Ted Nolan <tednolan>
2020-03-21 20:39:58 UTC
121 Queen of the Martian Catacombs by Leigh Brackett
This is the real-quill, pulp SF at its best. A novella of Brackett's
wolfling, John Eric Stark, we start in-media-res with Stark being
pursued across the Martian desert, caught, prepared to die and them
shamed into helping his mentor discover what is going on as the
Martian desert clans ally with the edge cities. War is in the air,
and not war that could actually drive out the colonial powers, but
war this is going to get a lot of Martians killed. In point of
fact Stark had been headed for Valkis anyway on invitation as had
a lot of the Solar System's most famous mercenaries. Now he continues
there on that invitation, but as a covert agent. The political
back and forthings and the details of the fals revival of an ancient
Martian cult are almost beside the point to the atmosphere of the
tale in cities old as death with bare breasted maidens and harlots
and the dead floors of ancient oceans.
The book is public domain (you can find it for free on archive dot
org), so I'm going to insert a huge quote here to give you the
Stark had never been here before. Now he looked at the city that
sprawled down the slope under the low moons, and shivered, the
primitive twitching of the nerves that an animal feels in the
presence of death.
For the streets where the torches flared were only a tiny part of
Valkis. The life of the city had flowed downward from the cliff-tops,
following the dropping level of the sea. Five cities, the oldest
scarcely recognizable as a place of human habitation. Five harbors,
the docks and quays still standing, half buried in the dust.
Five ages of Martian history, crowned on the topmost level with
the ruined palace of the old pirate kings of Valkis. The towers
still stood, broken but indomitable, and in the moonlight they had
a sleeping look, as though they dreamed of blue water and the sound
of waves, and of tall ships coming in heavy with treasure.
Stark picked his way slowly down the steep descent. There was
something fascinating to him in the stone houses, roofless and
silent in the night. The paving blocks still showed the rutting
of wheels where carters had driven to the marketplace, and princes
had gone by in gilded chariots. The quays were scarred where ships
had lain against them, rising and falling with the tides.
Stark's senses had developed in a strange school, and the thin
veneer of civilization he affected had not dulled them. Now it
seemed to him that the wind had the echoes of voices in it, and
the smell of spices and fresh-spilled blood.
He was not surprised when, in the last level above the living town,
armed men came out of the shadows and stopped him.
They were lean, dark men, very wiry and light of foot, and their
faces were the faces of wolves - not primitive wolves at all, but
beasts of prey that had been civilized for so many thousands of
years that they could afford to forget it.
They were most courteous, and Stark would not have cared to disobey
He gave his name. "Delgaun sent for me."
The leader of the Valkisians nodded his narrow head. "You're
expected." His sharp eyes had taken in every feature of the Earthman,
and Stark knew that his description had been memorized down to the
last detail. Valkis guarded its doors with care.
"Ask in the city," said the sentry. "Anyone can direct you to the
Stark nodded and went on, down through the long-dead streets in
the moonlight and the silence.
With shocking suddenness, he was plunged into the streets of the
It was very late now, but Valkis was awake and stirring. Seething,
rather. The narrow twisting ways were crowded. The laughter of
women came down from the flat roofs. Torchlight flared, gold and
scarlet, lighting the wineshops, making blacker the shadows of the
Stark left his beast at a serai on the edge of the canal. The
paddocks were already jammed. Stark recognized the long-legged
brutes of the Dryland breed, and as he left a caravan passed him,
coming in, with a jangling of bronze bangles and a great hissing
and stamping in the dust.
The riders were tall barbarians - Keshi, Stark thought, from the
way they braided their tawny hair. They wore plain leather, and
their blue-eyed women rode like queens.
Valkis was full of them. For days, it seemed, they must have poured
in across the dead sea bottom, from the distant oases and the
barren deserts of the back-blocks. Brawny warriors of Kesh and
Shun, making holiday beside the Low-Canal, where there was more
water than any of them had seen in their lives.
They were in Valkis, these barbarians, but they were not part of
it. Shouldering his way through the streets, Stark got the peculiar
flavor of the town, that he guessed could never be touched or
changed by anything.
In a square, a girl danced to the music of harp and drum. The air
was heavy with the smell of wine and burning pitch and incense. A
lithe, swart Valkisian in his bright kilt and jeweled girdle leaped
out and danced with the girl, his teeth flashing as he whirled and
postured. In the end he bore her off, laughing, her black hair
hanging down his back.
Women looked at Stark. Women graceful as cats, bare to the waist,
their skirts slit at the sides above the thigh, wearing no ornaments
but the tiny golden bells that are the peculiar property of the
Low-Canal towns, so that the air is always filled with their
delicate, wanton chiming.
Valkis had a laughing, wicked soul. Stark had been in many places
in his life, but never one before that beat with such a pulse of
evil, incredibly ancient, but strong and gay.
He found the palace at last - a great rambling structure of quarried
stone, with doors and shutters of beaten bronze closed against the
dust and the incessant wind. He gave his name to the guard and was
taken inside, through halls hung with antique tapestries, the
flagged floors worn hollow by countless generations of sandaled
Again, Stark's half-wild senses told him that life within these
walls had not been placid. The very stones whispered of age-old
violence, the shadows were heavy with the lingering ghosts of
He was brought before Delgaun, the lord of Valkis, in the big
central room that served as his headquarters.
Delgaun was lean and catlike, after the fashion of his race. His
black hair showed a stippling of silver, and the hard beauty of
his face was strongly marked, the lined drawn deep and all the
softness of youth long gone away. He wore a magnificent harness,
and his eyes, under fine dark brows, were like drops of hot gold.
He looked up as the Earthman came in, one swift penetrating glance.
Then he said, "You're Stark."
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