‘Aye! My tribe still lives,’ Aajika said defiantly. ‘And Kursaal has come to rescue me.’
Yek Zerab eyed Kursaal sardonically. ‘My,’ he added, ‘your taste in lovers runs to the well-developed, girl. What a slave will this stalwart fellow make! I should think he will last at least six lunations in the orichalcum mines of Atlantis.’ He lowered his spear and pointed it menacingly at Kursaal.
‘We hoped that some of your fellow warriors would surrender themselves into slavery,’ the other pale man told Kursaal. ‘But they evaded us and got away into the swamp trees where we couldn’t follow in our atmosphere craft. How they fled! Like frightened apes.’
‘My people,’ Kursaal said dangerously, ‘never surrender. Your allies the Deathcaps should have told you that.’
‘Nevertheless,’ said Yek-Zerab, ‘you have only two options. Either surrender and join your fellow slaves in the pen, or I will shoot you down where you stand. Which is it to be?’
Kursaal did not move. The stockier man looked from the Venusian to his Terran comrade. ‘He’ll do it, you know,’ he warned Kursaal. ‘These vril lances we carry aren’t for show.’ When Kursaal still did not react, the stocky Terran levelled his and fired off a shot at the ground beside Kursaal. Fire leapt up from the wooden planks and began licking around the wicker bars of the pen. The slaves woke up shrieking.
‘You fool, Beb-Awer!’ Yek-Zerab barked, turning to strike his companion. ‘Look what you have done!’
Kursaal sprang.
Like a hunting reptile he leapt upon Yek-Zerab, bone knife in paw. The Terran went sprawling, his vril lance clattered across the ground to rest in the lea of the airship, but Kursaal hauled him to his feet, holding the bone knife to his throat. He swung round to Beb-Awer.
‘I’ll kill him,’ he vowed as Yek-Zerab struggled in his brawny arms. ‘I’ll kill him—unless you help us escape.’
But Beb-Awer was too busy trying to extinguish the fire he had inadvertently begun to respond. He sheathed his vril lance and took off his cloak, trying to beat out the flames, but they only grew, and his cloak began to burn. Aajika and Wanii and the others were beating against the wicker bars from the inside. From the surrounding huts came a wailing and Deathcap people staggered out. Kursaal saw a man appeared from one of the bigger huts, and through the growing smoke he recognised him from the bone choker he wore around his neck.
Bone Choker also saw him. ‘You!’ he snarled. He stared around him in horror at the growing disaster.
‘Free me!’ Yek-Zerab cried in a choked voice. Kursaal’s forearm was clenched across his windpipe and he was being half strangled. Kursaal pressed his chert dagger harder against the pulsating blood vessel in his throat.
‘Quiet, or die,’ he instructed. Then he turned to Beb-Awer. ‘Set the slaves free before they die!’
Now the fires had spread to the pens where the riding reptiles were kept. People were running about the place, frightened by the fires. But when the reptiles began to panic, the chaos increased. One terrified creature began smashing at the bars, just as Aajika and her fellow slaves did on the far side of the square.
Bone Choker gathered men together, issuing instructions. Soon a chain of them was passing up leather buckets full of lagoon water to fling at the flames. But already the fires were taking hold, and the greatest buildings of the floating island were blazing.
‘See what your foolishness has done?’ Yek-Zerab said to Beb-Awer. ‘What are you doing now? No! You mustn’t!’ He broke off as Kursaal dug the dagger deeper into his flesh, and watched in despair as Beb-Awer untied the withes that kept the pen door shut.
Aajika and her fellow slaves flooded out, some racing away towards the water, others standing in a frightened huddle. Aajika and Wanii remained near Kursaal. The flames had taken hold of much of the pen and as they left it, it collapsed in a shower of sparks. Beb-Awer leapt back, and almost collided with Kursaal and Yek-Zerab. He turned round nervously.
‘Take us on board your airship,’ said Kursaal. ‘Do it!’ he added, shouting over the noise and confusion of the panicked settlement. Beb-Awer looked uncertain, and traced his dagger lightly across Yek-Zerab’s throat. ‘Or your leader dies.’
‘Do as he says,’ Yek-Zerab said. ‘We would be better off aboard the atmosphere craft.’
Kursaal beckoned Aajika and Wanii and other others with his head. ‘Follow me,’ he said.
Beb-Awer led them into the airship. Kursaal came next, pushing Yek-Zerab before him. Aajika and the other freed slaves came anxiously after.
A short passageway of some black, glittering substance led past two doorways and into the main cabin of the airship. The freed slaves entered this in wonder, peering round them at the incomprehensible scene. A great crystal viewport looked out on a scene of confusion, the entire settlement on fire, with warriors and villagers and reptiles running in all directions while escaped slaves leapt from the sides into the water or commandeered canoes. Kursaal saw Bone Choker in the middle, an expression of anger on his painted face. While others continued to fight the fires, he was leading his spearmen towards the open doors of the airship.
‘Close the doors,’ he snapped at Beb-Awer, who went to a kind of jewel studded shelf that ran along the wall beneath the viewport, and pressed a red jewel. There was a humming sound from down the passageway, followed by a clang. Kursaal saw Bone Choker and his men reached the doors just in time for them to shut in their faces. Now the flames spread to encircle the village square. All the huts were ablaze. Bone Choker spat a curse, and went to help fight the fire.
‘You must fly us away from here,’ Kursaal said. He had no understanding of the airship or its workings, but he knew that they would soon be burnt alive if they did not get out. Already the hull of the vessel was growing uncomfortably hot.
Beb-Awer looked from him to Yek-Zerab.
‘I cannot take off alone. I must call the rest…’
‘You must let me help him,’ Yek-Zerab interrupted. ‘One man cannot operate the atmosphere craft. Even a crew of two will find it difficult.’
‘Very well,’ said Kursaal, but he did not set the Terran free. ‘You will do what you must while I keep my dagger to your throat.’
As Beb-Awer went to sit on a large black chair in the centre of the cabin, Yek-Zerab gave an incredulous laugh. ‘I must be free to move about,’ he told Kursaal patronisingly. ‘You know nothing of this matter. If we are to take off, I suggest you set me free.’
‘The fires are really starting to take hold now,’ Beb-Awer said warningly. ‘This is an atmosphere craft, not an ether ship, it’s not designed to stand up to heat. We will be baked alive if we don’t take off soon.’
‘How do I know that I can trust you if I set you free,’ Kursaal asked Yek-Zerab. ‘How do I know that you don’t plan some treachery?’
Yek-Zerab laughed. ‘You don’t,’ he said shortly. ‘But if you don’t set me free, we will all die. You. Me. These slaves you have so heroically rescued. All your efforts will be as nothing, and your brief life will be at an end.’
As he spoke, the flames began to lick around the crystal port.
‘Set him free.’ Aajika’s voice rang out through the cabin.
‘But we cannot trust him,’ Kursaal said patiently, without looking at her. ‘He will betray us. I know he is planning some treachery. If I free him, I throw away our only chance of escape.’ Sweat ran down his scalp as he spoke. The temperature of the cabin was increasing.
‘If we don’t take off right away, we will die,’ said Beb-Awer tremulously, looking up from where he sat. ‘Set Yek-Zerab free, you savage!’
‘Set him free,’ Aajika said again, and this time there was something in her tone that made Kursaal turn to look at her.
She stood in the middle of the cabin, holding in her paws the vril lance that Yek-Zerab had dropped when Kursaal attacked him. It was levelled at Yek-Zerab.
‘Set him free,’ she said, ‘and I will make sure that he does nothing treacherous.’
‘You don’t know how to work that thing,’ Kursaal said.
Aajika’s paws moved, and a crimson beam shot out and exploded against the far bulkhead. The two Terrans jumped in shock.
‘Don’t fire that thing!’ Yek-Zerab pleaded. ‘You don’t know what havoc you could wreak in here! Very well, very well! I will help Beb-Awer take off. I will not try any treachery!’
‘And quickly,’ cried Beb-Awer. ‘Already there are fires on the hull.’
With a grunt, Kursaal released his hold on Yek-Zerab. He lowered his dagger and gestured to the man to take his place.
In a swirl of red cloak, Yek-Zerab strode to the jewelled shelf beneath the crystal viewport. He looked over at Beb-Awer, sitting on the large chair, then ran his fingers across the jewels. There was a thrum of noise from somewhere beneath the deck. Beb-Awer operated some similar controls on the arm of his chair. Keeping his eyes on the two Terrans, Kursaal crossed over to stand beside Aajika and the other slaves.
‘Well done,’ he said. ‘How did you learn how to control that weapon?’
She looked up at him. ‘I watched them,’ she said. ‘Ever since the Deathcaps brought us here and I discovered who were to be our owners, I have watched them. There is a stud’—she lifted the vril lance to show him—’that operates it.’
Kursaal felt another vibration run through the deck. On the crystal viewport, the scene began to change as they rose up through the pluming smoke. Now the flames were below them.
‘That was clever of you,’ he said.
‘My sister is very clever,’ said a younger she, thrusting herself forward and scowling. ‘She would have got us out of there if you had not come.’ Kursaal had seen the she in Aajika’s cave.
‘Wanii!’ Aajika said reprovingly. ‘You know that’s not true.’
The airship seemed to stop rising. Kursaal saw that they were hovering over the blazing settlement. From up here, he could see that the floating island was anchored in a lagoon, encircled on all sides by sandbars and swamp. On the far side from the swamp, whose jivnik trees were visible on the extreme left of the viewport, stretched the motionless waters of the Venusian ocean.
‘Why have we stopped?’ Kursaal demanded.
Beb-Awer looked helplessly to Yek-Zerab. The Terran leader gave the Venusian savage a hooded look. ‘We are awaiting your instructions,’ he said. ‘Since you have hijacked our atmosphere craft, you could have the decency to give us clear destination coordinates.’
‘What does that mean?’ Kursaal said, bewildered.
‘Where are we going?’ Beb-Awer translated Yek-Zerab’s words. ‘Right now, we are hovering above the lagoon settlement. Our vril beams will keep us stationary only for so long before we begin to lose power. We need to know where we are going.’
‘Take us ashore, then,’ said Kursaal. ‘Beyond the jivnik swamp. Once we are back in our own territory…’
‘Yes?’ said Yek-Zerab, looking up from his jewels.
‘Once we are back home,’ said Kursaal, ‘then we will decide what is to be your fate.’
As Beb-Awer and Yek-Zerab guided the airship northwards across the lagoon and towards the jivnik trees that grew along the swampy shore, Kursaal imagined how strong his tribe could become if they owned such a vessel. None of the other tribes he knew of had air power, except some of the mountain tribes who were said to fly into battle on winged reptiles. But this was only hearsay, if not myth. Should the Crag Tribe have control of airships, they could become richer and more powerful. The Deathcaps would raid them no more. Indeed, it would be the Deathcaps who would pay tribute to the Tribe.
So intent was Kursaal on his meditations, he did not notice the door to the cabin, beyond where Aajika stood and the cluster of freed slaves were sitting, opening to the slightest crack. Someone was watching them from the passage beyond.
‘What will we do with them?’ Aajika asked, moving to stand beside Kursaal.
He turned to look fondly down at her. ‘We will give them their just deserts,’ he promised her. ‘Did they hurt you?’
‘They were brutal and uncaring,’ she said, ‘but not as bad as the Deathcaps. I hope the other slaves escaped the floating island, but if the Deathcaps are all killed, I would not grieve.’
‘None should grieve for the deaths of enemies,’ Kursaal said. ‘When we return to the caves, we will take action that will ensure that the Tribe is never threatened again. If word of the retreat of my father and the others is bruited abroad, the tribes of the mountains and the shore will think the Crag Tribe are weaklings. But we are not. We have defeated the Deathcaps and we now have power possessed by no other tribe.’
‘Do you mean the airship?’ she asked. ‘But we do not know how it works.’
‘But we have our own slaves now,’ Kursaal said, ‘who can work it. I will lead the Tribe to greatness, Aajika, and you will be my queen.’
Aajika gazed up at him wonderingly, and looked to where Wanii was watching the two of them beadily. ‘But you know that cannot be, Kursaal,’ she said with a laugh. ‘Would you conquer all the tribes and break all law and custom too? It is impossible. You cannot take me as your mate for we are of the same tribe.’
She patted him on his muscular arm. ‘Do not fret,’ she added. ‘You have proved yourself a mighty warrior this day. You will go out into the world to win yourself a queen worthy of such a great fighter, the most beauteous maiden of the strongest tribe you will lead back to your cave to bear your cubs. I believe in you.’
Seeing the adoration in her eyes yet also hearing her words, Kursaal felt only despair at the constraints of tribal custom. She loved him, he was sure of it. And yet these laws and traditions would keep them apart.
His head sank despondently on his breast.



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