WE BEGAN our walk across the icy flatland. Our breaths frosted in the air and the wind whipped us with the power of a gale, but we put our heads down and trudged steadily ahead. According to the last reading of the instruments on the flier, we were a few hundred miles north of the magnetic pole. So we continued in that northerly direction along a line of travel that might correspond roughly to 160° longitude. We walked without speaking for what seemed a long time, each of us occupied with his thoughts. I thought of Tuarra, wondering if I would ever see her again. I was remembering our hours together—which seemed so short now, and so far away in another lifetime. I yearned to see her smile flash up at me, to feel the touch of her lips on mine.
The horizon was white and far away, across miles of frozen icecap. Here and there stretches of damp fog crept with silent feet across the snow barrens on which we were the only living things.
The cold ate into us. Our legs were moving now in plodding fashion. Fortunately, a Llarnian compass was standard equipment with each of the hooded jackets, so we were relieved of the danger of walking in a circle. Our course was more or less straight as far as we could determine, northward across the frozen wastes.
How long had we traveled? An hour? Ten hours? We did not know. How far had we walked? We did not know this, either. We moved like robots across the empty white flatlands and in our hearts we knew we were going to die.
After a time Marga stumbled and would have fallen except that I put an arm about her middle and held her up. Her face was very white. A faint coating of frost covered her lips and nostrils. Ghan Karr came up to lend his strength on her other side. “This can’t go on,” he said. “We must go on. To stop is to die.”
“I want to die,” Marga whispered. We staggered through the snow spray tossed into our faces by the arctic gales, past jagged ice carvings shaped by the winds, over stretches of ice so smooth they seemed polished by some giant hand. Ghan Karr fell once, lying quietly without moving, so that I had to drop Marga and go back and lift him to his feet.
“Keep walking. Keep walking!” I told him. He stumbled on with Marga and myself at his heels. He was babbling, singing snatches of a nursery rhyme that was old when Llarn had been a young planet. After a time, Marga joined him.
I was delirious myself, I realized. Ahead of me, locked inside a great ice floe, was a city. I stared at streets, at buildings, at rooftops and tall spires. I giggled; I laughed. I was seeing visions. A city, here in the polar lands? A city locked in ice?
Forgetting the others, I ran up to the massive wall of ice that sheathed the dwellings. The ice was transparent, like clear water frozen solid. I could make out a man standing rigid before a doorway, hand extended toward the latch as if to open it. Beyond him a woman in a fur coat was in mid-stride, balanced to a nicety.
I called to them. I shouted. I waved. Only the echoes of my own voice echoed across the wastes. Then I remembered my grawn. I fumbled off my glove, lifted the weapon in my hand, fired it. The red beam heated the ice to a melting point until it ran down all around the snow where I stood. After a few seconds, there was a tunnel open before me.
I walked into that strange city, stood beside the man about to enter his home. I looked at the woman, saw her face pale and white under a fur cap. They were dead, of course. Dead for uncounted centuries. I had never seen their type of garments before, not even in the ancient history books I had looked at in Kharthol. I turned and stared back through the tunnel. Marga and Ghan Karr lay where they had fallen. I ran to rouse them, to bring them into the warmer air of the ice city.
I shook Ghan Karr to a mumbling wakefulness. He sat up, staring at me like a man demented, “Go away, Uthian. Let me sleep.” He fell over on his face and by sheer force I wrestled him to his feet.
“We’re saved, Ghan Karr. There’s a city!” He began to laugh, looking where I pointed. “I am asleep, after all. My apologies, Prince of Thieves. I thought you were trying to wake me.” He began to stumble toward the great ice sheath behind which he could see buildings now, and people.
I lifted Marga into my arms and carried her at a shuffling trot toward the warmer air not far ahead. She moaned as we went into the tunnel, and her arms came up about my neck. Her eyelashes were frozen to her cheeks, and as she woke, she wept softly.
“I’m dead—and locked in the dark pit of Chorakor!”
“Hush, Marga. You’re as alive as I am.” I put my lips to her eyes, felt the tiny ice flakes moisten and fall away under their heat. Marga opened eyes that glistened tenderly as they regarded my anxious face. I squirmed uncomfortably, not daring to think what she might say. Quickly, to avoid speech, I set her on her booted feet and waved an arm at the city.
“Wha—what is this place, Uthian? A city all in ice? It’s people—oh, I see a man and a woman and . . .”
She turned her pale face toward me. “They’re dead. What killed them—so suddenly?”
My shoulders shrugged. “I do not know, Marga—but I do know that we must find food somewhere, or we too will die.”
“I would not mind dying with you, Uthian,” she said softly, and reached for my hand.
Fortunately, Ghan Karr came out of a building at that moment, waving what looked like a roast of bork steak in his hands. His voice came clearly to us in the warm air. “A food store, you two. Down here—come on. Plenty to eat; frozen stuff that’s been kept in cold storage for Astarra knows how long!”
Marga and I ran into the shop. There were two men and a woman in the store, a man behind one of the counters. Marga sent a swift look about, then turned to me.
“There isn’t much food here. I don’t know what this place is—or what it was—but the people were having a hard time of it. There’s very little to eat on the shelves. Thank the gods there are only three of us.”
She walked ahead of me to the door of a frozen food compartment, ducked to enter, and came out with a length of meat. She paused, glancing around until her gaze settled on two small tins of food. These she tossed to me, then beckoned me to follow.
Ghan Karr shouted to us from the upper window of a house.
“This is a house with a thermal unit. Bring up the food. We’ll have a feast.”
Marga nodded, then went back into the store for more cans. When she had my arms well filled, she led me up the stairs of the house where Ghan Karr was already thawing his own food.
“What is this city?” I asked while the meat was cooking. Ghan Karr shrugged. “Who knows—or cares?” Marga said wistfully, “I can’t say, but I do feel sorry for its people. They had a hard time of it before they died. And they died suddenly, without warning, apparently.”
“After we get to Korok, I’m coming back here and learn what its secret is.” They looked at me as if I had lost my mind. Marga pointed out that we could live quite comfortably in the ice city. There was little food, but we were only three people and it would last us a long time. We could make a new life here.
“You’d die of boredom in a month,” I laughed. “Master thieves—content to stagnate forever? No, no. We’ll leave as soon as we’ve slept.”
“Without me,” Ghan Karr muttered. “I won’t walk another foot on that barren waste outside.”
“I don’t think we’ll have to walk.” I explained that in a city with such an advanced technology there would be vehicles to carry its people across the icecap. We would find those sleds, use them as they had not been used in centuries. Marga frowned thoughtfully. “What you say may be true, but to venture out again on that snow—” Her words broke off as she shivered.
The food was almost ready. She rose and fussed over it, finding wooden platters and filling them. The meat and the doughballs might be ages old, but they tasted sweet and filled my belly, giving me a warmth that seemed foreign to my chilled body.
Ghan Karr leaned back, smiling, patting his middle. “A few minutes ago I would have thought you mad, Uthian. Now I am not so sure. This place is filled with death, and the living have no liking for the dead as everyday companions. I’ll go with you—if we can find a sled and some way to make it move.”
Marga came around to sit on the arm of the massive wooden chair that was my seat, resting her arm about my shoulders. We had discarded our clumsy outer garments so that I now wore the black leather belt and woolen kilt, the black leather sandals of Uthian the Unmatched. Since the women upon Llarn wear little more than do the men, I found that the contact of her bare arm and side upon me reminded me that Marga was a woman, and an attractive woman, at that.
“Where Uthian goes, I go,” she whispered. She bent her head to press her warm, soft lips to mine. As Alan Morgan, I loved Tuarra of Kharthol; but I was not Alan Morgan at the moment—I was Uthian, the thief. And so I kissed Marga as she kissed me, and with honest enjoyment though I doubted that Tuarra would think very highly of my reasoning.
Still, I was playing a part. If by kissing Marga I could hasten my reunion with Tuarra, I was all for it. However, I decided to say nothing of this to Tuarra, should I ever see her again. Sometimes women fail to understand explanations which seem perfectly obvious to menfolk.
Ghan Karr rose to his feet, stretching. “I’m not tired. I think I’ll go find one of those sleds you seem to think will be somewhere close at hand.”
I said hurriedly, for Marga was still draped about me, “I am tired. While you two slept outside, I was busy.”
Marga nodded, eyes bright. “Yes, Uthian. Sleep! I too shall search for a sled with Ghan Karr.” She whispered in my ear, “I am very anxious to reach Korok and get my reward from Pthorok Tok. As a rich woman I can give up my queen-ship and become a respectable woman. I might even get married.”
I held up a hand. “Uthian has never married,” I said, hoping it was true.
Her mischievous face reassured me as she giggled, “Uthian has waited for Marga.”
I could see a bedchamber through a partly opened door. The bed seemed newly made, its coverlet firm and smooth. I gave Marga a little pat, then moved through the doorway to fling myself on the covers. Instantly, I was asleep.
My body, for all its size and strength, was utterly exhausted. Later Marga told me I slept like a dead man for close to fifteen hours while she and Ghan Karr explored the city in the ice.
Its name, they learned from certain manuscripts they located in a library, was Jakanda. It had been built in the polar ice ages by a dagan who had ordered certain scientific polar experiments to be made. For safety, Jakanda had been located far from his home city. There was no record of these experiments kept in the library, and Marga had not had time to search for laboratories.
Naturally, there was no record of the tragedy which destroyed all life in the city. Yet the automatic machines still maintained the proper temperatures and kept the food fresh. In a large building on the outskirts of the city were more than a dozen sleds, each in excellent condition.
We ate slowly, then packed food in containers to carry with us. I was amused to note that Marga assumed toward me that air of ownership which women always adopt toward the men they have selected to be theirs. It is the habit of Tuarra; it became the habit of the Queen of Thieves.
Carrying our sacks and once again wearing our outer garments, we hurried through the streets. Hope ran high in our veins. A sled to carry us to the edge of the ice field, and after that—well, at least we would be able to eat as we traveled, and Korok was not so far away that we might not reach it in due time.
The sled was a slim length of steel and wood, gently curved to reduce air drafts. It consisted of four seats, one behind the other, with a control panel and steering rod set before the foremost seat. A thin jet jutted out from its rear. I saw old flame marks on the circular exhaust mouth. Ghan Karr settled himself as driver. Marga sprang to the next seat whild I fetched up the rear, placing our sacks in the empty fourth seat. The sled was close to the ice sheath surrounding the city. Between that great ice barrier and the open doors of the sled hanger, there was a thin sheet of ice, kept perpetually frozen by lower temperatures.
The motor turned over, sputtered and died. “It may be difficult to start,” Ghan Karr growled, “after being idle so long. Maybe it won’t even run.”
He made three more attempts with the starter stud before the motor coughed—then kicked to throbbing life. Ghan Karr let it purr for a while, warming, before he ran it out onto the ice.
The ancient scientists who had lived in the ice city had built well. The jet sled was a slim length of lightning as it streaked through the tunnel my grawn made ahead of it. We ran forward until we emerged from the frozen city. The frozen waste was smooth, with only a few snow dunes raised by the etermal winds that swept across its surface. The runners scraped softly; the air was a gale in our faces, and the sled ran without more than its motor hum and the slither of steel runners on ice to mark its passing. We had no idea how long this journey would take, nor where our departure point from the icecap would be, but with the aid of our compasses, we knew we were heading north.
Twice the dimness of the polar night descended on us, but we ignored it to travel on. Four times we ate, until our small supply of food had given out. To judge by outward appearances, we were no nearer the edge of the icecap than before we started.
Then Marga cried out, pointing into the sky where a widewinged bird was gliding on the wind currents. It was a torgal, she said, one of those scavenger birds that preyed on the dead and rotting carcasses of such tundra animals as the hairy musk borks and the voldors. The tundra between the icecap and the great meadowlands of Llarn was not far away. We came to the tundra as the star-sun Alfan was sinking to the west. Ghan Karr suggested we sleep the night here, because to meet a pack of hungry voldors while on foot in the thick grasses of the vast Llarnian tundra would be unpleasant. Though we were armed with swords and grawns, the voldors hunt in packs of fifty to a hundred at times. They were so ferocious they would hurl themselves upon us regardless of the deaths we caused. In the end we would go down as so many other wanderers on this savage planet have gone down, never to be seen again.
As the sky darkened far to the north, we could see the great band of crushed debris that forms a mighty belt high above the surfaces of the planet. Long ago, Llarn had possessed a score of moons. Khartholian scientists had informed me that they varied in size from that of a small asteroid to a great sphere, hundreds of miles wide. They had been drawn together, no man knew how, crashing in the upper atmosphere with a sound that echoed all across the planet.
Those fragments had been caught in perpetual orbit, battering together, breaking apart, until they had destroyed themselves into small chunks of matter that swept eternally around Llarn. By day the band gleamed a pale gold so that it was almost invisible. But when darkness lay upon the land, that bracelet of crushed moon fragments caught the sunlight and reflected it down upon all the other chunks of matter, making them glow silver. It was a magnificent sight, Usually I never tire of seeing those tiny matter motes revolve slowly and brilliantly overhead, but I was exhausted from our struggles. I lay my head back against the seat top and was instantly asleep. It was morning when I woke.
Ghan Karr had been out, hunting. Two small tundra hares were cooking over a fire built from dried musk bork droppings. The smell of roasting meat snapped me wide awake. It was time to eat and then set off across the tundra—toward Korok.
I had no idea how far away that city was, nor did my companions. Ghan Karr had a rough notion, being a native of Larangg, which was not far from Korok. Perhaps a thousand erns, perhaps fifteen hundred; his answer was vague because he did not know just where on the edge of the polar icecap we were standing.
“It makes no difference. A thousand erns or ten thousand, someday well come to Korok.” My fist tightened. “And when we do—Evran Dekk dies.”
It was easy to say. Yet as we walked across the barren world that was the Llarnian tundra, doubt came to me. A thousand erns was a little more than a thousand earth miles, miles of rough ground filled with dangers at which I could only guess. The voldors and the hairy musk borks of the tundra, if we survived them, would give way to the sporads that roamed the meadowlands and the low mountains that comprised most parts of Llarn. Then too, there were the humans,
Llarn, though smaller than Earth, is a very large planet. Its oceans, except for Ytal and Okyl to the north, have dried up. Those ancient sea bottoms are meadowlands now or deserts. And these vast stretches of ground are inhabited by races of men made strange and altered by the radioactive results of The War.
Many of these humanoids are no longer men, as we know men. They are—different. The blue men of Azorra had evolved from the blue apes of Llarn; the yuul had been altered from no man knows what. There are others, I suppose, unknown even to the great cities of Kharthol and Moorm.
The immensity of the Llarnian tundras is breathtaking to a man who has never known them. The stretch across thousands of erns, flat and wide and covered over with sparse grasses. The sun is a hot ball in the sky in the middle of the day, and the nights are freezing. It was not a pleasant prospect which stretched before us.
Three days we walked before we shot our first food, a fat grass deer, and roasted it over a meager fire. Fortunately, there were water seeps here and there, for much of this section of the land was marshy, and the water is cold and sweet.
Even if we traveled close to thirty erns a day, it was slow going. Despair etched itself on Marga’s face. Even Ghan Karr, buoyed as he was by hope of revenge on Evran Dekk, was glum.
“It will take us more than twice a Llarn month before we reach the end,” he muttered as we settled down to sleep. “What else is there to do?” I asked, and he was silent. Next day, a little after noon, Marga cried out and pointed at something moving through the air. It looked like a flier at a distance, but the more I watched, the more confident I became it was just some great bird wheeling and dipping far away. Its movements were too erratic to be those of a mechanical machine.
“A bird? No, no,” Ghan Karr said. “Look now! See, it comes straight toward us. It has seen us.”
Behind the thing were others of its kind, perhaps twenty in all. As they neared us, I found that I was right. They were birds, giant Oomfors, and each one carried a man riding on its back. Each man had a rope of some sort coiled over a shoulder. At sight of us, the bird riders uncoiled those ropes and began to swing them.
My grawn was in my hand. “Do we kill them? Or do we let them capture us and fly us across these miles of tundra?” I asked.
“They may be friendly,” Marga breathed. She smiled wryly as she said it. There are few friendly races on Llarn. Ever since The War, its people have fought to live, to stay alive, until fighting has become their way of life. I do not mind fighting—in fact, I relish it when the odds are anywhere close to being even. Odds of twenty to three are not to my liking, especially when one of the three is a girl.
Even less to my liking, however, was the prospect of victory unless we could capture three of those birds. I would rather risk escape from the bird-men than face the thousand and more miles of barren tundra which lay before us. And so I made the peace sign.
The leading rider ignored it to hurl his noose at me. I dodged it easily enough, but two other ropes were in the air at the same time. One of them settled about my chest, yanking my arms to my sides. At the same time, Ghan Karr went down to be dragged a dozen feet. Marga lifted her hands helplessly.
The oomfors settled to the ground with a vast flapping of huge white wings. The foremost rider, who by his trappings I judged to be a korbar, or captain of troops, swung down and strode toward us.
He was thin and walked with a peculiar gliding gait I was later to learn is common to his kind, the Avokooms. He was handsome and tall, and apparently friendly, for he asked us politely where we were from and why we were violating the lands of his people.
“We had no intention of violating your territorial rights,” I assured him. “We were abandoned on the icecap and are struggling to reach some city where we might hire a flier to return home.”
“You will have to come with us,” the officer told me. We were drawn up onto the backs of two of the largest oomfors. A moment later we were in the air. Sitting a flying, oomfor is not as easy as the Avokooms make it seem. I came close to sliding off three times before the korbar whose passenger I was, told me to clasp his middle and hang on. From babyhood, the Avokooms are trained to ride oomfors, and as a result the gripping muscles of their thighs are very powerfully developed.
I noted that the oomfors carrying Marga, Ghan Karr and myself were laboring heavily under their double burdens. When I commented on this, Avu Uvram, for such was the name of the officer, laughed lightly.
“Add to that the fact that our bones are hollow as are those of the birds, and you may understand it. I, for instance, with hollow bones and little flesh upon my body, weigh only about eighty puls. You must go close to two hundred.”
I saw where the oomfor would get tired. As a matter of fact, the korbar ordered his troop to land and switch mounts three times before we came at last to his home city of Avuvava.
From our height and at a distance, the city looked like a pile of rocks, colored white and red in varying shades. From the cruising height of a flier, a man would judge that city to be no more than an accumulation of boulders, gigantic though some of them might be. In this manner, Avu Uvram assured me, his kind had remained in seclusion, safe from attack by enemies for more than a thousand years.
We landed and were marched to the nearest boulder, a section of which opened to admit us into a pleasant room with a polished marble floor in the exact center of which was set a large black circle rimmed with a high railing. Avu Uvram ted a section of the railing, invited us to step in with him.
The black circle began to sink. Past the floor level we went, down a shaft of smooth glass into a vast chamber where dozens of oomfors were stabled. The false boulders, I was given to understand, are no more than a disguise for many such elevators which lead into a vast system of caves or homes for the Avokooms.
We were escorted through an intricate system of cavetunnels, past rooms fitted out luxuriously. I was hopelessly confused by the time we finally entered a cave larger and more richly furnished than any we had seen.
An officer in white harness fitted with the device of Ulmu Avga, Dagan of Avuvava, accepted us into his charge. Courteously enough, he asked that we disarm ourselves, since it was forbidden to carry weapons into the presence of the dagan.
I hesitated. Without weapons on Llarn, a man is peculiarly helpless, since his sword and his grawn go everywhere a man goes. Nevertheless, there was little I could do about it. We disarmed ourselves meekly and followed the man in the white harness through a curtained doorway into a room hung from ceiling to floor along its walls by gossamer veils of varying colors. The floor itself was pearl, and the ceiling was hung with the same gossamer veiling that shrouded the walls. The room possessed the appearance of floating in air.
On a golden stool at the far end of the room sat a man whose white leather belt and white kilt were hung with jewels. Jewels flashed too on his sandals, and his scabbard was a veritable treasure house of scarlet rubies and bluewhite diamonds. As Uthian, I would have thrilled to see that wealth. As Uthian, I would have laid plans to steal them.
And so, under my breath I said to Marga, “The scabbard Queen of Thieves, I shall steal that thing before we leave for Korok.”
“We shall never leave for Korok,” she whispered dully. The dagan lifted his arm, gestured us to approach. His eyes, as we came near, never left the shape of the girl who walked beside me. Disheveled she was, her thick red hair falling about her smooth white shoulders, her kilt ripped and stained, her boots torn. There was a smudge of dirt on her chin, and again on her arm. But I must admit she was lovely, and could well inspire the sudden brightness in the eyes of Ulmu Avga.
“The woman I shall accept,” the dagan said suddenly, nodding. For the first time he looked at Ghan Karr and at me. “The men may go to the atmosphere cave.”
Marga whirled and threw herself into my arms. “Uthian no! Save me,” she cried. Under her breath she added, “I shall get the scabbard for you, Uthian—if you can figure out how we can escape from this place”
The officer was at my elbow, yanking us apart. It would have been a simple matter to fell him with a blow, but the instincts of the fighting man told me it would not, could not be that simple. The dagan sat alone and seemingly unprotected on his golden stool. There were no soldiers in view. Fell the officer, grab Ulmu Avga as a hostage, and I read the eyes of the officer, and relaxed. He was too confident, too sure of the situation. Then my eyes fell on the lengths of gossamer that veiled much of the great throne room. An army might be hiding behind those curtains. I let Marga be pulled away, drawn toward the golden stool where . Ulmu Avga sat.
Then the officer motioned Ghan Karr and me to follow him. At the doorway I cast a last glance back at Marga where she stood obediently before the Dagan of Avuvava. Then I looked at the gossamer veils. A trick of the light showed the shadows of armed men behind those draperies. Had I yielded to my first impulse and fought, I might now be a dead man.
Ghan Karr and I followed the officer meekly.
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