'I did ride once before on the back of a tarn,' she said bitterly, 'to Ar, bound across the saddle, before I was sold in the Street of Brands.'

It was not easy to talk on the back of the great taro, with the wind, and, besides, though I wanted to communicate with the girl, I felt I could not.

She was looking at the horizon, and suddenly her body tensed. 'This is not the way to Ar,' she cried.

'I know,' I said.

'What are you doing?' She turned bodily in the straps, looking at me, her eyes wide. 'Where are you going, Master?'

The word 'Master,' though it had come appropriately enough from the girl, who was, legally at least, my property, startled me.

'Don't call me Master,' I said.

'But you are my Master,' she said.

I took from my tunic the key my father had given me, the key to Sana 's collar. I reached to the lock behind her neck, inserted the key and turned it, springing open the mechanism. I jerked the collar away from her throat and threw it and the key from the tarn's back and watched them fly downward in a long, graceful parabola.

'You are free,' I said. 'And we are going to Thentis.

She sat before me, stunned, her hands unbelievingly at her throat. 'Why?' she asked. 'Why?'

What could I tell her? That I had come from another world, that I was determined that all the ways of Gor should not be mine, or that I had cared for her, somehow, so helpless in her condition — that she had moved me to regard her not as an instrumentality of mine or of the Council, but as a girl, young, rich with life, not to be sacrificed in the games of statecraft?

'I have my reasons for freeing you,' I said, 'but I am not sure that you would understand them,' and I added, under my breath, to myself, that I was not altogether sure I understood them myself.

'My father,' she said, 'and my brothers will reward you.'

'No,' I said.

'If you wish, they are bound in honor to grant me to you, without bride price.'

'The ride to Thentis will be long,' I said.

She replied proudly, 'My bride price would be a hundred tarns.'

I whistled softly to myself — my ex-slave would have come high. On a Warrior's allowance I would not have been able to afford her.

'If you wish to land,' said Sana, apparently determined to see me compensated in some fashion, 'I will serve your pleasure.'

It occurred to me that there was at least one reply which she, bred in the honor codes of Gor, should under stand, one reply that should silence her. 'Would you diminish the worth of my gift to you?' I asked, feigning anger.

She thought for a moment and then gently kissed me on the lips. 'No, Tarl Cabot of Ko-ro-ba,' she said, 'but you well know that I could do nothing that would diminish the worth of your gift to me. Tarl Cabot, I care for you.'

I realized that she had spoken to me as a free woman, using my name. I put my arms around her, sheltering her as well as I could from the swift, chilling blast of the wind. Then I thought to myself, a hundred tarns indeed! Forty perhaps, because she was a beauty. For a hundred tarns one might have the daughter of an Administrator, for a thousand perhaps even the daughter of the Ubar of Ar! A thousand tarns would make a formidable addition to the cavalry force of a Gorean warlord. Sana, collar or no, had the infuriating, endearing vanity of the young and beautiful of her sea.

On a tower of Thentis I left her, kissing her, removing from my neck her clinging hands. She was crying, with all the incomprehensible absurdity of the female kind. I hauled the tarn aloft, waving back at the small figure still wearing the diagonally striped livery of the slave. Her white arm was lifted, and her blond hair was swept behind her on the windy roof of the cylinder. I turned the tare toward Ar.

As I crossed the Vosk, that mighty river, some forty pasangs in width, which hurtles past the frontiers of Ar to pour into the Tamber Gulf, I realized that I was at last within the borders of the Empire of Ar. Sana had insisted that I keep the pellet of poison which the Council had given her to spare her from the otherwise inevitable tortures that would follow the disclosure of her identity in the cylinders of Ar. However, I took the pellet from my tunic and dropped it into the wide waters of the Vosk. It constituted a temptation to which I had no inclination to succumb. If death was easy, I might seek life less strenuously. There would come times when, in my weakness, I would regret my decision.

It took three days to reach the environs of the city of Ar. Shortly after crossing the Vosk, I had descended and made camp, thereafter traveling only at night. During the day I freed my tarn, to allow him to feed as he would. They are diurnal hunters and eat only what they catch themselves, usually one of the fleet Gorean antelopes or a wild bull, taken on the run and lifted in the monstrous talons to a high place, where it is torn to pieces and devoured. Needless to say, tares are a threat to any living matter that is luckless enough to fall within the shadow of their wings, even human beings.

During the first day, sheltered in the occasional knots of trees that dot the border plains of Ar, I slept, fed on my rations, and practiced with my weapons, trying to keep my muscles vital in spite of the stiffness that attends prolonged periods on tarnback. But I was bored. At first even the countryside was depressing, for the men of Ar, as a military policy, had devastated an area of some two or three hundred pasangs on their borders, cutting down fruit trees, filling wells, and salting the fertile areas. Ar had, for most practical purposes, surrounded itself with an invisible wall, a bleached region, forbidding and almost impassable to those on foot.

I was more pleased on the second day and made camp in a grassy veldt, dotted with the Ka-la-na trees. The night before, I had ridden over fields of grain, silvery yellow beneath me in the light of the three moons. I kept my course by the luminescent dial of my Gor compass, the needle of which pointed always to the Sardar Mountain Range, home of the Priest-Kings. Sometimes I guided my tarn by the stars, the same fixed stars I had seen from another angle above my head in the mountains of New Hampshire.

The third day's camp was made in the swamp forest that borders the city of Ar on the north. I had chosen this area because it is the most uninhabitable area within tam strike of Ar. I had seen too many village cooking fires on the last night, and twice I had heard the tarn whistles of nearby patrols — groups of three warriors flying their rounds. The thought crossed my mind of giving up the project, turning outlaw, if you will, deserter, if you like, but of saving my own skin, trying to get out of this mad scheme if only with my life, and that only for a time.

But an hour before midnight, on the day I knew was the Planting Feast of Sa-Tarna, I climbed again to the saddle of my taro, drew back on the one-strap, and rose above the lush trees of the swamp forest. Almost simultaneously I heard the raucous cry of a patrol leader of Ar, 'We have him!'

They had followed my tarn, trailing it back from its feeding in the swamp forest, and now, like the points of a rapidly converging triangle, three warriors of Ar were closing in on me. They apparently had no intention of taking me prisoner, for an instant after the shout the sharp hiss of a bolt from a crossbow passed over my head. Before I had time to gather my senses, a dark winged shape had materialized in front of me, and, in the light of the three moons, I saw a warrior on a tarn passing, thrusting out with his spear.

He surely would have struck home had not my tarn veered wildly to the left, almost colliding with another tarn and its rider, who fired a bolt that sank deep in the saddle pack with a sound like slapping leather. The third of the warriors of Ar was sweeping in from behind. I turned, raising the tare-goad, which was looped to my wrist, to ward off the stroke of his blade. Sword and tare-goad met in a ringing clash and a shower of glittering yellow sparks. Somehow I must have turned the goad on. Both my tarn and that of the attacker withdrew as if by instinct from the flash of the goad, and I had inadvertently purchased a moment of time.

I unslung my longbow and fitted an arrow, yanking my tam in an abrupt wing-shuddering arc. I think the. first of my pursuers had not realized I would turn the bird. He had been expecting a chase. As I passed him, I saw his eyes wide in the «Y» of his helmet, as, in that split second, he knew I could not miss. I saw him stiffen suddenly in the saddle and was dimly aware of his tarn streaking away, screaming.

Now the other two men of the patrol were circling for their attack. They swept toward me, about five yards apart, to close on either side of me, to force the. wings of my tarn up and hold it for the moment they would need, trapped motionless between their own mounts.

I had no time to think, but somehow I was aware that my sword was now in my hand and the taro-goad thrust in my belt. As we crashed in the air, I sharply jerked back the one-strap, bringing the steel-shod talons of my war tarn into play. And to this day I bless the tam keepers of Ko-ro-ba for the painstaking training they had given the great bird. Or perhaps I should bless the fighting spirit of that plumed giant, my war tarn, that terrible thing the Older Tarl had called a tarn of turns. Beak and talons rending, uttering ear-shattering screams,l my tam slashed at the other two birds.

I crossed swords with the nearer of the two warriors a in a brief passage that could have lasted only an instant. I was suddenly aware, dizzily conscious, that one of the enemy tarns was sinking downward, flopping wildly, falling into the recesses of the swamp forest below. The other warrior pulled his tarn about as if for another passage at arms, but then, as if suddenly realizing that his duty was to give the alarm, lie shouted at me in rage and wheeled his tare again, streaking for the lights of Ar.

With his start, he would be confident, but I knew that my tarn could overtake him easily. I brought my tarn into line with the retreating speck and gave him his rein. As we neared the fleeing warrior, I fitted a second arrow to my bow. Rather than kill the warrior, I loosed the arrow into the wing of his tarn. The tare spun about and began to favor the injured wing. The warrior could no longer control the mount, and I saw the tare dropping awkwardly, descending in drunken circles to the darkness below.

I drew back on the one-strap, and when we had climbed to a height where my breath came in gasps, I leveled our course for Ar. I wished to fly above the normal patrol runs. When I neared Ar, I crouched low in the saddle and hoped that the speck against a moon which might be seen by the watchmen of the outlying towers would be taken for a wild tarn, flying high over the city.

The city of Ar must have contained more than a hundred thousand cylinders, each ablaze with the lights of the Planting Feast. I did not question that Ar was the greatest city of all known Gor. It was a magnificent and beautiful city, a worthy setting for the jewel of empire, that awesome jewel that had proved so tempting to its Ubar, the all-conquering Marlenus. And now, down there, somewhere in that monstrous blaze of light, was a humble piece of stone, the Home Stone of that great city, and I must seize it.

Chapter 6

Nor the Spider

I HAD LITTLE DIFFICULTY MAKING out the tallest tower in Ar, the cylinder of the Ubar Marlenus. As I dropped closer, I saw that the bridges were lined with the celebrants of the Planting Feast, many perhaps reeling home drunk on Paga. Flying among the cylinders were tarnsmen, cavalry warriors reveling in the undisciplined liberty of the feast, racing one another, essaying mock passages at arms, sometimes dropping their tarns like thunderbolts toward the bridges, only to jerk them upward

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