Kingdom of the Silver Sea

by Sawyer Grey (UNEDITED PROOF)
 

Chapter 8
AMONG THE MARTIANS

 
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Chapter 1 - Trapped in Odusar
Chapter 2 - The Death of Kent
Chapter 3 - Return to Stanleyville
Chapter 4 - The Vengeance of Mor Teral
Chapter 5 - Assassins in Ehnvar Darsic
Chapter 6 - The Karthasa
Chapter 7 - The Silver Sea
Chapter 8 - Among the Martians
 

By the time dawn had turned the Silver Sea to a sheet of molten gold, Jackson's crew had mounted one of Aurora's mooring windlasses near the edge of the cliff. Wearing the leather harness we had improvised, Hicks looked down the sheer face of the cliffs and gave me a wild grin.

"Remember," I told him, "try to keep yourself from swinging about. Just fend yourself off the rocks as lightly as you can."

He gave me a thumbs-up, and Jackson's men lowered him over the edge. Mor Teral and one of the Maatgon soldiers had gone down first and lay hidden in the brush at the base of the cliffs. I wanted to be the first down, but Mor Teral had argued that neither of them were crucial to the success of our expedition, while if anything happened to me the survivors would have to make explanations to Margaret Wylie. That cinched the deal; I would be last down the ropes unless I wanted the entire crew of Aurora to sit on me. I waited impatiently for Hicks to reach the bottom, and then it was my turn.

Minutes later I stood on the boulder-strewn slopes beside the others. As I unfastened the leather harness, the men at the top of the cliff drew it and the rope back up. We wanted to leave no easy clues for any unfriendly eyes to follow. We settled our packs and descended towards the east, where we had seen the smoke the day before. Already the air was noticeably warmer than in our valley above, and it was not long before we passed from sparse mountain brush into the thick tree line of the jungle.

I saw trees resembling the pipe trees and flame trees that I knew, and a multitude of others that I still do not know the names of. I imagine they now exist only in the hothouse of the Silver Sea basin, unless perhaps the forbidden shores of the Hellas Sea are as lush. Twice we had to wade across small streams, their clear, ice-cold water obviously runoff from the snows and ices that draped the peaks towering behind us. A host of four-winged birds exploded into flight with every noise we made in passing, and the air reverberated with their incessant cries and the droning calls of the eight and ten-legged arthropods that passed for insects on Mars. Here and there we caught a glimpse of some nameless animal as it flickered through the dense foliage, and every few minutes we came across the footprints of some larger animal where it had lurked along a worn game trail.

We pushed on through lunch, gnawing a bit of dried food as we walked. The dense growth held our progress to a crawl, and I wanted to waste no time stopping until we located the source of the fire. As the sun crept high overhead the heat beneath the trees grew oppressive, the air trapped there heavy and thick with moisture. Water dripped from every leaf and twig so that we were all quickly soaked through. Our barbarian friends had never experienced anything like it, and did not seem to care for it in the least.

Mor Teral stalked through the growth ahead of us with a scowl, his great curved blade held before him to help clear the way. Even out of his element he moved like a shadow in the dappled twilight beneath the trees. Suddenly he flung up a hand for us to wait, his head darting from side to side as if listening for something. Long seconds passed and he turned to walk back towards us, a rueful look on his face. Around us the jungle noises died away until the only sound was the drip-drip-drip of water pattering on the leaves.

"I'm sorry, Jack," he said. "I led us right into them."

From behind us, to the north, came the eerie, low thrum of a Martian bullroarer. Another answered it to the south, followed a few seconds later by more to the east and west, until their shrieking chorus sent chills down our spines. We were surrounded.

We herded together, looking for what cover the jungle could provide, and readied our weapons. Our unseen hunters did not keep us waiting for long. Twenty blue-skinned Martians astride tall, shaggy rinnians emerged silently from the jungle all around us. I could see others on foot hanging back where the thicker growth offered more protection. All of them had their long recurved bows strung with arrows aimed at us, but made no move to attack.

With forty of them and four of us, the odds of fighting did not greatly appeal to me. I slowly lowered my rifle and handed it to Mor Teral, then stepped forwards with my hands held high so they could see I was unarmed.

"Hello?" I ventured in Martian.

A low conversation ensued among the riders, and after a brief argument one of them made a curt motion of his hand and nudged his rinnian forward until we were only ten feet apart.

"I am Isdin Met, dhras of my people. A blind man could see that you are strangers here, and you travel our lands without leave. We wish no quarrel, but I would know your intentions."

Like most of the isolated populations of Mars, his dialect was strange but understandable. I turned my head to the others and motioned downwards with my hands until they had all lowered their weapons, then I looked back at Isdin Met.

"I greet you, O dhras. I am Jack Branham." I gladly fell into the ritualized, almost formal mode of speech used by the Martians. It had been years since I used it, but I slipped into it like an old boot. I quickly introduced the others. "We did not mean to give offense. We became lost and found ourselves in your lands, and when we saw your fire yesterday we agreed that we should approach you and seek your aid."

Isdin Met cocked his head. "Seldom do strangers find their way into the lands of Vos Delavra. The mountains are high, the passes are few, and those are guarded. How came you here?"

"We were travelling in a flying ship and were caught in the karthasa. It blew us where it would until we crashed in a small valley in the mountains two nights ago."

"A flying ship," the dhras called back to his warriors. "Do you hear?"

"Isdin Met, I assure you it is true. Surely you still have legends of such things?"

"Yes, Jack Branham, legends and more." He sent a stream of orders to his waiting men, who turned and disappeared into the foliage once again except for five riders who trotted up to flank their chief.

"Jack Branham, will you accept our hospitality this night? I would hear more of your tale, and this jungle is a dangerous place to camp for those who do not know its perils."

I had little choice, so I nodded. Besides, I was curious and they just might be able to offer us some help. "Thank you, O dhras. We gladly accept."

The Martian village could have been plucked from almost any tropical nation on Earth. Long, open lodges made of a strong but very light wood rose on tall stilts around a broad clearing. Muddy fields hacked from the jungle to the east provided both crops and forage for their rinnians and a strange small, reddish breed of nilkur I had never seen before. A crowd of the women, children, and elderly appeared as if by magic as soon as we entered the clearing, all intent on seeing the strangers their dhras led among them. I sensed no hostility, just open curiosity and a fair bit of childish glee at the upset of their daily routines.

Isdin Met bade us to be seated on the wooden benches that lined the clearing, and sent his people off to fetch us refreshments. Once we were comfortable and our bellies full, he came and settled himself near us.

"Now, Jack Branham, tell us why you are here, and how we may assist you."

I considered this for a moment, and decided that the truth would probably serve us best. The Martian tribesmen I had met loved the telling of tales, the more dramatic and bloody the better, with desperate love affairs and treachery an added bonus. I told it all from the beginning, leaving nothing out. At first the audience interjected questions or disbelieving comments, but by the end they all sat in enraptured silence, hanging on every word. As I wound down, the dhras handed me a jug of liquor similar to rum, and I belted back a long slug before handing it to Hicks, who choked and sputtered over it.

"Jack Branham, you are either a mighty warrior or a wonderful liar," said Isdin Met. "I did not hear the ring of falsehood in your tale, though. My tribe will be honored to help you in any way that we can." He looked around the clearing for a moment. "I do not know how we can offer you much aid directly, but we can provide you with information about the lands you find yourself in.

"You stand inside a ring of mountains, Balakat Garanion. The lands inside the mountains slope down like a bowl with the sea, Vos Dalavra, in the middle. A narrow strip of land filled mostly with jungle like this circles the sea. These lands are the Kingdom of the Silver Sea. Here in the north and the west, the lands are but little peopled; only a few villages such as this one are scattered about. The jungle has claimed four great cities such as those you spoke of, and men do not go there. They are the abode of terrible things, fell creatures and beasts in the shape of men."

The dhras' people near us shuddered at that. "What about the south?" I asked.

"To the south and east lies the heart of the Kingdom of the Silver Sea. In ages past three mighty rivers cut through the mountains and emptied into Vos Delavra: Eltenin, Niyon, and Toronar. Near the mouth of each river our ancestors placed a city: Sapiltin Pek, Kor Vosheth, and Sirin Tan. Today the rivers are but trickles flowing through their wide beds, but the cities remain. From the white towers of Kor Vosheth a man of your people reigns over all the lands around Vos Delavra. His ships patrol Vos Delavra, and his soldiers maintain order wherever they go."

Hicks nodded as he took a cautious pull from the jug. "We had heard rumors that some of the cities around the Silver Sea survived the Collapse."

"Yes. The survivors preserved much as they could. You would have to go to the cities to learn more, though. I know only what little we have pieced together from stories over the ages."

"If they did preserve their civilization, they might be able to help us repair Aurora," I mused.

Mor Teral leaned back and frowned at me. "Or they might kill us and take it for themselves."

"Thanks for putting that in my head," I growled.

"I think that they would probably be glad to hear your tale, Jack Branham, and aught else that you can tell them of the world outside. They are a proud people, fierce and quick to anger, but they are not of an evil nature."

"I hope you are right, Isdin Met. I am afraid we must go and seek their help; our flying ship is unlikely to ever leave the ground again with only our own efforts."

The dhras' eyes narrowed and lips pressed together in a Martian frown. "Then you must be wary. There may be other strangers guesting in the three cities, and from your tale they may not be friendly to you."

Mor Teral leaned forward and snagged the liquor jug from a Martian warrior. "Other strangers? What do you mean?"

"Some seventy days ago a flying machine like the one you say that you arrived in flew high above our village and vanished to the south."

We stared at one another, stunned. None of us had expected to hear anything like that. "What would another airship be doing here?"

"I know only what I have told you. Your surprise makes me that much more certain of the truth of your words. Well, from your own words you have many powerful enemies, so be cautious in the cities of the south."

Isdin Met clapped his hands and summoned his women. "Prepare sleeping places for our guests. The night grows late, and they will desire an early start."

About the time we finished off the last of the jug, two of Isdin Met's women came and led us up the high ladder of the dhras' stilt-house, where four thin pallets had been arranged for us in one of the large, open rooms. We flung ourselves down gratefully and in our weariness fell almost instantly asleep, despite the cacophony of jungle noises that blasted us from all sides. It seemed as though we had just lain down when gentle hands shook us awake. I could still see stars twinkling through the open windows, with only the faintest tinge of red in the sky to the east hinting of dawn. The dhras joined us for breakfast, and offered his advice on our plans to reach the southern cities.

"Listen well, strangers. Your path lies to the east, along the edge of the sea; six days from here there is an outpost of soldiers. If you reach them, one of their ships may carry you the rest of the way to your destination. Three days from here is the dry watercourse that once held the river Ram Ogran. On its banks are the ruins of one of the old cities." He leaned forward and stared hard at us. "As you value your lives, do not enter the city. The horrors that lurk there would feast upon your bones. Stay well beyond its outskirts or you will not live to see Kor Vosheth."

I said farewell with a pang. I had desperately missed the company of Martians; our night in the village brought back memories of happier times spent with Margaret in the company of our Martian guides Mir Dalei and Harnan Vitor. With a final wave we stepped into the jungle at the edge of the village fields and walked into the unknown.