the light, and gasped.
He was in that picture!
Flane felt faint, staring at himself. It was he, it was. The tall man, lean and dark, with black hair was Flane. He was not mistaken. But the garments the man wore were so odd ! And the woman beside him, with the tiny baby in her arms— Flane was positive he did not know her.
Flane sat down to riddle himself the question.
He remembered now that all his life he had been a little different from the Klarnva. Where they were dull and apathetic, he was bursting with vigor. Curious he had ever been, to the dismay of the Princess Gleya. Often he was wont to take apart the various machines that the —Klarnva owned; dead machines they were, but exasperating to Flane, who wondered why they did not work. In those days, he had not understood about the Machine. He recalled now that Vawdar had said once to the Princess, “It is his heritage. The space-wanderers’ blood is in his veins.” That used to fret him, but now—
Now he understood. That man was his father, and that woman, his true mother. The hate of the Klarnva for him, that expressed itself when the mekniks spoke of him among themselves, was explained. He was brood of those who had smashed the prism. And, possibly, the Machine. They beheld Flane, a living monument to The Catastrophe, always before their eyes. Flane chuckled, understanding.
He stood up. If these were his people, then he was home. And, if this were his home, he should know all he could of it.
His search of the ship was thorough, and it took five days. Some of that time he spent in the saddle, for he had to eat, and there was always the problem of water. On the third day he solved that problem. He discovered hermetically sealed tanks deep in the bowels of the ship, and when he learned that they held water, his respect for his race zoomed skyward. The water was warm, but it was pure.
At last he chanced upon a room that was filled with fascination. From floor to ceiling, it housed machines. He spent hours over them, pondering. They were different from the machines of the Klarnva, for all of their machines had tiny globes atop them. These had no globes. They had wires connecting them to the walls. Eventually he realized that their sources of power were dissimilar.
If only he could learn the power of these people ! The thought buoyed him like a drug. After two days spent in the room, he was dispirited. Whatever power the space-wanderers used was as dead as the Machine.
Flane swore and heaved a wrench at a wall.
The wall opened. Something tumbled out, and from the mouth of it a purple flame sizzled and burned, and ate away the wall and the wall beyond that.
Flane yelped and sprang. He stared in numb horror until he saw the button on the thing, a button as obvious as a trigger. He crept close, pressed it, and the violet flame stopped. Flane shook for minutes, kneeling on the metal floor with the deadly thing in his hands.
HE KNEW nothing of atomic power, did Flane, but the quick mind of him was alert to the power he held in his palms. Tentatively he pressed the button again, directed the lavender fire, watched it eat up whatever stood in its path.
Where the violet flame had been was an empty hole. Flane stared into it, seeing twisted girders and gaping hull-sides, and black sands below. That was the desert, down there, and—
Something gleamed Whiteley beneath him. Stretching far out, he scrutinized it. A skeleton lay there, blasted into fragments, scattered apart. At one time that had been a man. From his position, Flane thought that the spaceship must have killed him; caught him on the sands, and crushed him, throwing his body.
Something else shone and glittered down in the sands. Something long and bright, and with darkness at one end, although that darkness glittered.
Flane gasped, “A sword !”
He dropped from girder to girder until he stood in the darkness, bending and lifting the the thing. In his hand the blade made a singing play, humming vibrantly. The blade was coated with runes, and figures carved in a delicate frieze in the steel. A craftsman had made that blade, ornamenting it without weakening it. With a big hand on the hilt, Flane danced it before him.
The hilt was a dark blue, like a midnight sky. Set inside the translucent, crystalline stuff were seven tiny globules of light that glittered eerily. Five of them formed a star at the guard, and the other two were embedded in the pronged pommel. They made a queer design, and reminded Flane of a constellation he could see at night from Klarn.
Saarl whinnied alarm somewhere outside.
Flane sprang for the girders, sword in belt. He went up the twisted steel, hand over hand, and ran for the opening in the hull, snatching up the flame-weapon as he ran.
A magniship was coming from the south.
The only known mechanism that did not need the Machine to function was the magniship. It, too, was a discovery of the ancient genius, Norda. It utilized the polar magnetism that held the planet in its grip; the red balls that endlessly circled the rim of the ship drew on that stream of magnetism for its power, sent it toward the motors deep in the hull which whirled the propellers.
Flane tightened his hands on the gun and waited, watching through thin-slitted eyes as the ship altered course, observing the great wreck. He thought, with this in my hands, I could destroy that ship. The knowledge made him feel like a god.
Saarl nuzzled his back as he stood on the sand, watching men walk toward him.
“Are you suspicious, too, Saarl?” he whispered. “We are alone, you and I. The Klarnva ran us out of Klarn, and there are no others that we know. It is best to be careful.”
He threw up a palm, calling out, “Stand where you are. You can come no closer.”
A tall man threw back the hood of his cloak and scowled at him.
“You talk big for a man who dwells in a ruined house.”
Flane spat, saying, “This is no house, fool. It is a ship that came from the sky. I talk big because I am big. I bear death in my palms.”
The tall man looked interested. Flane saw him study the gun, then look toward the prism and the ship twisted around it. The man looked back at him.
“I would search your house, or ship, or whatever it is.”
Flane shook his head. “Step no closer or the color that sizzles and eats everything in its path will come out to sear you.”
The thin man beckoned and the men with him shed their black cloaks and came for Flane with naked swords in their hands. Flane grinned as they ran toward him. He lifted the gun and aimed it at the cloaks that lay on the sand.
The violet light came forth from the gun and stole all around the black cloaks that lay on the sand, and ate them up, It ate up some of the sand, too.
THE MEN skidded to a halt in the sand, staring; beneath their white faces was the pallor of fear. Flane said softly, “Go back to your ship and be grateful to Flane. If I had wanted, I could have aimed the gun at you.”
The tall man started; he stared at Flane with his dark eyes, as though absorbing his every feature.
“I am that Flane.”
“And Vawdar? What of him? Did he give you the key to the Machine?”
“Vawdar died. He said the key was lost, which we knew; but he also said it was not what we think it is, that key.”
“I am searching for that key, even now. If I do not find it, the Darksiders will overrun Moornal. I am overlord of Moornal. My name is Harth.”
A flame leaped inside Flane, for he thought of the girl with hair like dancing fire, red as the desert sunset. But months of wandering on the desert made him taciturn and suspicious.
“How do I know this? You may be a meknik for all you can prove. And I have learned that the mekniks do not approve of me.”
“So I have heard. But, about that weapon of yours. I would like to use it. It would be a wondrous thing against the Darksiders. They would never capture Moornal if I had that.”
“The weapon is mine. Forget it.”
“You are of Klarn, man. In this time of need, you must use that weapon to save your people!”
“I am no Klarnvan. The blood of the space-wanderers is in my veins. I am son to those who lie in the big ship. I owe loyalty to none but them and Saarl— and a girl with red hair.”
Harth opened his eyes very wide at that. He grinned, and turned to look at the magniship. He shouted, “Aevlyn !”
Flane backed against Saarl, ready for attack from the ship. But all he saw there was someone in a white cloak come through a doorway and stand at the rail, staring over the sands toward them. It was a girl —a girl with hair as red as the sinking sun, who looked at him and laughed and waved a white arm.
SHE was here at last, at arm’s length, laughing. The others stayed at bay, eyeing the flame-gun in the crook of Flane’s arm, but the girl walked toward him, calling out, “Flane! You got away that night!”
“Of course, I’m real And alive, too— though how much longer I’ll be alive, I don’t know. Flane, the Darksiders are grown bold. They attack in the daytime, now. They kill our—my people. No one has learned the key to the Machine. Without it, the Klarnva will perish.”
Flane patted the gun, grinning, “With this, the Darksiders will be no threat. Just a few blasts of the violet light, and they will run for shelter.”
He told her how he found it. When he concluded, he discovered that the others had come nearer, listening in amazement. But as they made no hostile gestures, Flane did not worry. He was once again with Aevlyn.
“You must come on board the ship,” she told him, walking toward the spaceship with him. “You can hold the Darksiders off while the others continue their search for the key.
Flane showed her around the great vessel, pointing out the machines that worked through some energy other than the Machine. He dropped into the hole in the ship and reappeared with an elaborately carved scabbard into which he slipped the darkly hilted sword.
“What a strangely beautiful weapon,” she said when he showed it to her.
They studied the runes engraved on the blade, which told in frieze form the tale of Norda the genius, of how he and the Klarnva came first to the planet, of their struggles with the Darksiders, and the erections of the city-states, and the building of the Machine. With a long fingernail, Aevlyn traced the outlines of the tiny forms on the blade.
“They stand out from the shaft,” she said slowly.
Flane held it to the light that filtered through a cracked window. His eye went along the keen edge.
“It forms a diamond shape through the middle. If we were to break it clean, those friezes would form the outer edges of the diamond, and the two sword-edges, the upper and lower points.”
Flane shook his head wonderingly, staring at the blue hilt of the sword. Glitterings like the sky at night stared back at him, the buried points of light in the haft winking and twinkling like stars. Like a beam of silver light, the blade sprang from the star-shaped guard, a shimmer of deadly steel.
“A sword like this would be famous,” he muttered. “People would talk of it. And yet—and yet I have never heard of any such a sword.”
“Nor have I,” sighed red Aevlyn.
HARTH waited for them outside the spaceship, to walk with them across the sands toward the magniship. As they went, Flane whistled to Saarl, and drew his reins under his arm. The megathon trotted daintily at his heels.
Energy surged in Flane’s chest, lifting it; like a great wave elevating itself in a concave greenness lipped with foam-bubbles, it grew in him. Here before him was a task: To fight the Darksiders. No longer would his life be a goalless ramble across desert sands. Instead he had a people who would be like brothers to him, who was an orphan. He stood a moment, staring at the monument of his own folk, watching sunlight dapple the silvern hull of the spaceship.
Then he turned his face to the magniship and went up the ladder. He saw that Saarl was stabled below decks, and walked with Aevlyn toward the master-cabin
Here Harth awaited him with maps and charts.
“I want to show you how bold the Darksiders have become,” said the Klarnvan. “Here is Moornal, southernmost of all the city-states of the Klarn. Beyond Moornal rise a chain of mountain. In those mountains, and in the plains beyond them, dwell the Darksiders.”
“I have never seen a Darksider,” said Flane slowly. “I don’t know much about them.”
Harth said bitterly, “Klarn itself is too centralized to be aware of their threat. But we of Moornal and Yeelya—we know ! We rim their perimeter. Us they raid on their fleet megathons, stealing our horses and our women. With lance and arrow they come, shouting O jho! O jho! which is their war-cry.”
“They are a nomad race,” said Aevlyn, seated on a stool of carved yxon. “They live in tents that collapse to fit the backs of their pack megathons. They can cross miles of country in a day, so that we never find them in the same spot. Some of their men are master craftsmen. They make lances and bows that we marvel at; we marvel, too, at their skill with them.”
Harth said, “I have heard it rumored that deep in the Darkside country, they have cities, patterned after ours. Their spies come and go in Moornal and Yeelya because we Klarnva aren’t suspicious enough to look for them. They learn much, and quickly. It is said they have imitated our culture to a great extent.”
“Are they like us that they can come and go unnoticed?” asked Flane.
“As alike as khrees in a pod. Usually they are browned by the sun, but then, so are our hunters and herdsmen.” Harth sighed, “In the olden days, when the Machine functioned, we did not need hunters and herdsmen. But now—”.
Flane thought fleetingly of Vawdar. Now that he was dead, all hope for, the key was lost, unless by chance someone would stumble on the combination of the lock. But so many had tried, for so many years, that Flane felt positive this was an improbable chance.
He said, to take his mind off the key, “Do you intend moving against the Darksiders? Attacking them in their own domain?”
“What else can we do? Should we wait for them to attack, we should never break their power. They swoop on us in few numbers at many points. If we are too strong at one point, they flee. But one or two of their bands always makes a killing.”
Flane patted the violet-gun in his hands. “Wit
h this we can make a killing ourselves !”
Over a zeethis-wood table, Harth planned his strategy. They would go over Moornal, displaying banners to tell the people below that they were visiting Darkside to raise an army. High in the air, the last of the magniships could survey an endless countryside. At the signs of the gathered Darksider host, the ship could swing into position, and Flane could sweep their ranks with his weapon. Then the army would attack.
Harth was horrified, and said so. But Flane felt a sneaking liking for the nomads; he himself had been one for uncounted months, on the desert. Besides, he was not a Klarnvan, and neither were the Darksiders. Without a race, Flane thought momentarily of adopting the outsiders as his own.
“We could teach them our knowledge,” Flane continued stubbornly. “Their lances and arrows would make good trading material for them. We need good arrows and spears for hunting. Our ceramics and cities would be good bartering stuff. If we could instill in them a love for beauty, art to decorate their homes—”
“Tents!” Sniffed Harth.
“Those rumored cities of their,” said Flane, “will need ornament. Besides, were we to unite Klarnva and Darksiders, we might build a race that would develop its own science, so that the Machine would not be such a necessity.”
Aevlyn let her red-brown eyes survey him tenderly. Her ripe mouth curved into a smile. She said to Flane, “You want to be the giant of the prophecy, who comes to unite all on Klarn beneath one banner!”
“I am no giant who carries stars in his hands,” said Flane soberly, “but I try to think of the Darksiders. This was their planet. The Klarnva took it from them, ages ago. The Darksiders have rights.”
Harth growled, “The Darksiders are barbarians. They raid our flocks. Now they are gathering to destroy all Moornal. Is that just?”
“No,” sighed Flane. “We will have to fight them, of course. Still—”
He sighed again, and Aevlyn put her warm hand in his and squeezed it. Her laughter cheered him, and he grinned at her.
MOORNAL lay on a great wide plain where tall grasses swayed in the breeze. Far beyond it, a low-lying range of mountains girdled the plains like a belt. This was the first trip Flane had ever made in the air; every magniship in Klarn was long since rusted into uselessness, for lack of the power to repair the ravages of time. It was an eerie sensation, looking down on rooftops and streets, and domed temples.
Aevlyn stood with her shoulder warm against his, beside the rail. “That is the culture the Darksiders would destroy,” she said softly. “They would fling the blanket of their ignorance over it, make it as the ground for their megathons to race on.”
Flane shook his head, eyes a little sad. “That is not what the Darksiders wish, Aevlyn,” he frowned. “Put yourself in their place. Let us pretend that you and I are Darksiders—say, of twenty-five years ago. We come through the mountain passes on our megathons and sit looking at that great city. Remember, this is in the days when the Machine functions. We see that city lighted by the globular lights my mother, the Princess Gleya, used to tell me of. We see ships rise and sail majestically through the air. We see houses built so that sandstorms cannot wreck them.
“What emotions do we feel? Awe. And jealousy, yes. We want the security, the happiness, of that city. We do not wish to destroy it. We would be only too willing to be allowed to come and dwell in it. But the Klarnva will not have us.”
The red-haired girl stared up at Flane, a long-nailed hand brushing back a look of her russet hair. Her eyes were wide.
“You are strange, Flane. You can see others, and feel for them, as they themselves. We Klarnva are not like that.”
A bit boastfully, Flane said, “That is because I am not a Klarnvan myself. I am the son of the space-travelers, whom you saw in that big ship. I wish I knew what my people were like.”
“You almost make me feel sorry for the Darksiders,” whispered the girl, standing close to him.
Flane held her soft and warm in the crook of his arm. With his lips he caressed her cheeks and mouth, tenderly. He whispered, “The union of a space-traveler and a Klarnvan might bring forth a new breed of men and women.”
Aevlyn flushed and hid her face in his throat, but her fingertips stroked his jaw gently, lovingly.
“It’s a good dream,” whispered Aevlyn, “but foolish.”
It is foolish, thought Flane, because the races on Klarn are sliding backwards to barbarism. If only the Machine functioned!” Why, if he, Flane, could make the Machine hum, he could unite the men on Klarn. They would obey his dictates, or he would refuse them the powers of the Machine ! It was as simple as that.
The shouting of a lookout roused him. With Aevlyn at his side, he went to stand at the rail, staring across the plains toward Moornal. A man was on a racing megathon, bent low across his back, swooping like a swallow in flight down into gulches, and up across the level plain. Once he flung up an arm and waved it at the ship.
A rope was flung to him, and he came up it hand over hand.
Panting, the messenger stood before Harth.
“Word has come from Klarn,” he sobbed from weariness. “The mekniks have invited the Darksiders to join them in expelling the dulars. They promise the Darksiders that, for their help, they will aid them to conquer the other cities of the Klarnva!”
Harth grunted curses, looking at Flane.
Flane patted his weapon and grinned mirthlessly, “We’d better hurry, Harth. Perhaps we can catch the Darksiders before they unite with the mekniks. If ever they join forces, even this violet fire in my hands may not be enough to stop them !’’
He said to the messenger, “How many of the Darksiders go to Klarn?”
“They are as the stars twinkling in the sky on a cold winter night,” he answered. “They have with them many queer engines of destruction. They march side by side with the mountain chain, so that we of the plains will not notice them.”
“I posted spies on the fastest megathons we owned,” said Harth. “Were they the ones who brought this news?”
“They are. They say that even if we could equip an army with megathons as fleet at theirs, there would be no chance to overtake the Darksiders.”
Flane walked back and forth, like a caged valgon. He saw ruin of all his hopes crashing around him. No longer was there chance to unite Darksider and Klarnva, if once the mekniks and the Outlander joined forces. They would be mad with blood-lust, with the hot urge to kill and conquer. It was too late. Even the violet weapon could not help him.
He whirled on Harth, crying, “Full speed over those mountains ! We are the sole hope of the Klarnva, we in this magniship. Under our feet is the only power that can bring us to the Darksiders before they merge with the mekniks.”
“Are you mad?” whispered Harth, eyes round. “We number a few score on the ship. Can we stand before the Darksiders in battle?
“Can’t you see? We have to. If we fail, then there will be none to mourn us, for the Darksiders and the mekniks will sweep over the cities of the Klarn as a sandstorm sweeps the desert! We can’t stop to reckon consequences. It is all or nothing. We must toss the dice—and clean our weapons !”
Aevlyn stood by his side, red mouth curving into a tiny smile.
“He asks us to go with him and taste death, Harth,” she whispered. “We have no chance, and yet—and yet, I vote to go with him.”
Harth shrugged, “What use for me to speak? If the hereditary princess of the Moornalian Klarnva says we fight, then we fight.”
There were tears in Aevlyn’s eyes as she looked at Flane. She whispered, “If only we had a chance!”
FOR FIVE DAYS and nights, the magniship crept through the mountains. Over jagged peak and snow-draped hump they floated swiftly. At its rails stood keen-eyed men who strained their sight peering across the barren plains beyond, and fingered shining weapons. Occasion— ally, they ran wet tongues around dry lips, for the mark of death lay strong upon them.
Flane was different. He still laughed and jested, and spent the moonlit nights walking the deck with Aevlyn.
“What use to brood?” he asked her. “Our fate is written somewhere, perhaps in that great cave where dwells the All-High that the Princess Gleya told me of. He sits there and watches all our deeds enacted before him.”
“I would like to go and peer over His shoulder to see our immediate future,” the girl sighed, clinging to Flane.
“Seeing it would not change it,” said Flane. “Not knowing, but doing and fighting every inch of the pathway through life—that’s what counts !”
He looked at the blade with the seven stars in it, holding it up so that moonlight made it glimmer.
“This is what counts—holding a sword in your hand and using it to fight for what is right and just. It’s like a key to your own future. When you hold it, you can’t fail!”
Aevlyn pressed against him, whispering, “I wish I were of your race, Flane. You never admit defeat, even if you have already failed !”
Flane grunted, “Failed? Just because we didn’t have time to raise that army at Moornal? We take a different path, that’s all. It may lead to the same goal. Who knows?”
ON THE MORNING of the sixth day, a lookout yelped. Flane leaped to the rail, clung to it with strong, supple hands. His eyes glinted with excitement.
The host of the Darksiders lay like a swollen shadow along the ground. It seethed and moved in restless waves, flowing forward. Big vans and wagons were piled high with spears and arrows, pulled by draft-megathons whose manes flowed in the wind. On war-megathons and on foot the Darksiders surged like an irresistible wave across the plains. On high waved their kaatra-tail banners. Here and there a pennon whipped like a striking lash in the breeze. And their engines of war, their catapults and mangonels (a type of catapult), trundled along at the same swift pace.
“They will overflow the Klarnvan cities,” whispered Flane to himself. “There is nothing on all Klarn that can stop that horde—except my violet gun. And even that—” he shook his head dubiously, staring at the vast throng below.
On board the magniship there was great activity. Men ran back and forth, reaching for weapons, shouting hoarsely.
Now the horde had seen them. A roar went up from the assembled throats, the howl of a wolf on sighting its prey. Lifted lances shook, sunlight glistening from their sanded tips. Here and there a bow was raised, and an arrow fitted to its string. The tailed banners danced in the hands of the standard-bearers.
“Let me speak to them,” Flane said to Harth who nervously fingered a dagger in his belt. “I may dissuade them from their venture. If only I had the key to the Machine! Then, indeed, would I have a weapon to bargain with!”
He wound his legs in a plaited rope and was dangled over the side, below the flat keel of the ship. He swayed in the wind, the violet gun at ease in his hands.
A Darksider with a wolf-skin wrapped around him bellowed upwards, racing underneath him, trying to stab him with his spear. Flane grinned and shouted, “Peace, Darksider. I come to offer terms.”
A group of mounted Outlander rode toward him. They sat their saddles easily, bending as their steeds curvetted.
“The people of Moornal desire to dwell in peace with the Darksiders,” shouted Flane. “We look for the key to the Machine. If we find it, the Machine’s power will be given to all.”
A Darksider roared laughter, turning to his companions, gesturing a hairy arm at Flane.
“The hanging one offers peace. We will make peace, after we have wetted our blades in his flesh, and the flesh of all his kind“
They laughed hoarsely and took turns heaving war-lances at Flane where he hung in the ropes. One of the spears came so close to him he could have reached out and caught it. Flane sighed and lifted the violet gun. He did not want to slay these men. But he had to. They needed a lesson.
He sighted along the barrel and pressed the button. From the mouth of the gun the lavender flame came with a swoosh and dropped around the Outlander It lay among them like the overflow of a rainbow, scintillating and glowing. Then it dissipated.
Where the mounted Darksiders had stood and hurled their spears there was only a botch of darkened ground. Even the long grasses were gone.
“Oww!’ howled the thousands who watched with fear stamped upon their faces. “Oww! Here is the magic of the Klarnva come to eat us up!”
Some of them wheeled their mounts to run, but a great fellow whose fair blonde hair spilled to his shoulders, lifted a gnarled club in his hand and rallied them.
“What?” he roared. “Do we flee before one man? Feather me an arrow in his hide so that he will drop that flaming thing he holds. Then we may use it.”
Arrows carried farther than did spears. Flane scampered back up the ropes as shafts started to slither in among the cordage. He put a hand on the rail and swung over. Panting, he stood and stared at the horde that raced for them.
“Arrows and spears will never take the ship,” he said, “but those war-engines might.”
He called to Harth, “Pass the ship over their machines. I must destroy them.”
Flane went to the rail and leaned on it, watching the ground slide under him. Now they were over the assembled tribes, skimming low. The war-engines were just beyond them. Flane lifted his gun, held it in readiness.
He fired once.
A massive catapult went violet, and disappeared.
He fired again, and again.
Mangonels flared, fading.
BUT NOW the Darksiders were using their rocks against the magniship. Great jagged stones came crashing and bouncing on the deck. Men screamed, caught under them. Flesh was mashed, and ran red blood. One rock pierced the sides of the ship and clattered inside it, rolling and tumbling. Men moaned in the depths of the vessel, where the stone had gone.
Flane thinned his lips and fired faster, and faster.
One by one he encompassed the engines with the violet fire, and one by one they flared and disappeared.
Now there were none left, and Flane turned from the rail with a sigh of satisfaction.
He stood stock—still, staring.
The deck of the magniship listed at a peculiar angle. It was difficult to walk on it, for one side was lifted toward the sky, and the other pointed down toward earth. He had been so engrossed in his destruction of the war-engines, that he had not noticed.
The horde roared its triumph. “She sinks She sinks . She is coming toward us! Now we shall have the guns”
Flane went across the deck with flying feet. He caught at a stanchion, swung in through an open door, shouting, “Lift it ! Lift her nose.”
Aevlyn was pale, watching him beside Harth who stared unseeingly at the man in the doorway.
Aevlyn whispered, “It’s no use, Flane! Those rocks they hurled swept away the red magnetic balls on the port side of the ship. We’re done for. We can’t stay up much longer.”
“We can stay up long enough to get to the mountains,” Flane rasped, pointing to where the green-and-brown hills rose toward the clouds. “There we can make a stand. The Darksiders can come at us only a few at a time. We can hold out until help comes from Moornal. only hope.”
Harth the table with the palm of his hand, violently, so that a quill and an ink bottle bounced a little.
“Sheer madness!” he bellowed, rising swiftly to his feet. “Now I have listened to you, Flane and Klarn, and I have given you your way. But from now on, it shall be Harth of Moornal who says what we shall do.”
Flane’s fingers opened and closed. His green eyes flared hotly, and he opened his mouth to snarl fierce words. Then Aevlyn was before him, the perfume of her auburn hair delicate in his nostrils, looking up at him. Her brown eyes begged with his.
Flane sighed, “And what are those orders, Harth?”
“We flee back to Moornal. We raise an army and—”
Flane took him by the arm and led him to the port window. They had an unobstructed view of the plains from there. They saw the shaggy megathons racing with their bellies to the ground while their riders shook pennoned (a banner) lances over their heads, charging. A sword blade glowed red in the sun, lifted into the air. A thundering of hooves rocked the ground. Voices bellowed, roared their hate.
“Those are no warriors to give quarter. Not after what we have done to their leaders and their engines of war!” Flane rasped.
He it Harth across the chest with the back of his hand.
“Man, man! You bear weapons. Do you know how to use them?”
Harth nodded sullenly, watching the Darksiders come nearer and nearer. He showed his teeth in a mirthless grin.
“They think us easy meat,” Harth said softly. His eyes began to burn.
“We could find a cave somewhere in those mountains, “Flane went on, his eyes keen on Harth’s face. “We could make a stand there. It could be so costly that the Darksiders might leave us, so as not to miss the.”
Harth turned to him with a chuckle, “You are a sly dog, Flane. You persuade a man that his death is a marvelous thing. Ah, well. You may be right. We’ll do as you say, as usual. I see no other course.” Flane leaped from the cabin, sped along the tilting deck on the starboard side, half-running on the wall of the cabin. He shouted the men out of their battle stations, swept them up in the whirl of his own enthusiasm.
“Overboard with everything movable ! Heave it over. Retain only food and weapons. Everything else goes. We’ve got to get the ship up that mountain!”
Aevlyn ran to him, to be near him, and to spur on the men with her presence. She put soft white hands to lamps and cushions, carrying them to the rail and casting them. Chairs and tables were borne by the men who formed quick-moving lines at Flane’s directions. Soon the cabins lay stripped and bare, except for the men who clustered in them, polishing and sharpening swords and lances.
Flane went with Aevlyn to the prow of the magniship, hearing Harth bellow orders to the helmsman.
Inch by inch the crippled vessel went up. Scraping past the tops of trees, grating its keel on a jagged lip of rock, it mounted steadily. The trees fell away below, yielding place to massive rocks that lay piled and scattered on one another like sleeping kittens. Like giants slain and scattered in battle lay the boulders.
“There!” shouted Flane, pointing.
BARE SPACE towered above the tossed rocks, flat on top and jagged at the sides. A steep path rose sharply to the level of the empty mesa, up which three men could walk abreast. It was the only means of entrance to the fortress of stone, for behind it, as though sheared by a gigantic sword, the cliff was cut away. Behind the mesa dropping thousands of feet straight down, a gorge was sliced into the mountain. “
We could hold that mesa forever,” Flane grinned, “given enough food and water. Only three men can come at us at once. There is no way of retreat, except by falling to our deaths in the gorge.”
Even Harth grunted, “It isn’t so bad. A man could die a good death there, with his weapons red with his enemy’s blood. As we all probably will.”
Flane sighed, “If only we could get word to the Klarnva in Moornal and Yeelya! Then our stand here would be worth while. It would give the cities time to unite, to put an army in the field.”
Aevlyn was buckling on a cape fitted with cabin-mail at breast and shoulder. She said suddenly, “One man might make Moornal in the magniship. He could spread word.”
“You !” said Flane and Harth in one breath, but Aevlyn came close to Flane and shook her red mop of hair.
“No. I stay with Flane. I will never be separated from him again. Send another. I will not go.”
Flane cajoled and begged and finally commanded, but Aevlyn bubbled laughter between her full red lips, and patted his hands. Her fiery hair swirled as she shook her head, brown eyes a-dance.
Harth and Flane shrugged at each other and selected a man whose arm had been broken by a catapult stone. They gave him food and drink, and fastened him to the helm of the ship, but his weapons they took from him. He could not use them, and there were men who would be desperately in need of extra weapons soon.
“All Klarn rides your ship,” Flane told him. “Summon the men of Yeelya, too. You will not be in time to rescue us, but you may bring the threat of the Darksiders to a sorry finish.”
One after the other they dropped from the ship as it skimmed the mesa. Swords in one hand and violet-gun in the other, Flane landed cat-like and was up, racing toward the sloping adit (an entrance to an underground mine) to the level rock. A few of the Darksiders could be seen in the distance, coming up over a ridge, pointing lances toward them, shouting.
Aevlyn stood with hands clasped to her breasts, staring after the drifting ship as it dipped into the gorge. It bounced a little as an air current caught at it, then slipped along the channel between the cliffs that an ancient river had eaten away in the solid rock.
“May the All-High have him ever in His sight,” she whispered.
An arrow whined passed her. She turned, seeing Flane at the approach to the mesa, deflecting them, one after another, with the glittering sword in his hand. Now the Darksiders were howling up the slope, racing on foot, leaping from megathon to stone, waving swords and axes.
Flane met them, grinning. His steel slipped and slithered past their guards, drinking deep in chests and thighs.
The leading Darksiders would have fallen back, but now the horde was on them, and a swirling maelstrom of battle maddened men drove in low for the kill. Only three of them could come at once up that slope, but they came on in a steady wave that climbed over the bodies of the fallen, throwing spears, slashing down and upwards with sword and battleaxe.
Flane fought until the breath whistled in him throat, until his arms were scarred with wounds, and ran red blood. Someone yanked on him, pulled him from the press, and he stood sobbing for air as Aevlyn dabbed a dry cloth at his cuts. When she offered him white wine in a copper flagon, he drank deep; with the back of his hand he dried his mouth and grinned at her.
“It will be night presently,” she whispered. “Then the men will have a rest.” “So soon?” questioned Flane blankly, looking at the sun.
“You fought for hours there,” Aevlyn smiled, kneeling to ease a dying man’s pains. “Some grumbled that you sought all the glory for yourself.”
Flane chuckled, looking out at the tribes that hemmed them in, building camps and fires, and erecting kaatra-hide tents. He whispered savagely, “Glory enough for all at this fight.” He shook his head, and his so green eyes narrowed. “There are many of them,” he said slowly. “Too many.”
He lifted the violet-gun and carried it to a jagged edge of rock; rested it in a crotch of stone, leaning cheek against the wooden stock. He smiled mirthlessly to himself, thinking: I will reduce some of that number, now. His finger pressed the button of the gun and a lavender flame swept from the muzzle toward the assembled horde. Bolt after bolt he fired, carefully, until the ululating wail of the stricken Darksiders reverberated from the cliffs.
The violet gun clicked and made odd Sounds.
FLANE stared at it, wondering. The thought that it might need fuel to work never occurred to him. He looked on the gun as Supernatural, and anything as mundane as ammunition for it was as foreign to his mind as the stars.
There might be one more blast left, he reasoned, and gave it to Aevlyn.
It was dark now, and the three moons of Klarn swam slowly into the sky. Red fires dotted the stone plateau before the mesa, where Darksiders squatted or sat, eating. On the mesa, men hastily bolted food and ran back to the entrance, drying their weapons. There was no concerted night attack; there was worse, for soon the arrows began to arch among them. Biting into leg and arm and chest, at random, the steel-tipped shafts scattered the men, which sword and ax could not do. Soon they were all huddled behind the uplifting rocks at the mesa-edge, where the shafts could not follow.
A surprise attack caught a faceful of defending blades, and broke away, as a wave from the seawall.
Dawn found the men of Moornal bloody and weary, but the hot sunlight drove new strength into hack-weary arms and they met each new attack with cries of scorn and defiance. Flane was everywhere: standing for long hours in the pass, his sword singing; encouraging his men by the magical slaughter of his blade, slapping them on backs, encouraging, cajoling, commanding . . .
All day and all night they made their stand. Baked by the day and frozen by the night, they grew gaunt and haggard, as lean as hunting wolves, and as dangerous. Men did not talk on the mesa now. They lifted lips in silent snarls. They cast dark glances from under lowering brows. Their hands grew used to the hilt of sword and the haft of lance. Some could scarcely unbend their fingers long enough to eat.
Of the lot, Flane looked most wolfish. His black hair drooped untended, loose on his shoulders. His uniform was cut and torn, disclosing blooded skin, brown flesh ripped by ax and sword-edge. But his muscles still rolled as before, and the blade in his hand was a portal to beyond for any who came face to point with it.
Aevlyn slept close to him during the night, tending the wounds received during the day. Under hot sunlight she was always at his call, with water and with cheer, for the men who were most in need of either.
On the next day, the Darksiders withdrew in order, going down the ramp and assembling on the flat plateau. Flane leaned on his sword and stared out over their heads, at a horseman who spurred his mount across the tumbled rocks, lifting him in a jump.
“A meknik,” Flane rasped, spitting. “Now the All-High must indeed be smiling, for the fates could have no worse in store for us. They have come to join the Darksiders.”
A man, naked to the waist and bearing a broken lance in his hand as a stabbing spear, laughed gutterally, “Good! I’ve wanted to take a few of them with me when I went.”
Flane smiled mirthlessly, “You’ll have your wish, if the water holds out.”
He looked around, biting his lips. The axes and swords and arrows of the Darksiders had been busy. Of the original forty who dropped to the mesa, there were but six who stood erect; and of them, one was a woman. Harth lay shorn from shoulder to navel on the rocks below. He had met his hero’s death. All of them were wounded. Even Aevlyn had a red rag wrapped about an arm. Flane breathed harshly.
They had made a stand, they had.
Aie! Let the harpers tell of this battle!
FLANE glanced at his blade. It was chined and nicked, and hung by a needle of steel to the hilt. Laughing shortly, he tapped it against a lip of rock and watched it drop onto the stones below. He went and drew the blue-hilted sword from the ornate scabbard and shook it in the air.
“By the dead hand that held you, you’ll quench your thirst this day, you blue beauty” he howled.
The mekniks were pouring onto the rocky plain now, and the Darksiders greeted them with cries of delight. Beside Flane, Aevlyn said bitterly, “Thousands more against us!”
Flane laughed, “The odds even, darling !”
He rested on his blade, watching the big blonde Darksider who led most of the attacks with a gnarled club in his hand, walk toward them. Two mekniks paced at his side.
“Surrender, Flane of Klarn,” the blonde said. “We offer safe conduct to you all.”
Flane laughed in his face.
“The mekniks would never let me live, Darksider,” he replied. “Better a death in the open air than a dagger under the ribs on a dark night while I sleep.”
He saw the mekniks scowl at him. The Darksider said, “We will come and take you!”
“Then come, club-swinger! My sword whispers to me that it wants to look beneath your skin.”
FLANE went white. This was what he dreaded — a flight of war-arrows to keep the passage clear while the Darksiders attacked. In the press of battle the archers could not fire, for their arrows would fell their own men as well as defenders. But with an arrow storm to clear the way, and then an attack in force—
“Fall back!” he shouted.
The arrows whistled, coming at them. Some broke against rock uprights, some dropped and skidded along the mesa floor. One or two found flesh and dead men fell, to fight no more.
Flane whispered, “Four left. Four and Aevlyn.”
With his red left arm, he shoved her behind him, blue-hilted sword deflecting an arrow. Slowly he backed against the sheer gorge. A man dropped at his feet, the arrow still humming in his back. Another man, caught by a thrown spear, slipped over the edge of the gorge, and plunged downward, screaming.
Flane and the man standing beside him looked at each other and chuckled grimly.
“It was a good fight, Flane.”
“We stood them off two days and a night,” agreed Flane. “They’ll put us in their legends, the Darksiders will. They like brave men.”
The man laughed, “As a ghost I’ll come to their winter campfires and listen to their bards extolling us. It will be a reward, in a way.”
Club in hand, the blonde Darksider was leaping toward them, a line of ax-men and archers at his back. Before them the Darksiders saw two men, and a girl with hair the color of a sunset. In her white hands she held the violet gun. The two men were bloody and fierce, unshaven, in rags. Swords glimmered in their hands as they stood waiting. They had fought well, but the time for play was over.
“Take them,” cried the club-bearer. But Flane astounded them by coming in himself, bent low, right arm up and swinging. His blade came and went, and where it had been, the knees of a dying man buckled, Uniform in tatters, brown skin dyed red, he was a miracle of speed and sureness —and slaughter.
Behind him Aevlyn watched, dangerous as a tigress whose kittens are threatened. The violet gun came up, covering Flane’s back.
Men drove in for that unprotected back, daggers lifted. The violet gun belched Once, and then it died. But that once was enough. The lavender fire sizzled and flared, and it ate up the men and their weapons. But Flane had already whirled, and his sword stabbed out, toward the purple flame.
The blade swam in the amethyst mist; glowed brightly, shimmering with opalescent hues. With staring eyes, Flane watched the steel dissipate into drifting powder.
He held half a sword in his hand.
A cry of alarm broke from the lips of the Darksiders. They eyed the half-blade, mouths open in awe. From guard and pommel it coruscated blazing whiteness as the sun caught at the seven globes inside the blue stuff. Like suns those points of whiteness glittered . . . like stars!
“The prophecy!” howled the Darksiders.
“He bears the stars in his hand !”
“He holds the key to the Machine !”
The blonde Darksider stared at him, frowning. He let the club fall until its knotted end hit the stone.
“Is it true, Flane of Klarn ?” he whispered. “Is that sword the key to the Machine, as the prophecy has said?”
Flane looked at the sword, at the blue hilt with its blazing pinpricks of light, at the diamond-shaped blade that was half a blade, now—
It was the truth!
The diamond blade was key to the Machine! Fool, fool, not to have guessed Its diamond shape, and the star-formed guard, and the dead body beneath the spaceship: the Keeper, of course ! The stars in the hilt for the prophecy, and the blade for the key!
“Yes,” he cried hoarsely, “oh, All-Highest, yes!”
The blonde Darksider dropped the club and knelt before Flane, lowering his head. A great rustling was heard, as the other Darksiders knelt with him. Only the mekniks drew aside, muttering.
Flane heard Aevlyn sobbing behind him, as he lifted the sword and stared at it. He felt like weeping, too. For the diamond-shaped blade was only half a blade, now. The violet fire had eaten it up. The key to the Machine was in his hand at last, but it was a ruined key!
The Darksider was bowing and saying, “I swear fealty to the bearer of the sun-starred sword, for he shall be my Keeper.”
Behind him the others roared out the ancient oath, their voices lifting triumphantly.
“By the grip that plunges home the blade, by the hand that is turned away to ward off evil, by the voice of the Machine, I swear my oath and pledge my faith. I am obedient. I am true. I am his who bears the sword !”
The rolling echo of the oath was swept into silence, but still Flane stared at the broken sword in his hand.
A ruined key!
There was no hope, now!
Flane stood with legs apart and flung his head to the blue sky and howled his laughter like a madman, until froth grew in the corners of his mouth, and tears rolled down his cheeks. .
THE SUN lay like a crimson ball on the horizon. Flooded with its red rays were the waving grass fields, and the riders of the megathons that sped across them. Hooves rose and fell, as the stallions’ heads stretched forward, eager for the run.
Flane and Aevlyn rode side by side. There were bandages still on their arms, on Flane’s chest and thigh. Behind them thundered Besl, the blonde Darksider, and a dular from Moornal.
The cool wind in his face made Flane grin; made him stare, in sheer gladness at being alive, at the grassy plain, the swollen, crimson sun, the distant blue mountains.
He had not thought to be alive today.
There had been confusion on the mesa after he had laughed. The mekniks were all for throwing him into the gorge, but the Darksiders saw in him the savior of their prophecy, and would not have him touched.
“This is the key to the Machine,” Flane informed them, showing them the ruined blade. “The blade is the key.”
“The blade is gone,” growled a sullen meknik.
“Not all of it. Only the foible of the blade. The forte remains. It may be sufficient to turn the lock. It is worth a try. Speak out—do I go to Klarn with a safe conduct, or do you try throwing me in the gorge?” The giant blonde came to Flane’s side and lifted his club.
“I, Besl, promise safe conduct for the Keeper,” he roared, looking at the mekniks with sullen eye, “and any who interferes shall be treated as enemies.”
As sullenly, the mekniks agreed. They could not do otherwise, for without the Darksiders, they were no match for the dulars of Klarn.
One of them said, “But we cannot vouchsafe a passage through the city itself. Other mekniks might not agree with us.”
“I’ll risk that,” snapped Flane. “I have gone through them once. I can do it again.”
Later, when they were alone, Flane said to Aevlyn, “It is but a forlorn hope. When the stem of a key is gone, the lock will not open. And the foible of this blade is part of the key, too. And it is powder on the rocks.”
“Then why go to Klarn at all?” sighed Aevlyn, out of the weariness of her spirit, tired of seeing men die and blood run red.
“Because there is still a chance. A slim one, true. But—a chance!’’
Her eyes were dark and worshiping, staring up at his grim face. She whispered, “Brood of the space-wanderers! You never quit, do you, Flane? You always keep on, even after you’ve failed !”
“My stubbornness hasn’t hurt us yet. I wouldn’t give up on the desert, and thus I won the sword, and you. I kept Harth fighting, and we’ve discovered that the sword is a key to the Machine! Now— well, what the All-High can see in His cave, He shall see !’’
The Darksiders provided them with swift, tireless megathons. Flane missed Saarl, but Saarl was in Moornal now, if the magniship got back. The dun mount he straddled was a good beast. When they were in the saddle, Besl swung onto a black stallion beside them.
“I go as a watchdog, Flane of Klarn. If you fail, I carry word to the Darksiders, to bring fire and steel through the cities of the Klarnva.”
“Good enough,” Flane grunted, but Aevlyn pressed his hand with hers, bowing her head, biting her lips until a drop of blood welled.
They crossed the mountain trails, and headed out over the plains. The great sand-stretches were dotted by eremophytic (desert) plants that lifted thorny branches toward a clear sky. It was a land of peace, where cactus dwelt with mesquite, and the riotous reds and yellows of the wildflowers splashed the desert with color Flane wondered whether this peace would soon be shattered by the flaming red clamor of war.
His thought almost came to reality on the third day. At noon the riders sighted a vast host moving toward them from the west. Flane stood in his stirrups, staring beneath a palm. Then Aevlyn saw the maroon pennons fluttering from glittering lance-tops and cried, “They come from Moornal!’’
There were golden Swans among the maroon banners. She said again, “The men of Yeelya. Truly, the Klarnva are gathered to fight it out with the Darksiders.”
A cluster of horsemen broke from the array and galloped toward them. Flane and Aevlyn and Besl met them with palms extended, although the warriors had long since recognized the fiery red hair of the girl. At Besl they shot dark glances, and some of them fingered the hafts of their swords.
Flane told his story, swiftly. The deputation from Moornal and Yeelya drew away; whispered among themselves with many gestures, once in a while glancing toward Flane and the half-sword that hung at his side.
An old man with hair the color of mountain snow broke from their group and came to Flane,
“We will abide by the trial of the sword,” he said simply. “If the Machine works, then we will gladly live in peace with the Darksiders and the mekniks of Klarn. Aye, we will help establish you as Keeper of the Machine, Flane of Klarn, that all may share its benefits.”
Besl grunted his surprise, “I never thought to hear a man of Moornal speak words like that.”
The warrior smiled grimly, “I am an old man. When I remember how life was in my mouth,” he sighed, “I would be friend of any who helped to bring it back.”
The old man flung up an arm to his retainer and wheeled his horse beside Flane’s stallion. He explained, “I go as Besl does. To bring my people the word. War — or peace.”
THEY RODE for many days, across the grasslands and into the desert, skirting that until they came to an ancient rock road.
And how they galloped into a red sunset, knowing that before the three moons rose, they would see the spires of Klarn in the distance. Within an hour they drew rein; clustered together, silent.
Sitting their saddles on a hill, they all looked at the black towers of Klarn crouching below them, at the domed temple, the flat-roofed houses. The red Dragon Gate seemed covered with blood in the last rays of the sun.
“We must go unseen into that city,” Flane said. “And, as unseen, find the temple of the Machine. There will be guards at the Dragon Gate. Leave them to me.”
The beacon lights in the dragons’ mouths roared gustily, glared scarlet in the blue darkness where Flane came out of it with a naked dagger in his hand. His rush toppled both guards. Before their writhing mouths could make a sound, his right arm lifted, drove downward twice with slim steel blade.
He straddled the still forms, curving an arm at the others who slipped from saddle to earth and came toward him.
“We must be swift,” Flane said. “The mekniks don’t know of the truce their kind have made. Do not be seen or we’ll never reach the temple.”
Through side streets and alleyways Flane led them. Where shadows bulked black and grim, their running forms made odd silhouettes. Between two columns, they paused to stare at the Temple. It loomed gigantic in the blackness. Besl grunted softly, “I’ve never seen anything like it!” Then they were going across the quadrangle, stooping low, eyes peering left and right.
The sentry whirled as Flane came for him, but he whirled too slow. A brawny forearm locked about his throat, and he died with steel in his chest.
Flane drove into the temple, across its tiled floor.
He came to a stop before the Machine.
The others came softly forward. They stood a little behind him, staring up at the metal bulk, whose levers and dials shone with reflected light from the three moons swirling across the skies.
Aevlyn sobbed wearily. Besl whispered prayers to his Darkside gods. The old warrior whispered, “I have not looked on the glory of Klarn for many years, but it seems only as yesterday that I saw and heard the Keeper explaining its function. It works by radiation, you know. The globes filled with whitish powder store up sun energy, via the yellow prism in the desert. Solar energy, he called it. The Machine, when it works, picks up that energy and sends it all over Klarn in bands of power that drives all engines.
“It heats our cities. It lights our lights. It fires our guns. It even feeds us by helping to raise food. At least—it used to.”
Flane tried not to think of the utter weariness in the old man’s voice as he stepped forward. With his right hand he drew out the ruined sword, stared down at it; ran a fingertip along the shattered blade. The old man voiced the weariness of all the Klarn.
If the machine failed to work—
Flane did not like to think of that.
He stepped forward, lifting the blade.
He thrust it home, into the diamond shaped opening. The blade clicked in, fitting perfectly.
And nothing happened.
The Machine was truly dead above them. Aevlyn sobbed. She came to stand with him, pressing her arm shoulder to his in comfort as he leaned against the cold metal side of the Machine, hammering his fist against it until the knuckles bled.
Behind them Besl sighed, “Now that is too bad. I shall hate to order the kaatra-tail banners forward, but I have no choice.”
Flane lifted his hand, looked down at the torn flesh, at the dark blood staining his flesh. Aevlyn was whispering to him but he did not hear. He was deaf to everything, at that moment.
A hand patted his arm sadly, and then the old man from Moornal turned on his heel and went out of the Temple, bowed and broken. With him went Besl. In the quadrangle before the Temple they came to a stop and stared at each other. The big Darksider saw tears furrowing the cheeks of the old man.
“I had thought to see a new world, Besl. The old world come to life again. Gaiety and laughter, play and sunshine. I thought Flane was the one the prophecy told of, with his foreign blood and his blue sword. I would have staked my neck on it.”
“Yes,” grunted Besl. “So too would I.”
“War,” groaned the old man. “There will be nothing left of Klarn. Nothing, except a few wandering tribes. The city-states will go. Darksider and Klarnvan will eat each other up.”
Besl nodded glumly.
Heavily they strode to the red Dragon Gate. Swinging into their saddles, they swung their horses’ heads around, and cantered into the night.
FROM the Temple balcony that overlooked the city, Flane and Aevlyn watched them. Like toys they seemed, rider and mount blending motion to infinite grace. They saw Besl and the old man lift their right arms, salute; saw them take separate paths as they rode on.
“Each goes to summon his people to war,” Flane said heavily.
Aevlyn leaned her cheek against his bare, scarred arm.
“Failure!” Flane rasped harshly, with a bitter laugh. “I’ve failed all right. Now will there be a war, and nothing but war. The dulars of Klarn and Moornal and Yeelya against the Darksiders and the mekniks. Few will survive.”
“We may still make a new world,” she whispered. “It is not too late.”
“When those riders reach their armies, a wave of steel and fire will rise over Klarn.”
Aevlyn rubbed her face against his throat. She whispered, “I love you, Flane. Together we may bring order out of chaos. Somehow. You are still my Keeper.”
“Listen, darling,” she went on, raising her glowing face to his. “I swear fealty to the bearer of the sun-starred sword, for he shall be my Keeper. By the grip that plunges home the blade, by the hand that is turned away, by the—”
She broke off alarmed.
Her brown eyes sought Flane’s face, read it—saw hope struggling to rise through bitterness. His green eyes danced. His lips grew slack. He hugged her to him; kissed lips, and cheeks and chin.
“That’s it ! That’s it !” he shouted.
He leaped for the Temple interior, and Aevlyn had to run to keep up with him. Half-laughing and half-crying, she sobbed, “What is it, Flane?”
“The way the sword goes home! I was a fool not to have realized it.”
“You’re going to try the Machine again, with the sword? But it doesn’t works You saw that.”
Flane laughed, “No harm to try once more, is there?” He came before the Machine and picked up the sword where he had dropped it in his despair. To the star-friezes in the wall he came and held out the sword to Aevlyn.
“In holding the hilt of a sword in combat, you usually grasp it with the ends of the fingers toward you, as in a parry in tierce. Now suppose I turn the hand away, like this, so that the fingertips are away from me, and the back of my hand is toward me. By the grip that plunges home the blade, by the hand that is turned away—”
With the back of his hand toward him, Flane slammed in the sword. The five tiny stars embedded in the star-guard began to glow weirdly in their blue transparent envelope. Dully they shone at first, then grew more brilliant until they blazed. Like tiny suns they twinkled, fitted over the star-shaped frieze in the wall of the Machine. Flane stared at them.
He knew, suddenly, and laughed aloud.
“It isn’t the blade that does it,” he cried in his delight. “There is no key— not a key such as we know. The Machine operates via those lights in the star-shaped guard of the sword, Aevlyn. They must be bits of that white powder stored in the prism. They are solar energy! Look how they shine in the Machine!”
They shimmered magically inside the blue stuff, glowing and pulsating with white fire.
Aevlyn cried out, a hand lifted, pointing. The lights were going on, all over Klarn.
One by one they came into being, glimmering fitfully as long-unused filaments surged with flooded power. Whitley they shone, then grew bright and still brighter. A pale halo of reflection lifted from street and house and rooftop, bathing the city in its dim aura.
From the houses came the cries and screams of men and women. The screams deepened, grew into a roar, a bellow of sheer, unbelievable joy, of incredulous happiness. Flane and Aevlyn heard the triumphal peal of it, the hope become reality in its tones. They shivered in delight, laughing.
Flane drew her, an arm about her lissome waist, out with him onto the balcony. Beneath them the city was aflame with brilliance.
Aevlyn whispered, “You turned another failure into your biggest success, Flane. You made the Machine work. If you hadn’t—” she shuddered and crept closer in his arms. Her voice was dreamy as she went on, “Now your word will be law on all Klarn. The Darksiders under Besl will see to that. You are their champion. The dulars will be so happy to have their lights and heat again that they will acknowledge you, too. And the mekniks —well, they are heavily outnumbered, and when they see what the machine will do for them, they’ll agree. Their power will fade as night when the lights went on.”
Dawn was breaking all over Klarn.