THE SWORDSMEN

OF VARNIS

BY GEOFFREY COBBE

The twin moons brooded over the red deserts of Mars and the ruined city of Khua-Loanis. The night wind sighed around the fragile spires and whispered at the fretted lattice windows of the empty temples, and the red dust made it like a city of copper.

It was close to midnight when the distant rumble of racing hooves reached the city, and soon the riders thundered in under the ancient gateway. Tharn, Warrior Lord of Loanis, leading his persuers by a scant twenty yards, realised wearily that his lead was shortening, and raked the scaly flanks of his six-legged vorkl with cruel spurs. The faithful beast gave a low cry of despair as it tried to obey and failed.

In front of Tharn in the big double saddle sat Lehni-tal-Loanis, Royal Lady of Mars, riding the ungainly animal with easy grace, leaning forward along its arching neck to murmur swift words of encouragement into its flattened ears. Then she lay back against Tharn's mailed chest and turned her lovely face up to his, flushed and vivid with the excitement of the chase, amber eyes aflame with love for her strange hero from beyond time and space.

'We shall win this race yet, my Tharn,' she cried. 'Yonder through that archway lies the Temple of the Living Vapour, and once there we can defy all the hordes of Varnis!' Looking down at the unearthly beauty of her, at the subtle curve of throat and breast and thigh, revealed as the wind tore at her scanty garments, Tharn knew that even if the Swordsmen of Varnis struck him down his strange odyssey would not have been in vain.

But the girl had judged the distance correctly and Tharn brought their snorting vorkl to a sliding, rearing halt at the great doors of the Temple, just as the Swordsmen reached the outer archway and jammed there in a struggling, cursing mass. In seconds they had sorted themselves out and came streaming across the courtyard, but the delay had given Tharn time to dismount and take his stand in one of the great doorways. He knew that if he could hold it for a few moments while Lehni-tal-Loanis got the door open, then the secret of the Living Vapour would be theirs, and with it the mastery of all the lands of Loanis.

The Swordsmen tried first to ride him down, but the doorway was so narrow and deep that Tharn had only to drive his swordpoint upwards into the first vorkl's throat and leap backwards as the dying beast fell. Its rider was stunned by the fall, and Thorn bounded up onto the dead animal and beheaded the unfortunate Swordsman without compunction. There were ten of his enemies left and they came at him now on foot, but the confining doorway prevented them from attacking more than four abreast, and Tharn's elevated position upon the huge carcass gave him the advantage he needed. The fire of battle was in his veins now, and he bared his teeth and laughed in their faces, and his reddened sword wove a pattern of cold death which none could pass.

Lehni-tal-Loanis, running quick cool fingers over the pitted bronze of the door, found the radiation lock and pressed her glowing opalescent thumb-ring into the socket, gave a little sob of relief as she heard hidden tumblers falling. With agonising slowness the ancient mechanism began to open the door; soon Tharn heard the girl's clear voice call above the clashing steel, 'Inside, my Tharn, the secret of the Living Vapour is ours!'

But Tharn, with four of his foes dead now, and seven to go, could not retreat from his position on top of the dead vorkl without grave risk of being cut down, and Lehni-tal-Loanis, quickly realising this, sprang up beside him, drawing her own blade and crying, 'Aie, my love! I will be your left arm!'

Now the cold hand of defeat gripped the hearts of the Swordsmen of Varnis: two, three, four more of them mingled their blood with the red dust of the courtyard as Tharn and his fighting princess swung their merciless blades in perfect unison. It seemed that nothing could prevent them now from winning the mysterious secret of the Living Vapour, but they reckoned without the treachery of one of the remaining Swordsmen. Leaping backwards out of the conflict he flung his sword on the ground in disgust. 'Aw, the Hell with it!' he grunted, and unclipping a proton gun from his belt he blasted Lehni-tal-Loanis and her Warrior Lord out of existence with a searing energy beam.

(to be discontinued)


Data entry and page scans provided by Judy Bemis

Data entered by Judy Bemis

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