Two Swords of Mars [Cavaliers of Mars]

Cavaliers of MarsCavaliers of Mars entered its next phase last week. I’ve written most of my parts of the book, and now I’ve got the rest of my team working on their first drafts. It’s exciting to tune into the discussions on the development list each day.

To celebrate that, I’d like to share a short tale of adventure upon the red planet.


Two Swords of Mars


The swordsman reeked of cheap wine. His opponent smelled much better.

The two reeled out into the alleyway, the bruiser tackling the slim swordsman, who fell jarringly on his back, still fumbling to draw his blade. This close, he could smell the bigger man’s breath. Familiar… almost like cinnamon from faraway Wyeth….

But no time for that now. The swordsman’s head reeled with the wine even as it felt the shock from hitting the ground. All seemed lost. This, he thought, this might be how I die. But of course it wasn’t. Only a moment more and his heart began to tick faster, the wine which had dulled his senses turning to fire in his blood. He was aware, alert, strong. He let the big man push him down by the shoulders, then pivoted painfully on his back, bringing a knee up into his assailant’s groin.

The bruiser howled. The swordsman didn’t stop pushing up, flipped the both of them over and threw the big man a few paces behind him. He scrambled to his feet, and managed to free his blade. The bruiser also got to his feet, and also wore a sword… but didn’t reach for it.

The bigger man made ready to charge, and the slim one braced himself, waiting for the right moment to thrust at his rushing opponent. Then the moment came, and he missed. The bruiser was too fast.

The swordsman’s blade went wide, pushing a handspan of fine Deimos steel into the big man’s left shoulder. The swordsman lost his grip, unable even to twist the sword. The bigger man grimaced in pain, a feral sort of grin like a beast that will not admit to its injury, much less go gracefully to its death. And then all of a sudden he jerked as another sword thrust through his trunk from behind. The second blade skewered the bruiser… and very nearly the slim swordsman. For the second time they went down in a pile, and the swordsman smelled the man’s last cinnamon breath.

The swordsman lay there a moment, trying to catch his breath. His heart ticked wildly, irregularly, and not for the first time he wondered if that black machine would simply wind down and leave him to die.

But the thing which was his heart continued its mock-beats, and as they slowed, he shoved his assailant off of him. He recognized the tall figure standing over them, of course, but he studiously ignored her as she freed her sword from the big man. He retrieved his own sword… the angle of his thrust had been bad… he was lucky not to have snapped the blade.

“Are you getting old, Valentine?” the woman asked.

“Not old,” he said, “but older. If you’re here to insult me then I don’t see any need to thank you.”

“I’ll not take your thanks in words, in any case. We both know that your mouth is more honest in other pursuits.” She smiled a little.

“I didn’t need your help,” Valentine said, a little sullenly.

“As I said, your mouth’s not always honest. For all your grace and fine bladework, that man would have crushed the life from you. You’re outright lucky I got him first.”

“He was dead already, Soteria. My sword through his shoulder, and soon enough my knife across his belly. You merely put him out of his misery.”

Valentine paused.

“Were you following me?”

“Not at all,” smiled Soteria. “I didn’t even know it was you… I only saw an unfair fight, and came to even the odds.”

Valentine was hauling the man up and flipping him fully onto his back.

“Fine clothing,” he remarked, “for Chiaro-that-was.”

Soteria looked around at the low, mud-brick buildings, with the tents and shanties built ramshackle between them.

“You ought to know. The blood on your shirt is going to stain, by the way.”

She laughed, then, as his hands immediately went to the white silk. She fully expected several minutes of fretting, and that never ceased to make her smile. But almost as soon as he began his futile struggle to wipe off the blood, he stopped. His eyes were on the bruiser.

“My dear,” and those were words he never used, except when he worried, “does this man look familiar to you?”

Soteria glanced half-heartedly.

“Good clothes… made for a traveler, but never worn on the road. Wealthy, then, slumming here before going home to roost in Chiaro-that-is.”

“I already got to that. His face. Look at his face.” Valentine lifted the dead man’s chin so that she could see.

Soteria’s own face was only a light copper, but even so, it paled. Her eyes fixed on the dead man’s features, when she might otherwise have noticed movement behind her, among the tents.

“He was with Hardrada, before our trip to the polar cap. For which, I might add, the old man still owes us our fair share.”

“Exactly, my dear… he’s Hardrada’s son.”

Chiaro-that-was: Soteria and Valentine’s lodgings

Soteria paced about the tiny room. Valentine and the dead man were still upon the small, hard couch.

“We went north for Hardrada.”

Valentine nodded.

“We braved the polar cap, the white riders.”

“As you say.”

“We stole a fortune in gems from the shining abominations in their ill-omened towers.”

“Abomination is a harsh word.”

“Well, I was trying to forget your dalliance with their princess.”

“Fair,” Valentine said. “So am I.”

“We gave the gems to Hardrada’s representative last night, assured of a good payment and more to come.”

“We did do that.”

“And tonight,” she rounded on Valentine, “you killed his son!”

“I wounded him,” pouted Valentine. “Barely. You were the one who killed him.”

Soteria’s hand went to her sword. Valentine’s to his knife.

They drew, and measured each other’s gazes. Soteria’s eyes blazing in many hues, Valentine’s merely dark pools above a hook nose and grand mustache. They locked eyes a long moment, and simultaneously looked away.

“Bad time for foreplay,” Valentine muttered.

“Yeah,” said Soteria. “It’s a shame, blood on your shirt and all.” The edge of her mouth curled upward.

And then they laughed. Long, hard, and for the first time that night, they laughed together.

“I don’t see what’s so funny,” said a voice from the doorway.

There was a slim girl standing there. She looked about sixteen. Her dress was simple, but it draped flatteringly over her skin, which was near as red as Valentine’s, just as her hair and eyes were near as dark.

Soteria still had her sword drawn. She raised it and stepped towards the newcomer. The point came to rest against the girl’s neck, and Soteria tilted it upward, raising the smaller woman’s chin.

“A lot of things are funny,” the tall woman said, “when you’re half-convinced of your own death. You might start thinking of a few good jokes.”

“Oh,” said the girl, and if her voice wavered, it was only for a moment. “You don’t want to kill me. I’m here to make sure no one needs to die tonight.”

“Too late,” Valentine grumbled. He still sat on the couch.

“I’m here,” said the girl, “precisely because it isn’t too late. That man’s my lover, and I can save him from your rather crude attempt at murder.”

“He attacked me,” said Valentine, “and without cause.”

“The effects of the spice,” the girl said. Her speech was delicate… for all her apparent calm, she was clearly aware of Soteria’s steel beneath her chin. “It causes a strange atavism, brings barbarism to the surface that no Martian has otherwise experienced in a thousand thousand years.”

“The cinnamon smell,” said Valentine. “Krem. The Qans use it to release inhibition… though in rather more amorous contexts.”

“That was our intent.” She paused. “He got away from me.” For the first time, Soteria noticed a purple bruise on one red shoulder.

Soteria lowered her sword. “If you want the carcass,” she said, “take it. It’ll do us no good when we flee.”

“I said I could save him,” said the girl. She produced a small clay jar from somewhere in her dress. “While you were clumsily hauling him away, I gathered his blood and spittle with the sand it fell upon.”

“The makings of a ghost,” Soteria said thoughtfully. “But not much of one. He died with no curse upon his lips. And,” she added with a trace of pride, “in no long agony.”

“Not much, perhaps. But I am Tien, and I am the last of a people who have no name in your tongue. I can conjure from this, and I can raise this man.”

“Why all this talk, then? We offered you the body.” Valentine raised his voice. He was uneasy.

“Because,” said Tien, “I need something that was stolen from my people long ago. I’ll need your help to get it back.”

“And we help you because…” Valentine challenged.

“…because otherwise Hardrada’s going to come after us hard,” Soteria finished. “All right, Tien, what is it you need?”

Chiaro-that-is: Monastery of the Blind Saint

The chanting would have been very lovely, were it not violently interrupted by the clash of steel upon steel. Valentine stepped back, out of the way of the monk’s sword. His back collided with Soteria’s. The impact was strangely comforting.

“Didn’t she say they were blind?” he gasped.

“Well,” Soteria replied, “they clearly don’t have eyes. Or, for that matter, tongues.”

She was right. The brown-robed monks surrounded them, empty sockets yawning and mouths open wide in their strange chant. Their faces looked like masks, except for the occasional but clear spasms of rage that distorted their features.

Valentine kept his back to Soteria, even as he ducked another blow. He came up beneath the monk’s guard, and took him in the lung. The monk gasped, and the chant all around seemed to change. He realized suddenly, uselessly, that each of them produced only a single note.

He had only a moment to wonder. Another monk grasped for Valentine’s pouch. The incense within — liberated quite delicately from a treasure vault before they had been noticed — was what Tien had sent them for. Valentine elbowed the monk in the stomach, and the tone shifted again as the holy man wheezed. And then, just then, a blow that would have taken Valentine’s head clean off went high.

“Soteria,” he whispered. “You’re better at this than me.”

“That’s a lovely compliment,” she said, “and at perhaps the worst possible moment.”

“No. You, stronger, bigger sword.”

“Yes, and?”

“Take one of their heads off. Do it for me.”

Valentine scrambled forward, allowing Soteria to step back and swing her sword in a great arc. She sliced two men clean through the neck. More notes disappeared… and the rest faltered.

“It’s the chanting, dear. That’s how they can see us.”

Soteria grinned. “You could have said so.”

She pushed forward and gave one of them a strong knee to the groin. He screamed, and the rest fell back a moment. At the same time, Valentine skewered a man through the throat. The seemingly unending mass of holy men faltered, and Valentine began shoving towards the door, knocking aside the monks’ clumsy, uncoordinated swings. Soteria was right behind him, and they crashed into the street.

They ran, ran in the smoky blue lantern light that protected the city from ghosts and tomb stalkers. Ran through the labyrinth of streets, and then stopped to catch their breath. And no sooner had they caught it than they were laughing again.

“Do you think this is going to work?” Soteria asked. She paused. “Do you think we’re going to live?”

Valentine took a cut across his palm, and matched it to a long, bloody scratch down Soteria’s cheek.

“If it doesn’t, if we don’t… let’s just call that a church wedding.”

Chiaro-that-is: Tien’s Basement Room

“You’re late,” said the near-child they were gambling on as a priestess. “I had to get the body down the stairs myself.”

Soteria gave her a gray and evil eye. “We’d have been quicker if you’d elaborated a little on ‘blind.’”

Tien scowled at her. “You’re the killers here. Your problem.”

Valentine couldn’t help but smile at that.

“All right, kid, what do you need?”

Tien lit the bronze censer containing their spoils, which she had sprinkled with the dust and fluids.

“Stand at his head. Open his mouth, and breathe in and out of it.”

“What about me?” asked Soteria.

“Look pretty,” said Tien, “if that’s the kind of thing you can do.”

Soteria scowled. They could have been half a night south by now, following the ice caravans. Dawn would be coming soon, and escape from Hardrada would be harder… not to mention those priests.

Tien carried the censer close to where Valentine hunched over the dead man’s face.

“You know,” said the swordsman, “he still doesn’t smell that bad.”

No one gave him the dignity of a reply. But he soon found he didn’t care. The incense and its gruesome reagents had a soft, strange smell. It slipped into his mouth and nostrils, and there it burned. He was angry, for a moment… something about a drunk in an alleyway. He blinked. Saw Tien. Her shoulders really were very slim and red. Not his usual type, but for a moment he thought he could get used to them. And then his vision began to dim, and his head to sway ever so slightly.

He was dimly aware of shouting, of Tien’s lovely voice screaming, of the flash of a knife and the smell of fresh blood. Then something collided with him, full body. He was flat on his back, and someone very dangerous was crouching over him.

“Are you alive?” Soteria’s voice demanded. “And are you you?”

“Alive,” he managed to croak. “No church wedding.”


Soteria didn’t like it. She didn’t like it when Valentine insisted on collecting some of Tien’s blood in the little vase that contained her lover’s. She didn’t like that he insisted on walking out to the great tombs, beyond Chiaro-that-was, and scattering the awful mixture upon the wind.

Valentine was rather more impressed with Soteria’s contribution. A man and a woman had robbed the Monastery of the Blind Saint, and so were a man and a woman found not far from there, with the stolen goods and marks on them as if they had been set upon by robbers.

Hardrada was distraught over the loss of his son, but it only served to increase his generosity; apparently, his material possessions meant less to him in his time of grief.

Soteria and Valentine set out south, with the ice caravans. As the sun rose high, and the caravan stopped to rest, the two dusty travelers came together in the kind of embrace they so rarely shared. Dry lips brushed sandy ones. And if that kiss was not pure, it was at least very long, and very sincere.

5 thoughts on “Two Swords of Mars [Cavaliers of Mars]”

  1. You know, for a little while there I thought she was going to pull a Miracle Max, not try to get her dead boyfriend a new body.

    …Also, is the game always this bloody? I mean, they killed at least five people over the course of this story without really blinking. Which, ok, in D&D things get really bloody too, but the tone seems different here. I dunno.

    • The game’s not always this bloody. But Valentine and Soteria are fairly bloody people.

      In play, it’s going to vary a lot based on your characters’ choices. A defeated foe isn’t always dead — you get to decide between Injured, Captured, Presumed Dead, and a few others.


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