The young Arbarri'Eaal woman was nearly dead. She struggle to stay on her feet and in fact had fallen a number of times. But she struggled on for her own survival with a will that was tenacious. It was her only way to make it to that large mountain canyon in the distance, she knew, that had the best chance of having running water in it.
Her air ship had simply quit working. She did not know what had happened and let it glide to the earth were she made a long skidding, powerless landing, but she could not repair the craft. She had tried, but knew nothing of their workings. There was no alternative for her. She had to walk out of the salt flats.
That's all she thought about and struggled to get to the next small stone or mound of salt she saw laying in the near distance. It was a goal, a mini goal, but a way to force her dehydrated body to get to the canyon that seemed three Kilons away at times, and at others, less than one, and again, at other moments, further.
She fell again and this time, could not get up. Shattra tried to stand several times, though she merely fell backward or off to the side, but succumbed to the idea, she would not be rising anymore on two feet any longer. So she crawled, after locating the canyon through blurred vision, and struggled to go towards it.
She was making headway, she could tell. The mountain was getting closer but she didn't think she would get to it in time. Not before her body was so dried up that it wouldn't obey her commands.
After ten more minutes, Shattra collapsed, again. I'll just rest for a while, she thought. But deep down, she didn't think she would get up any more, as her breath came in quick shallow gasps, there on her face and belly. Plus, the sun overhead were blistering hot and relentless. She couldn't stand the heat but there was no escaping it, either. She would have cried, but she didn't have the energy or the tears, and after just a few moments, all she sensed was the salty dust blowing off the flats and up in front of her mouth as she breathed in the taste of it, panting like a newborn pet, face down.
It was some time, she thought, laying there in the salt, before she heard the light athletic padding of a sleek, four footed Thoat approaching and thought that might be it. She had known the sound their taloned feet made over ground. They had some semi-tamed ones in the royal stables. They were carnivores but she had never heard of the wild ones ever eating humans. They sometimes attacked humans, to warn them away from their territory, she'd been told, but not eat them. Still, it was dangerous and Shattra waited for the end, almost not caring and hardly conscious. She didn't want to look.
Then something landed on the soft surface of the ground nearby, she barely noted, her eyes still closed, with a noticeable two limbed concussion and a familiar jangle of belted weaponry. She definitely heard something like a man nearby and then a hand touched her shoulder. She flinched, thinking of the Thoat, but the hand merely turned her over on her back. He was an outlander, of some kind, she could barely make out, stealing a glance. He had to be. Who else, what else, what other human would visit these forsaken wastes? But he had water with him, and gave her some, slowly.
After propping her head up in his lap, and monitoring her drinking for ten or so minutes, the man laid her back on the ground and went to his Thoat, bringing back a large spiked umbrella, she noticed, and his saddle, setting the umbrella deep into the ground, she sensed, opening her eyes for a second where they could focus a little better, now. Then thrilling to the shade unfolding up over her with a 'whomp'ing and a snapping sound as the blessed shade covered her body all the way to her ankles. To be out of the sun's strong rays felt wonderful and he gave her more water until she was able to focus her eyes and keep them open. His man's face looked concerned and he smiled down at her, from time to time, but said nothing. Then she saw what he was and what he looked like.
He was a Coln, a name given them centuries ago, meaning wanderer. Those un-rule-able people that had their own band of justice, codes, and laws, everyone presumed, that evaded and hid from all others, apparently, on this dying planet, uninhibited and unafraid of any and all of the half wild and vicious marauding tribes; Or organized civilized countries for that matter, that frequented and dotted the northern latitudes of the planet, here and there.
They were also unique in that they spoke their own language. Everyone on Bou'Tarie spoke the planet wide same language, but not them. But where the Coln had originated from, she recalled her school lessons, now, from what kingdom, originally, they had stemmed from, no one seemed to know. They only knew of them now and that there weren't that many, apparently. So few had ever been seen and only from the air and from a distance, for they were very war-like and protective of their immediate space, apparently. They carried swords like everyone else but were not ashamed to use beam weapons, unlike the rest of the planet's peoples that left those kinds of weapons to the last resort, out of honor. Blue steel was the only honorable way to fight and die, for most civilized kingdoms. She had seen surveillance photos of them and they all wore the same breechcloth and sandals, too, like the one he was wearing, Shattra noted, with the same enigmatic emblems. That's how she recognized what he was, remembering the photographic stills.
Then she recalled her own professor's personal thoughts on the Coln's; for he felt they were simply one man, the very same person people had been reporting on for hundreds of years, with the thousand year life span of most humans on Beau'Tarie, as the few blurry photos of them seemed, to her teacher, to be of the same individual, from his observations. He also qualified his opinion by saying that without some kind of civilized society, how could all those sparsely scattered people out in the waste lands be dressed exactly alike and use the very same emblems and weaponry without a central gathering place, these only male, wanderers seem to wear? No. He was convinced it was the same person people were seeing, years apart.
Shattra gazed upon him now in detail. He was black maned, his hair reaching halfway to his waist, braided at the temples and held in place with a leather band. And -- he was extremely handsome. The face was serious and dark but without cruelty, striking and beautiful, almost feminine in appearance it seemed to her, but certainly male through and through. His muscles were well developed and they stood out beneath his unusually deep golden skin impressively. He was certainly more handsome than any member of her white skinned race, she had ever seen. Even gentlemen of the court weren't this perfectly made, in her opinion. The courts of royalty being where she had spent most of her young life, within the pampered and sheltered confines of her own kingdom of Arbarri'Eaal.
After setting up the umbrella, he got a ground cover from off his Thoat, that stood quietly, unthreatening, and disciplined, nearby, pawing at the salted ground with its front talons. It was a soft rug of worm-silk and he laid it out, rolling her carefully aside, a couple of times, to put it beneath her. Once that was accomplished, he began removing her gossamer clothes and jeweled belt with her dagger still attached. She tried drawing the dagger but he took it from Shattra without effort. She still fought him off as best she could, thinking the worst was about to happen with her being naked, but she could barely lift her arms, much less kick him away. Though after he had finished, he began wiping her naked young beauty down with a cool wet cloth, washing away the dust and salts from her weakened limbs and every secret place and plain of her pink sun-burned skin. The water was cool and refreshing, at first, but then she began to feel cold and felt her core beginning to shiver lightly.
The Coln fed her coarsely dried sweet meats and dried fruits, and more water. Lots more water, but after some time of looking into her eyes, watching her eat and drink, he removed his own loincloth and laid down close to her. She was shivering openly by this time, and he took her in his powerful arms. She didn't know what to think, at first, if he was trying to comfort her or give her added warmth with the sun getting lower in the horizon and the winds picking up. But then her shivering stopped, with his added warmth, and with their first soft kiss, that took her by surprise, she recalled the lesson in planet-history about this people, how it seemed that these Coln's custom was to mate with the women they captured, right away. She was suddenly very afraid of him, growing terrified, and she tried with all her strength to free herself from his smooth broad chest and those muscular arms but it was no use.
However, he seemed to be merely holding her without an effort as she struggled, but made no move to take his attentions further than a kiss.
It wasn't until he tried kissing her on the mouth, again, while touching her face delicately, that she fought all the harder and desperately, but her strength was gone. She was exhausted, and she let him kiss her face, her eyes, and finally, on her quivering lips, once more, still frightened of him.
Her eyes were open and staring at his closed eyelids as she thought how lovely and long his dark eyelashes were. And when he opened them, retreating from the kiss he had just given her, a long, softly caressing touch she still remembered, he smiled most charming, his sweet breath and white teeth thrilling her senses, oddly.
He took her chin in his hand and pecked at her small red mouth, then kissed it again and again and then again, long and with passion's first indulgence. Shattra kissed him back, reluctantly, yes, but still kissing him all the same. She felt secure doing so, as if it might satisfy his needs, but she was inexperienced in these matters, hoping for the best outcome. But now, each touch of his lips lingered upon hers just a little longer, each time. He was very gentle, that was true enough, and very persuasive, and wholly desirable she was beginning to see, to feel, to enjoy, as she began to melt into his tenderness. She was under his spell, she knew, and that was scary.
She told him no, in her language, over and over, in spite of her mouth that couldn't completely turn away or stop kissing him back, sporadically. But she didn't know if he understood or didn't care, continuing his attentions. But as his hands began to touch her, caressing her lovingly, she tried fighting him off some more in a half hearted way. He was so strong, though, indomitable, and she could not make him stop breaking down her objections. And then she didn't want him to, to stop.
So when he pulled the wide billowing blanket up over the top of both of them, she wanted him there, in her arms like that, very deeply.
Shattra awoke from her sleep feeling different. She was well rested and alert and almost felt like she could sing songs all day long, and wanted to get up and walk. But she was also stiff from last nights adventures, and embarrassingly, still in the Coln's strong arms.
He was spooning her, cuddled up behind her in the blanket, still, and seeing her head move, he must have known she was awake. He stroked her soft straight hair and moved it out of the way then kissed the side of her throat. It had an instantaneous electric reaction for her and Shattra groaned, squirming, and then spun over on her side, to meet his attentions full on, once more. She loved his touch.
An hour later, they were in the saddle of the extremely tall Thoat and galloping to the distant canyon she had been headed for in her failed attempt to find water. It was much further than she thought it was, when she'd being trying to get to it on her own, she now saw. And Shattra realized, more than once, how much she owed this wild Coln her life. If it wasn't for him, she would be dead and drying out on the empty ocean beds, back there. A princess of Arbarri'Eaal, that once was, but was no longer, slowly being mummified in the salt.
She sat close, nurturing her newfound adore for him and held onto his back, her arms firmly around his narrow waist, riding together as one with the undulant gallop of the Thoat as if they were still beneath the blanket in the open flats, wondering why he was slowing down, now. They were still quite a distance from the mouth of the broad canyon. But he came to a complete halt and pulled his rifle from the heavy cloth scabbard around the Thoat's neck and touched the sighting scope to activate it.
Very slowly, the Coln surveyed the distant mouth of the canyon. He was being cautious, she thought, looking for trouble and those that might not agree with his being near. The vicious Sokcha, for instance. They were the most numerous of the wild peoples that wandered the salty wastes of these dry ocean beds and the most vicious on their planet, she'd heard. Shattra wondered if he had killed any, but thought how silly that probably was. If he lived out here, he had to have, and not only Sokcha, but the Blue Men of Beau'Tarie as well as the red Ankt'Tah.
With hardly an effort, The Coln turned and reached behind himself and took her in his arm, swinging her around in a three hundred and sixty degree circle and placed her softly on the saddle beneath them, in front of him, as he scooted back. He put the rifle in her hands and brought it to her shoulder. She struggled to hold it up, it was so heavy, but he helped her, then pointed it deep into the canyon, wanting her to look through the site's scope. She understood. It wasn't Sokcha or Blue men, or even the Ank'Tah -- they were Memfa, the dregs of the world. An almost sub human version of the southern latitudes. A few roamed this northern clime. They were slavers and pillagers, murderers, thieves, rapist of both men as well as women of any age. She, of course, had never seen them, except in pictures, but she had been well educated to most peoples in this world, and these were the lowest form of life on Beau'Tarie. She repeated the name aloud. "Memfa," spitting it forth from her mouth as though the word itself had a bad taste to it.
"Yes," the Coln said, in her language, surprising her as he dismounted, speaking clearly in his deep voice. "Memfa. No matter how much we despise them, we must respect their fighting ability. They could not survive out in these waste places if they weren't able to fight well."
"You know my language?" Shattra announced, looking at the tall Coln incredulously, standing next to her and the Thoat.
The Coln looked up at her. He did not smile or frown, as if he had pulled something clever over on her, slipping her from the saddle. But he did hold her tightly, now that she was in his arms, and looked into her eyes, then kissed her sweetly, holding her high and worshipfully, before setting her feet on the ground. He smoothed the sides of her hair and kissed her mouth again, longingly, hungrily, panting as his lips left hers.
"I'll take care of them," he said. "We need water for the next leg of our trip. There is a well over there but you 'must' stay right here, Shattra. I'll come back for you. I'll leave the Thoat. If I'm killed, you take off in this direction," he told her, slipping a compass ball off his neck, suspended by a thin piece of cord, showing her the line through the ocean of desert. "She was watered yesterday," he nodded towards the Thoat, "so she'll probably get you back to Arbarri'Eaal."
How did he know her name? Her origin? She hadn't said anything, yet.
"Keep the rifle and watch what happens to me, just in case," he said, pulling on the reins of the Thoat, twisting its head back and to the side, forcing it to lie down on the ground and pulling Shattra down next to him as he held the animal down, his arm over the animals head. He tried to leave after placing the rifle up over the Thoat's rib cage but Shattra grabbed at him.
"Don't leave me," she begged, horrified at the thought of those Memfa capturing her.
He touched her intimately and kissed her waiting lips. "I'll be right back," he said, then darted up and began running at top speed towards the ten Memfa laying about the camp beside the well.
Shattra watched with trepidation through the scope on the rifle as her beautiful Coln ran into their camp at sprint speed. It took them all by surprise, but once noticed, the Coln slipped to the salty sliding sand on one bent knee and fired his beam pistol with such swiftness, all ten of them were dead within seconds of his attack.
Everything she knew about honor and conflict didn't apply to this man, apparently, she quickly realized. Though the sight of those killings left a bad taste in her mouth from a lifetime of training in a civilized world, she knew her Coln was not civilized. But Shattra did not care after several seconds of thought, concerning the matter. All she knew was she loved him and she was glad that all those Memfa were dead and gone.
She watched through the scope of the rifle as he looked over every Memfa, stripping them of everything, and then heaved their corpses off and away from the well. They flew through the air as if they were made of paper and wire and finally, he jogged back to her.
"You okay?" he asked, bringing her to her feet with a helping hand.
"Yes," she said, and didn't dare bring up his lack of chivalry. He had saved her life, twice now, probably, and wasn't about to question his methods as he drew her in close and made her feel wondrous, again, with his smile and his kisses, both of them sinking quietly to their knees and then laying disheveled and intoxicated with each others movements and attentions on top of the salt crystal's finely grained softness.
The nearby hills were filled the bluish-green of copper ore and gold as it flickered and glowed in wonders of refracted light, at sunset. Shattra lay spread eagle atop the worm-silk blanket, unable to move as she barely touched her beautiful Coln's arm as she panted for breath. He was leaning on his elbow, watching her, staring at her limp, helpless form, gazing up into the darkening sky and the thin wispy, almost none existent ice clouds far overhead. It didn't take her long to recover, laying beside him near the well and as she did, and he drew her close, once more, then kissed her cheeks and mouth as he always did, softly, lovingly. His one hand stoked her hair, the gentleness of his touch always surprising her, for he was immensely strong, she realized at seeing him throw the thick heavy bodies of the dead Memfa as he did. She had never known someone as powerful as this man and his ability to completely mesmerize her at any moment and at any time simply amazed Shattra. In the courts of royalty, she had seen many feats of strength in the traveling circuses, but nothing to approach or equal this man's ability. She thought he might actually be able to toss a Thoat, if he found the need, he was so strong. And he was hers and she loved him, and looked forward to his gaze and his touch, and cherished every moment he held her close and intimately in his arms. She could never leave him. The royal courts of her Father's kingdom meant nothing to her any longer. She would stay with this Coln for the rest of her days. She would learn his ways, fight by his side, and endure any hardship they might pass through, as long as they did it together. But still, she did not know his name and finally, timidly, asked.
"I was once called Brandon. But that was a long, long time ago."
"Where did your tribe come from?"
"Tribe? I have no tribe. Where did you hear that?"
"In school. Pictures have been taken of you from our air ships. You are thought to be a tribe of wild men. They call you the Coln."
"Wanderer, huh? Well, that's appropriate."
"There have only been a few pictures taken of you, or your people, or so they thought. And everyone, including most scholars, think you are a tribe of disinherited people, roaming the ocean's and arid deserts."
"Well, they got part of it right. I do roam the deserts."
"Then you have no tribe?" Shattra said, sitting up but leaning over him, the warm breeze feeling good on her naked skin, her long gold and brown hair blowing in and around her face like a veil of winking sunlight flowing with the air.
"No. No tribe. I travel alone. I have always been alone."
"But you have been reported to have and keep women. They have escaped from you and told the authorities everything."
"I took them back to their kingdom and released them. If they said that, they were covering up their time with me with lies. A young woman is often too embarrassed to admit she willingly slept with someone like me. Are you?"
She noticed how he had challenged her to speak the truth.
"I would have been before I met you, I think, but now I want to spend the rest of my life by your side. I told you already, I love you Brandon. I will never leave you and to Hades with what others would say about that, if they knew." She leaned into his chest, flattening hers against his, and kissed him, holding his face in her hands, then slipping her hands into his limp hands and drawing them inward, onto her lips, kissing his fingers sweetly as if they were babies hands. There, she noticed a ring of silver metal on one finger.
"What do these four symbols mean?" she asked.
"They stand for NASA," he said, pronouncing it. "It is a place I used to belong to."
"Is it near here, in the North?"
"No. It is very far away."
"Do you have family there?"
"No. Not for a long time. They don't exist anymore for me."
"Why did you come here, then. Were you exiled?"
"No. I came here to explore this world. That is what I am. An explorer. Or I used to be. I have seen this world many times over. There is little about it that I do not know."
"Are you a magician? You seem to be able to read my mind."
"Since coming here, I have learned I can do many more things I couldn't do before. I don't know how it happened, it just did. But yes, I am a kind of magician, now. I have powers I never knew I had or that even believed existed, before this world changed me."
"You say, 'world', as if you are from another place, another world yourself?"
"Yes. I am. My world is the third planet from the sun. It will be called Earth, one day. I am from the future, there."
"You came to our planet from the future?"
"Yes. Something happened that I don't understand and I am stuck here. I cannot leave. And according to the physicians in Cortoom, I will live forever, they say. Longer than a hundred lifetimes of any Martian. I already have, and there seems to be no end in sight."
"What is a Martian?"
"You are a Martian. All the people of this world are. That's what we called this planet in my time. Mars."
"How did you come to be here, then, if you are from the future?"
"I can't be sure but I must have hit something like a time hole, out in space. It carried me here through time and I crash landed in the ocean, far away, when there were oceans. I swam to shore and your people helped me survive."
"That long ago?"
"How old are you?"
"I don't know anymore. But very old."
Shattra looked into his eyes, scanned his features and didn't know what to think. There was very little emotion in his face, but she thought she detected some measure of sadness deep within his soul and her heart flowed outward to him, knowing he was all alone, here. She wanted to make even the slightest sorrow evaporate from his mind and she gathered herself, laying down beside her beloved Brandon, again, taking control and slowly letting their bodies empty both their minds and emotions of any kind doubt or sadness.
Five days later, traveling at a leisurely pace, Brandon looked through his rifles sighting scope and drew in the reins to the Thoat. He had never made camp so early in the day before but Shattra thought he just wanted to lie with her again, and he did. Their closeness was wonderful and even though they had been so happy and so completely emotionally involved since they had met, this was an extremely powerful and engrossing, all absorbing encounter for her senses. Both in the passage of time and the care for other things, the compassion for each others comfort lasting long into the deep Beau'Tarie afternoon. The last thing she remembered was some words he had spoken into her ear, his hand passing over her eyes, palm forward, that had strongly made her eyes grow very heavy. Then she had slept.
The morning was warm when she awoke. She was calm and laying quiet and on her side, still wrapped in the silken memories of their time together. She reached behind herself for Brandon but he was no longer there. She turned and with a start, discovering he was gone, and so was the Thoat. She was completely alone.
Shattra whimpered and rose to her feet, searching the ground, looking at the salt for clues. She found his tracks in the white crystallized ground but they led off into a distant mountainless horizon, back into the deep unforgiving desert.
Her heart sank within her breast and she cried silently, wiping away her tears vigorously, seeing something else.
"I would have loved you forever," she mumbled, "as I love you now," she said to no one. She sat on the silk blanket, then fell over and wrapped it up around herself, and curled into a little ball in the middle of the crimson smoothness, weeping.
She cried for an hour and then stood up and folded the blanket and took it with her. The Coln, her Brandon, had brought her within sight of her Kingdom's capitol city of Arbarri'Eaal. She recognized the crytal spires of quartz in the distance and she walked, slowly, and then faster, towards their cold reflective spires. She was nearly home.
From a great distance, the Coln stood on his Thoat's saddle, watching Shattra through the scope, six Kilons away. She walked gracefully and proudly towards her distant city. He was certain she would find it. He would watch her until she was back to civilization and the splendor of her beautiful, though dying, kingdom.
The princess would be fine, he knew, and he told himself that. They always were when they got out of the desert. And he would remember Shattra as fondly as he did all the others he had occasionally found stranded out there or in the custody of Memfa or other salt pirates, or like herself, alone and dying.
They were wondrous beings, these Martians of three billion years ago, but they were not for him, he felt. Not any more. They only lived a thousand years, and after his first wife had died on him, after a mere millennium, it had nearly destroyed him. He swore he would never go through that kind of pain, again.
[For those of you who have read Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of Barsoom, you will recognize a few similarities between my story here and his imaginary Mars. Most notable, is the use of the name, 'Thoat'. I make no apologies for borrowing it. I loved those stories but my Thoat is quite a bit different than his. His animal had eight legs and a beaver-like tail and was of an enormous size. My Thoat is four legged, reptillian or dinosaur-like, and roughly the size of a horse, as worked out in other stories, not yet posted. They are also hair maned and have a tail like a horse, too. I've also stolen the idea of air ships for the Martians and their life span of a thousand years from Mr. Burroughs, but all other ideas for this story are mine. Thanks to Edgar and his wonderful tales and all of you who read this. I hope you had a good time visiting this Mars.]