Panther Girls are yet another topic of which much has been written across countless websites. Much has been supposed and, as is usual among those who have not read the books themselves, much misinformation has been strewn about.
Instead of trying to refute this misinformation, instance by instance, I provide here, not the stories told within the Books, but the references which the Books themselves tell us of Panther Girls.
This is a long outline but, if you read it all, you will learn what is, and isn't, the truth of the Panther Girls.
I make no pronouncements on these matters, but report them as I find them.
Arrive at your own conclusions.
I wish you well,
The next lot was an interesting one, consisting of two slave girls, clad in the skins of forest panthers, from the northern forests of Gor, and chained together by the throat. They were driven up the steps by a whip slave and forced to kneel at the center of the block. The northern forests, the haunts of bandits and unusual beasts, far to the north and east of Ko-ro-ba, my city, are magnificent, deep forests, covering hundreds of thousands of square pasangs. Slave girls who escape masters or some free women, who will not accept the matches arranged by their parents, or reject the culture of Gor, occasionally flee to these forests and live together in bands, building shelters, hunting their food, and hating men; there are occasional clashes between these bands of women, who are often skilled archers, and bands of male outlaws inhabiting the same forests hardy Slavers sometimes go into the forests hunting these girls, but often they do not return; sometimes Slavers simply meet outlaws at the edges of the forests, at designated locations, and buy captured girls from them; interestingly, at other locations, on the eastern edges of the forests, Slavers from Port Kar meet the female groups and purchase men they have captured, who are used as galley slaves; it is not too uncommon that a Slaver Warrior has entered the forest only to be captured by his prey, enslaved, and eventually, when the girls tire of him, be sold, commonly for arrow points and adornments, to Port Kar Slavers, whence he will find himself chained to the oar of a cargo galley.
To the amusement of the crowd it took the whip slave, and two others, to strip the biting, scratching forest beauties. The pair was eventually sold to a collector for ten gold pieces; I trust the security of his Pleasure Gardens is superb, else he might waken to a knife at his throat and the demand for a tarn, and, perhaps eventually, in the rags of a slave, a seat on the bench of a cargo galley.
I saw only one slave cage on a barge moving downstream. It contained four or five nude male slaves. They seemed dejected, huddled in their cage. Strangely, a broad swath had been shaven lengthwise on their head. Lana saw this and shrieked out, hooting at them across the water. The men did not even look at us, moving slowly across the current toward Laura.
I looked at Ute.
"That means they are men who were taken by women," said Ute. "See," she said, pointing up to the hills and forests north of Laura. "Those are the great forests. No one knows how far they extend to the east, and they go north as far as Torvaldsland. In them there are the forest people, but also many bands of outlaws, some of women and some of men."
"Women?" I asked.
"Some call them the forest girls," said Ute. "Others call them the panther girls, for they dress themselves in the teeth and skins of forest panthers, which they slay with their spears and bows."
I looked at her.
"They live in the forest without men," she said, "saving those they enslave, and then sell, when tiring of them. They shave the heads of their male slaves in that fashion to humiliate them. And that, too, is the way they sell them, that all the world may know that they fell slave to females, who then sold them."
"Who are these women?" I asked. "Where do they come from?"
"Some were doubtless once slaves," said Ute. "Others were once free women. Perhaps they did not care for matches arranged by their parents. Perhaps they did not care for the ways of their cities with respect to women. Who knows? In many cities a free woman may not even leave her dwelling without the permission of a male guardian or member of her family." Ute smiled up at me. "In many cities a slave girl is more free to come and go, and be happy, than a free woman."
"We do not accept slave girls among the women of the forest," said Verna proudly.
"I am not a slave girl!" I cried.
Verna regarded me. "How many of us do you count?" she asked.
"Fifteen," I told her.
"My band," said Verna, "consists of fifteen. This, it seems to me, is a suitable number, for protection, for feeding, for concealment in the forest." She looked at me. "Some groups are smaller, some larger, but my band," she said, "as I wish, numbers fifteen."
I said nothing.
"Would you like to be one of us?" she asked.
"Yes!" I cried. "Yes!"
"Untie her," said Verna.
The choke leash was removed from my throat. My wrists were unbound.
"Stand," said Verna.
I did so, and so, too, did the other girls. I stood, rubbing my wrists.
The girls put down their spears, unslung the bows and quivers from their shoulders.
The light of the three moons filtered through the trees, speckling the glade.
Verna removed her sleen knife from her belt. She handed it to me.
I stood there, holding the knife.
The other girls stood ready, some half crouching. All had removed their knives from their sheaths.
"The place of which of these," asked Verna, "will you take?"
"I do not understand," I said.
"One of these," said Verna, "or myself, you will fight to the death."
I shook my head, No.
"I will fight you, if you wish," said Verna, "without my knife."
"No," I whispered.
"Fight me, Kajira!" hissed the girl who had held my leash. Her knife was ready.
"Me!" cried another.
"Me!" cried yet another.
"Whose place will you take?" asked Verna.
One of the girls cried out and leaped toward me, the knife flashing in her hand.
I screamed and threw the knife from me, and fell to my knees, my head in my hands.
"No, no!" I cried.
"Bind her," said Verna.
I felt my hands pulled again behind my back. The girl who had held my leash lashed them together, mercilessly. I felt again the snap of the choke collar on my throat.
"We have rested," said Verna. "Let us continue our journey."
The girls seemed restless, short-tempered, irritable. I saw more than one looking at the moons. "Verna," said one of them. "Quiet," said Verna.
The file continued its journey through the trees and brush, threading its way through the darkness and branches.
"We have seen men," said one of the girls, insistently.
"Be silent," said Verna.
"We should have taken slaves," said another, irritably.
"No," said Verna.
"The circle," said another. "We must go to the circle!"
Verna stopped and turned.
"It is on our way," said another.
"Please, Verna," said another, her voice pleading.
Verna regarded the girls. "Very well," she said, "we shall stop at the circle."
The girls relaxed visibly.
"Verna!" spoke one of the girls.
"Very well!" said Verna, irritably. "Very well!"
The first girl to leap to the center of the circle was she who had first held my leash.
She had blond hair. Her head was down, and shaking. Then she threw back her head, moaning, and reached up, clawing for the moons of Gor. The other girls, too, responded to her, whimpering and moaning, clenching and unclenching their fists.
The first girl began to writhe, crying out, stamping in the circle.
Then another girl joined her, and another, and another. And then another!
Stamping, turning, crying out, moaning, clawing at the moons, they danced.
Then there were none who had not entered that savage circle, save Verna, the band's leader, proud and superb, armed and disdainful, and Elinor Brinton, a bound slave.
The first girl, throwing back her head to the moons, screamed and tore her skins to the waist, writhing.
Then, for the first time I noticed, in the center of the circle, there were four heavy stakes, about six inches in height, dark in the grass. They formed a small, but ample, square. I shuddered. They were notched, that binding fiber might not slip from them.
The first girl began to dance before the square.
I looked up into the sky. In the dark sky the moons were vast and bright.
Another girl, crying out, tore her own skins to the waist and clawing, moaning, writhing, approached the square. Then another and another!
I did not even look upon Verna, so horrified I was at the barbaric spectacle. I had not believed that women could be like this.
And then the first girl tore away her skins and danced in her golden ornaments beneath the huge, wild moons, on the grass of the circle, before the square.
I could not believe my eyes. I shuddered, fearing such women.
Then suddenly, to my amazement, Verna cried out in anguish, a wild, moaning, anguished cry, and threw from herself her weapons and tore away her own skins and leaped into the circle, turning, and clawing and crying out like the others. She was not other than they, but first among them! She danced savagely, clad only in her gold and beauty, beneath the moons. She cried out and clawed. Sometimes she bit at another girl or struck at her, if she dared approach the square more closely than she. Writhing, enraged, but fearful, eyes blazing, dancing, they fell back before her.
She danced first among them, their leader.
Then, throwing her head back, she screamed, shaking her clenched fists at the moons.
And then, helplessly, she threw herself to the grass within the square, striking at it, biting and tearing at it, and then she threw herself on her back and, fists clenched, writhed beneath the moons.
One by one the other girls, too, violently, threw themselves to the grass, rolling upon it and moaning, some even within the precincts of the square, then throwing themselves upon their backs, some with their eyes closed, crying out, others with their eyes open, fixed helplessly on the wild moons, some with hands tearing at the grass, others pounding the earth piteously with their small fists, sobbing and whimpering, their bodies uncontrolled, helpless, writhing, under the moons of Gor.
The girls lay now quietly on the grass, some still whimpering slightly, many with their eyes closed, some lying on their stomachs, their face pressed against the grass, the stain of tears on their cheek, mingling into the grass.
At last the girls, one by one, rose from the grass, drew on again their skins, and took up their weapons.
After the trek of perhaps an hour we came to a clearing in the forest. In the clearing, there was a small hut, a stave house, with a single door and window. Inside there was a light.
After the trek of perhaps an hour we came to a clearing in the forest. In the clearing, there was a small hut, a stave house, with a single door and window. Inside there was a light.
I was led to the door of this house.
Verna removed the bag from its hook and knelt down on the ground, the other girls around her. She shook the contents of the bag out on the ground. It contained steel arrow points. She counted them in the light of the moons. There were one hundred of them.
Verna gave six points to each of her girls. Ten she kept for herself. She, and they, put the points into the pouches they wore at their belts.
I looked at her, shaking my head, not believing what I had seen. Could it be that this, and this alone, was my price, that I had been purchased for only this, the points for one hundred arrows?
A cart was passing, flanked by huntsmen and slaves, bearing their burdens of gourds, flowers, nuts and fruits. On the cart, horizontally, parallel to the axles, there was a high pole, itself supported by two pairs of diagonally crossed poles, lashed together at the point of their crossings. It was a trophy pole, with its stanchions, peeled, formed of straight branches, like the other trophy poles, from which had hung the skins of slain animal. Only standing below this pole, alone on the cart, her skins knotted about her neck, her wrists bound behind her back, her hair fastened over the pole, holding her in place, was a beautiful panther girl, stripped, her weapons, broken, lying at her feet. I recognized her as one of the girls of Verna's band.
I cried out with pleasure.
It was the first of five carts. On each, similarly, wrists bound behind her back, stripped, her hair bound cruelly over a trophy pole, stood a panther girl, each more beautiful than the last.
I heard the blare of the trumpets, the clash of the cymbals, the pounding of the drums. The men shouted. Women cursed, and screamed their hatred of the panther girls. Children cried out and pelted them with pebbles. Slave girls in the crowd rushed forward to surge about the carts, to poke at them with sticks, strike them with switches and spit upon them. Panther girls were hated. I, too, wished I could rush out and strike them and spit upon them. From time to time, guards, huntsmen, with whips, would leap to the cart and crack their whips, terrifying the slave girls, who knew that sound well, back from the carts, that they might pass, but then the slaves would gather again, and rush about the following cart, only to be in turn driven back again. Standing outside the range of the whip they would then spit, and curse and scream their hatred of the panther girls.
"Slaves are so cruel," said Ute.
Cart by cart passed.
"Look!" cried Inge.
We now heard the snap of whips again, but this time the leather blades fell upon the naked backs of girls.
"Look!" cried Lana, pleased.
A huntsman came now, holding in his hand five long leather straps, dragging behind him five panther girls. Their wrists were bound before their bodies, lashed tightly. The same strap that lashed their wrists, I saw, served, too, as their leash, that held in the huntsman's grip. Like the girls bound by the hair to the trophy poles, on the carts, these were stripped, their skins knotted about their necks.
Behind them there walked another huntsman, with a lash. He would occasionally strike them, hurrying them forward.
I saw the lash fall across the back of the blond girl, she who had held my leash in the forest, who had been so cruel to me. I heard her cry out, and saw her stumble forward, bound, in pain. I laughed.
Behind this first group of five girls there came a second group, it, too, with its huntsman holding the leashes, dragging his beautiful captives, and another following behind, occasionally lashing them forward.
How pleased I was. There had been fifteen girls, five on the carts, and two of the tethered groups! All of Verna's band had fallen captive!
There now came a great shout, and I squeezed even further forward in the wagon, to peep out.
Then the crowd became suddenly quiet.
One last cart approached. I could hear its wheels on the stones before I could see it.
It was Verna.
Beautiful, barbaric Verna!
Nothing, save her weapons, had been taken from her. She still wore her brief skins, and about her neck and on her arms, were barbaric ornaments of gold.
But she was caged.
Her cage, mounted on the cart, was not of branches, but of steel. It was a circular cage, between some six and seven feet in height, flat-bottomed, with a domed top. Its diameter was no more than a yard.
And she was chained.
Her wrists were manacled behind her body, and a chain led from her confined wrists to a heavy ring set in the bottom of her cage.
Her head was in the air.
She was manacled as heavily as might have been a man. This infuriated me. Slave bracelets would hold her, as they would any woman!
How arrogant and beautiful she seemed!
How I hated her!
And so, too, must have the other slave girls in the crowd, with their switches and sticks.
"Hit her!" I screamed through the canvas.
"Be quiet!" cried Ute, in horror.
"Hit her!" screamed Lana.
The crowd of slave girls swarmed forward toward the cart with their sticks and switches, some of them even leaping upon it, spitting, and striking and poking through the bars of the high narrow cage.
I saw that the domed top of Verna's cage was set with a ring, so that the cage might be, if one wished, hung from the branch of a tree, or suspended from a pole, for public viewing. Doubtless Marlenus had given orders that she be exhibited in various cities and villages on the route to Ar, his prize, that she might thus, this beautiful captive, an outlaw girl well known on Gor, considerably redound to his prestige and glory. I supposed that she would not be enslaved until she reached Ar. Then, I supposed, she would be publicly enslaved, and perhaps by the hand of Marlenus himself.
The slave girls swarmed about the cage, poking, and striking with their switches, and spitting and cursing. Their abuse was endured by Verna. It seemed she chose to ignore them. This infuriated them and they redoubled their efforts. Verna now flinched with pain, and her body was cut and marked, but still she would not lower her head, nor did she deign to speak to, or recognize in any way, her foes.
Then there was a roar of anger from the crowd and, to my fury, men began to leap, too, to the cart, but to hurl the slave girls from the cage. And huntsmen, too, angrily, now leaped to the cart, striking about them with their whips. The slave girls screamed, and fled from the cart. Men seized them, and disarmed them of their sticks and switches, and then threw the girls to the stones at their feet, where they cowered, at the sandals of free men, and then the men ordered them from the street. The girls leapt up and, weeping, terrified, fled away, humiliated, chastened slaves.
I was angry. I wished that I might have had a stick or switch. How I would have beaten Verna! I was not afraid of her! I would have beaten her well, as she deserved!
How I hated Verna!
Her cart was now moving away, drawn by the small, homed tharlarion.
In her cage, manacled, Verna still stood proudly. Her head was still in the air, her body straight, her gaze level and fixed. She gave no sign that she had noticed either those who had so rudely assailed her, or those who had protected her from them. How arrogant and superior she seemed!
"There is a new woman, a free woman in the camp," I said.
"That is Verna," said Ena, "a panther girl from the northern forests."
"How is it that she is here?" I begged.
Ena smiled. "Come with me," she said. She led me through the camp, until we came to a small, low tent. Before it, about a fire, there sat two brawny, magnificent huntsmen.
"They are from the hunting retinue of Marlenus of Ar," I whispered. I recognized them, both from the streets of Ko-ro-ba and from the merchants' stockade, on the trade route to Ar, where I and Lana had so abused Verna, she then being helplessly caged.
I noted that these two men were served, each by a slave girl. Inge and Rena were fetching in their work tunics. I could see that they were excited by their proximity to such men.
They were shameless!
"Those men," said Ena, "are Raf and Pron, huntsmen of Treve, though they range widely in their huntings, even to the northern forests. By order of Rask of Treve by their skill in weapons and their mastery of the techniques and lore of the hunt, and pretending to be of Minus, a village under the hegemony of Ar, made petition, and successfully so, to participate in the retinue of the great Ubar." She smiled at me. "Treve," she said, "has spies in many places."
"They freed Verna," I said.
"Freeing her, they escaped to a preappointed rendezvous, where Rask of Treve, with his men, met them, and brought them, and Verna, here."
"But why should they wish to free her?" I asked.
"Verna is well known on Gor, as an outlaw woman," said Ena. "When it became known that Marlenus, in his hunting, for his sport, would seek her, Rask of Treve gave order for Raf and Pron to attempt to join his retinue."
"But why?" I asked,
"That," said Ena, "Marlenus, if successful, might be deprived of his prize."
"But why?" I pressed.
"There would be glory in the capture of such a woman," said Ena, "and, surely, ignominy in her escaping."
"You mean she has been freed only that Marlenus of Ar might be deprived of his prize?"
"Of course," said Ena. "Treve and Ar are enemies."
"What of the other girls, those of Verna's band?" I asked. I particularly feared that the blond girl, she who had held my leash, might be freed. I had much abused her, throwing dirt on her and poking her with a stick in her cage. I was terrified of her. If she was free I did not know what she might do to me.
"The others remain caged prizes in the retinue of Marlenus," said Ena.
"Oh," I said. I was much relieved.
Then, one night, on a feast night, for Rask had returned with new fair prisoners, Verna feasted in his own tent, and I, to my amazement, was ordered to serve them. Other girls had prepared the repast, which, for the war camp, was sumptuous indeed, containing even oysters from the delta of the Vosk, a portion of the plunder of a tarn caravan of Ar, such delicacies having been intended for the very table of Marlenus, the Ubar of that great city itself. I served the food, and poured the wines, and kept their goblets filled, remaining as much in the background as possible.
They talked of hunting, and war, and of the northern forests, as though I were not there.
Sometimes Verna would say, "Drink," and I would pour wine into her goblet, saying, "Yes, Mistress," and sometimes Rask of Treve would command me, saying "Drink," and I would then, similarly, serve him, saying "Yes, Master."
Verna sat cross-legged, like a man. I knelt, as a serving slave.
She threw me one of the oysters.
"Eat, Slave," she said.
"I am taking Talena with me," said Verna. "Rask of Treve has given her to me. I am taking her to the northern forests, as a slave."
"But she is the favorite of Rask of Treve," I whispered.
"No," said Verna.
"Will you not stay in the camp," I asked, "as the comrade of Rask of Treve?"
She looked at me, and smiled. "No," she said. "My place is in the northern forests."
I did not speak.
"Is it pleasant," she asked, "to surrender to a man?"
I put my head down, shamed by joy.
"Ah," said Verna. Then she spoke to me softly. "Once," she said, "long ago, in the city of Ar, I saw a man, and in seeing him, for the only time in my life, I was afraid, for I feared he might do to me, if he wished, what Rask of Treve has done to you. I have never feared this of another man?
I looked at her.
"And so I hated him," she said, "and I resolved, someday, to see who would conquer."
"What was his name?" I asked.
"Marlenus of Ar," she said.
I could not speak, so astonished I was.
She casually indicated the wretched girl bound to one side, beyond the bottom of the hillock. "This wench is bait," she said.
"You have an unusual barber," said Samos.
The slave girl laughed again, delightedly.
The strip which had been shaven on his head, from the forehead to the back of the neck, signified that he had been captured, and sold, by the panther girls of the northern forests. It is among the greatest shames that a man can know, that he had been enslaved by women, who had then, when weary of him, sold him, taking their profit on him.
"It is said," said Samos, "that only weaklings, and fools, and men who deserve to be slave girls, fall slave to women."
The man glared at Samos. I could sense, again, that, in his manacles, behind his back, his fists were clenched.
"I was once the slave of a woman," I told the man.
He looked at me, startled.
"What is to be done with you?" asked Samos.
I could see the heavy metal collar hammered about the man's neck, not uncommon in a male slave. His head would have been placed across the anvil, and the metal curved about his neck with great blows.
"Whatever you wish," said the man, kneeling before us.
"How came you to be slave?" I asked.
"As you can see," he said, "I fell to women."
"How came it about?" I asked.
"They fell upon me in my sleep," he said. "I wakened to a knife at my throat. I was chained. They much sported with me. When they wearied of me, I was taken, leashed and manacled, to a lonely beach, at the edge of Thassa, bordering on the western edge of the forests."
"It is a well-known rendezvous point," said Samos. "It was there one of my ships picked him up, and others." He looked at the man. "Do you recall your price?"
"Two steel knives," said the man, "and fifty steel arrow points."
"And a stone of hard candies, from the kitchens of Ar," smiled Samos.
"Yes," said the man, through gritted teeth.
The slave girl laughed, and clapped her hands. Samos did not admonish her.
"What is to be your fate?" asked Samos.
"Doubtless to be a galley slave," he said.
The great merchant galleys of Port Kar, and Cos, and Tyros, and other maritime powers, utilized thousands of such miserable wretches, fed on brews of peas and black bread, chained in the rowing holds, under the whips of slave masters, their lives measured by feedings and beatings, and the labor of the oar.
"What were you doing in the northern forests?" I asked him.
"I am an outlaw," he said proudly.
"You are a slave," said Samos.
"Yes," said the man, "I am a slave."
The slave girl, in her brief silk, stood, holding the two-handled bronze paga vessel, that she might look down upon him.
"Few travelers journey through the northern forests," I said.
"Commonly," said he, "I plundered beyond the forests." He looked at the slave girl. "Sometimes," said he, "I plundered within them."
"At the time I was captured," said he, looking again at Samos, "I was trying chain luck."
"I thought that it was I who was hunting women," said he.
"But it was they who were hunting me."
"This one," said the panther girl, jabbing the suspended figure with a knife, "is interesting he afforded us much pleasure, before we wearied of him."
"He should bring a high price from a soft, rich woman," the girl advised us.
"Yes," granted Rim, "he seems sturdy, and handsome."
Another panther girl, behind the man, struck him suddenly, unexpectedly, with a whip.
He cried out in pain.
His head, a strip from the forehead to the back of his neck, had been freshly shaved.
The girls had set two poles in the sand, and lashed a high crossbar to them. The man's wrists, widely apart, were, by leather binding fiber, fastened to this bar. He was nude. He hung about a foot from the ground. His legs had been widely spread and tied to the side poles.
Behind this frame, and to one side, there was another frame. In it, too, hung a miserable wretch, put up for sale by panther girls.
His head, too, was shaved, in the shame badge.
"This was the exchange point," said Rim to me, "where I myself was sold."
The panther girl, Sheera, who was leader of this band, sat down in the warm sand.
"Let us bargain," she said.
She sat cross-legged, like a man. Her girls formed a semicircle behind her.
Sheera was a strong, black-haired wench, with a necklace of claws and golden chains wrapped about her neck. There were twisted golden armlets on her bronzed arms. About her left ankle, threaded, was an anklet of shells. At her belt she wore a knife sheath. The knife was in her hand, and, as she spoke, she played with it, and drew in the sand.
"Serve wine," said Rim, to Cara.
Rim and I, as we had with Arn, and his men, sat down with Sheera, and her girls.
Cara, the slave girl, just as she had done with Arn and the men, served wine. The girls, no more than the men, noticed her. For she was slave.
It interested me that the panther girls showed her no more respect, nor attention, than they did. But they did not acknowledge their sisterhood with such animals as she.
"Wine, Slave," said Sheera.
"Yes, Mistress," whispered Cara, and filled her cup.
Sheera regarded her with contempt. Head down, Cara crept back.
Panther girls are arrogant. They live by themselves in the northern forests, by hunting, and slaving and outlawry. They have little respect for anyone, or anything, saving themselves and, undeniably, the beasts they hunt, the tawny forest panthers, the swift, sinuous sleen.
I can understand why it is that such women hate men, but it is less clear to me why they hold such enmity to women. Indeed, they accord more respect to men, who hunt them, and whom they hunt, as worthy foes, than they do to women other than themselves. They regard, it seems, all women, slave or free, as soft, worthless creatures, so unlike themselves. Perhaps most of all they despise beautiful female slaves, and surely Cara was such. I am not sure why they hold this great hatred for other members of their sex. I suspect it may be because, in their hearts, they hate themselves, and their femaleness. Perhaps they wish to be men; I do not know. It seems they fear, terribly, to be females, and perhaps fear most that they, by the hands of a strong man, will be taught their womanhood. It is said that panther girls, conquered, make incredible slaves. I do not much understand these things.
Sheera fastened her two, fierce black eyes on me. She jabbed with her knife in the sand. She was a sturdy bodied wench, exciting. She sat cross-legged, like a man. About her throat was the necklace of claws and golden chains. About her left ankle, threaded, the anklet of pierced shells. "What am I bid for these two slaves?" she demanded.
"I had expected to be met by Verna, the Outlaw Girl," said I, "at this point. Is it not true that she sells from this point?"
"I am the enemy of Verna," said Sheera. She jabbed down with the knife into the sand.
"Oh," I said.
"Many girls sell from this point," said Sheera. "Verna is not selling today. Sheera is selling. How much am I bid?"
"I had hoped to meet Verna," I said.
"Verna, I have heard," volunteered Rim, "sells by far the best merchandise."
I smiled. I recalled that it had been by Verna and her band that Rim had been sold. Rim, for an outlaw, was not a bad sort.
"We sell what we catch," said Sheera. "Sometimes chain luck is with Verna, sometimes it is not." She looked at me. "What am I bid for the two slaves?" she asked.
I lifted my eyes to regard the two miserable wretches bound in the frames.
They had been much beaten, and long and heavily worked. The fierce women had doubtless raped them many times.
They were not my purpose in coming to the exchange point, but I did not wish to leave them at the mercy of the panther girls. I would bid for them.
Sheera was regarding Rim closely. She grinned. She jabbed at him with the knife. "You," she said, "have worn the chains of panther girls!"
"It is not impossible," conceded Rim.
Sheera, and the girls, laughed.
"You are an interesting fellow," said Sheera, to Rim. "It is fortunate for you, that you are at the exchange point. Else we might be tempted to put our chains on you." She laughed. "I think I might enjoy trying you," she said.
"Are you any good?" asked one of the girls, of Rim.
"Men," said Sheera, "make delightful slaves."
"Panther girls," said Rim, "do not make bad slaves either."
Sheera's eyes flashed. She jabbed the knife into the sand, to the hilt. "Panther girls," she hissed, "do not make slaves!"
It did not seem opportune to mention to Sheera that, aboard the Tesephone, nude, chained in the first hold, in gags and slave hoods, were two panther girls. I had kept them below decks, secured, and in gags and slave hoods, that they not be seen, nor heard to cry out, at the exchange point. I did not wish their presence, nor an indication of their presence, to complicate our dealings at the point. After I had interrogated them thoroughly, I would sell them in Lydius.
"You mentioned," said I to Sheera, "that you are an enemy of Verna?"
"I am her enemy," said Sheera.
"We are anxious to make her acquaintance," said I. "Do you know perhaps where she might be found?"
Sheera's eyes narrowed. "Anywhere," she said.
"I have heard," I said, "that Verna and her band sometimes roam north of Laura."
The momentary flash in the eyes of Sheera had told me what I wanted to know.
"Perhaps," she said, shrugging.
The information about Verna's band I had had from a girl who had been recently slave in my house, a wench named Elinor. She now belonged to Rask of Treve.
The inadvertent response in Sheera's eyes had confirmed this belief.
It was, of course, one thing to know this general manner of thing, and another to find Verna's band's camp, or their dancing circle. Each band of panther girls customarily has a semi-permanent camp, particularly in the winter, but, too, each band, customarily, has its dancing circle. Panther girls, when their suppressed womanhood becomes sometimes too painful, repair to such places, there to dance the frenzy of their needs. But, too, it is in such places, that the enslavement of males is often consummated.
Rim had been captured by Verna and her band, but he had been chained, raped and enslaved not far from the very exchange point where he was sold, this very point. He knew less than I of the normal habits of Verna and her band. We both knew, of course, that she, with her girls, ranged widely.
"Verna's camp," I said to Sheera, matter-of-factly, "is not only north of Laura, but to its west."
She seemed startled. Again I read her eyes. What I had said had been mistaken. Verna's camp, then, lay to the north and east of Laura.
"Do you wish to bid on the slaves or not?" asked Sheera.
"Yes," I said.
I now had as much information as I had expected to obtain at the exchange point. It was perhaps not wise to press for more. Sheera, a leader, a highly intelligent woman, doubtless understood that she might have betrayed information. Her knife was cutting at the sand. She was not looking at me. She was only too obviously irritated, now intensely suspicious. More specific information I expected to obtain from the captured panther girls on board the ship. Panther girls generally know the usual territories of various bands. They might even know, approximately, the locations of the various camps, and dancing circles. I was not likely to obtain that information from free women. I expected however, under interrogation, to be able to obtain it from the helpless girls, at my mercy, on the Tesephone. Afterwards I would sell them. I had learned enough at the exchange point to confirm my original information, to add to it somewhat, and to be able, in the light of it, to evaluate the responses of my captives on board the ship. I smiled to myself. They would talk. Afterwards, when I had learned what I wished to know, I would sell them in Lydius.
"A steel knife for each," I proposed to Sheera, "and twenty arrow points, of steel, for each."
"Forty arrow points for each, and the knives," said Sheera, cutting at the sand.
I could see she did not much want to conduct these negotiations. Her heart was not in the bargaining. She was angry.
"Very well," I said.
"And a stone of candies," she said, looking up, suddenly.
"Very well," I said.
"For each!" she demanded.
"Very well," I said.
She slapped her knees and laughed. The girls seemed delighted.
There was little sugar in the forest, save naturally in certain berries, and simple hard candies, such as a child might buy in shops in Ar, or Ko-ro-ba, were, among the panther girls in the remote forests, prized.
It was not unknown that among the bands in the forests, a male might be sold for as little as a handful of such candies. When dealing with men, however, the girls usually demanded, and received, goods of greater value to them, usually knives, arrow points, small spear points; sometimes armlets, and bracelets and necklaces, and mirrors; sometimes slave nets and slave traps, to aid in their hunting; sometimes slave chains, and manacles, to secure their catches.
I had the goods brought from the ship, with scales to weigh out the candies.
Sheera, and her girls, watched carefully, not trusting men, and counted the arrow points twice.
Satisfied, Sheera stood up. "Take the slaves," she said.
The nude male wretches were, by men from the Tesephone, cut down.
They fell to the sand, and could not stand. I had them placed in slave chains.
"Carry them to the ship," said I to my men.
The girls, as the slaves were carried toward the water, swarmed about them, spitting upon them, and striking them, jeering and mocking them.
"This one," said one of the girls, "will look well chained at the bench of a galley."
"This one," said Sheera, poking the other in the shoulder with her knife, "is not bad." She laughed. "Sell him to a rich woman."
He turned his head away from her, his eyes dosed, a male slave.
Male slaves, on Gor, are not particularly valuable, and do not command high prices. Most labor is performed by free men. Most commonly, male slaves are utilized on the cargo galleys, and in the mines, and on the great farms. They also serve, frequently, as porters at the wharves. Still, perhaps they are fortunate to have their lives, even at such a price. Males captured in war, or in the seizure of cylinders or villages, or in the pillaging of caravans, are commonly slain. The female is the prize commodity in the Gorean slave markets. A high price for a male is a silver tarsk, but even a plain wench, of low caste, provided she moves well to the touch of the auctioneer's coiled whip, will bring as much, or more. An exception to the low prices for males generally is that paid for a certified woman's slave, a handsome male, silken clad, who has been trained to tend a woman's compartments. Some of such bring a price comparable to that brought by a girl, of average loveliness. Prices, of course, tend to fluctuate with given markets and seasons. If there are few such on the market in a given time, their prices will tend to be proportionately higher. Such men tend to be sold in women's auctions, closed to free men, with the exception, of course, of the auctioneer and such personnel.
Soon the two seamen, with their black, bending tem-wood poles, were trusting the Tesephone backward, into deeper waters.
"To Lydius," I told Thurnock.
"Out oars!" he called.
The oars slid outboard.
With a creak of ropes and pulleys, seamen were hauling the long, sloping yard up the mast, its sail still secured in the brail ropes.
I saw Sheera, standing knee deep in the water, near the beach. She had now thrust her sleen knife into its belt sheath.
"Remove your sword belts and weapons," said the woman. I dropped my belt, with sword and sheath, and knife, to the ground, beside the fire. My men, at my signal, did likewise.
"Excellent," said the woman, from the other side of the stakes.
She looked at us. In the light from the recently built-up fire I could see her more clearly. I saw the brief skins, the bow. She had a golden armlet on her left arm, a golden anklet on her right ankle.
She was truly a panther girl.
"You are surrounded," she said.
"Of course," I said.
"There are arrows," she said, "trained on the hearts of each of you."
"Of course," I said.
"You understand," she asked, "that you might be now, should it please us, taken slave?"
"Yes," I said.
"Of what would you hold converse?" she asked.
"Let us speak," I said.
"Remove some of the stakes," she said, "and we will speak."
I gestured to Thurnock. "Remove four stakes," I said. Reluctantly the peasant giant did so.
The panther girl, her head high, strode into the camp. She looked about herself. Her eyes were strong, and fearless.
With her foot she kicked the dropped weapons closer the fire, away from my men.
"Sit," she said to them, indicating a place near the back of the wall of stakes, "and face the fire."
I indicated they should comply with her directive.
"More closely together," she said.
I again indicated that they should comply with her directive.
She had had them face the fire, that their eyes might not quickly adapt to night vision. If the fire were suddenly extinguished they would, for an Ehn, for all practical purposes, be blind, at the mercy of the panther girls. They had been told to sit together that an arrow loosed into their midst could not but find a target.
The girl now sat down across from me, cross-legged, near the fire.
There was another sound from beyond the perimeter. I saw something white move in the darkness, stumbling between two panther girls.
A panther girl holding each arm, she was thrust into the camp. She was still braceleted, of course, but now her hands, in the bracelets, with binding fiber, had been tied close to her belly. Her brief white garment had been torn to her waist. The fillet was gone from her hair. Sheera was thrust forward, and forced to her knees, head down, by the fire. She had been much switched.
"We encountered this strayed slave," said the girl.
"She is mine," I said.
"Do you know who she was?" asked the girl.
I shrugged. "A slave," I said.
There was laughter from girls beyond the perimeter, in the darkness. Sheera lowered her head still more.
"She was once a panther girl," said the girl. "She was once Sheera, the panther girl."
"Oh," I said.
The girl laughed. "She was a great rival to Verna. Verna now takes pleasure in returning her to you." The girl looked at Sheera. "You wear a collar well, Sheera," said she. Sheera looked at her, her eyes glazed with pain.
"This merchant," said the girl, "tells us that you are his slave. Is that true?"
Sheera looked at her, in fury.
"Speak, Slave," said the girl.
"Yes," said Sheera, "he is my master."
The girl laughed, and so, too, did the others. Then the girl looked at me, and nodded at Sheera. "Is she any good?" she asked.
I looked at Sheera. "Yes," I said, "she is quite good."
Sheera looked away, in fury, and put down her head. There was much laughter from the girls.
"We will take four arrow points for her," said the girl, "for returning her to you."
"Your fee is quite reasonable," I remarked.
"More than enough," said the girl, "for a cheap girl."
Sheera's fists were clenched. Then she put her head down, and wept, a slave.
I indicated that one of the girl's companions might remove four arrow points from the pack of trade goods. She did remove four, just four, and no more.
"So you are Verna?" I asked the girl.
"No," she said.
I looked disappointed.
She regarded me warily. "You seek Verna?" she asked.
"I have come far," I admitted, "to do business with her." I looked at the girl, not much pleased. "I had understood that this was the territory ranged by Verna and her band."
"I am of the band of Verna," said the girl.
"Good," I said. I was now more pleased.
The girl facing me was blond, and blue-eyed, like many panther girls. She was lovely, but cruel looking. She was not particularly tall.
For some reason I found myself not displeased that this woman was not Verna.
"I am Bosk, of Tabor," I said.
"I am Mira," she said.
"Do you come from Verna?" I asked. "Can you speak for her?"
"Yes," she said. "For whom do you speak?"
"For myself," I said.
"Not for Marlenus of Ar?" she asked.
"No," I said.
"That is interesting," she said. Then she mused, "Verna told us that Marlenus of Ar would not approach us as you have done, and that he would not use a merchant to do his business for him."
I shrugged. "She is probably right," I said. Marlenus, with men, would hunt the forests. He would not be likely to address himself to a panther girl unless she was stripped and knelt before him in slave chains.
"Do you know Marlenus is in the forest?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, "I have heard that."
"Do you know the location of his camp?" she asked.
"No," I said, "other than the fact that it is said to be somewhere north or northeast of Laura."
"We know where it is," said Mira.
"I am interested in obtaining," I said, "a woman, who is rumored to be a prisoner in Verna's camp."
"A slave?" smiled Mira.
"Perhaps," I said. "She is said to be dark haired, very beautiful."
"You speak of Talena," smiled Mira, "the daughter of Marlenus of Ar."
"Yes," I said. "Is she in your camp?"
"Perhaps," said Mira. "Perhaps not."
"I am prepared to offer weights of gold."
The weight is ten Gorean stone. A Gorean stone is approximately four pounds in weight.
"If you obtained her," would you sell her back to Marlenus of Ar, for even more?"
"It is not my intention," I said, "to take a profit on her."
Mira stood up. I, too, stood up.
"Tens of weights of gold," I said to Mira.
But as I looked into her eyes, I realized that Talena was not for sale.
"Is the girl in your camp?" I asked.
"Perhaps," said Mira. "Perhaps not."
"Set a price on her," I said.
"These woods," said Mira, "belong to panther girls. In the morning, Merchant, leave them."
I faced her.
"It is well for you," said the girl, lifting the four arrow points she had received for the return of Sheera, "that we have done business."
I nodded, understanding her.
She looked at my men, as a man might have looked upon women. "Some of these men," she said, "seem interesting. They are strong, and handsome. They would look well in the chains of slaves."
She strode to the opening in the stakes, and there turned, again to face me.
"Be warned," said she. "These are the forests of panther girls. Leave them!"
"I understand," I said.
"And, Merchant," said she, "do not seek hereafter to mix in the affairs of Verna and Marlenus."
"I understand," I said.
The girl turned and, swiftly, disappeared in the shadows, the others disappearing with her.
My men leaped to their feet and seized their weapons.
I went to Sheera, and lifted her head. "Did you see Verna?" I asked her.
"Yes," she said.
"Were you at the camp?" I asked.
"No," she said.
"Do they hold Talena?" I demanded. I held her cruelly by the shoulders.
"I do not know," she said.
I released her.
"Did Verna give you any message for me?" I asked. "It is unimportant," she said. "What was it?" I asked.
"It concerns me," said Sheera, head down.
"What was the message?" I asked.
"I am to say it to you," whispered Sheera.
"Say it," said I.
"Teach me slavery," whisper Sheera. Then she put her head down.
I thrust her aside with my foot, furious. "Thurnock," said I, "replace the stakes."
The peasant giant did so.
I looked into the darkness of the forests. We would indeed leave the forests and by noon of the morrow.
But we would come back.
I had given Verna, and her band, her chance.
"What is your name?" I asked.
"Grenna," she said.
"Where is the camp and dancing circle of Verna, the panther girl?" I asked.
She looked at me, sick, puzzled. "I do not know," she whispered.
Something in the girl's manner convinced me that she spoke the truth. I was not much pleased.
This portion of the forest was supposedly the territory of Verna, and her band.
I gave the girl some food from my pouch. I gave her a swallow of water from the flask at my belt.
"Are you not of Verna's band?" I asked
"No," she said.
"Of whose band are you?" I asked.
"Of Hura's," said she.
"This portion of the forest," I told her, "is the territory of Verna and her band.
"It will be ours," she said.
I withheld the water flask.
"We have more than a hundred girls," she said. "It will be ours."
I gave her another swallow of water.
"It will be ours," she said.
I was puzzled. Normally panther girls move and hunt in small bands. That there should be more than a hundred of them in a single band, under a single leader, seemed incredible.
I did not much understand this.
"You are a scout?" I asked.
"Yes," she said.
"How far are you in advance of your band?" I asked.
"Pasangs," she said.
"What will be thought when you do not return to your band?" I asked.
"Who knows what to think?" she asked. "Sometime a girl does not come back."
He gave a high whistle, shrill and sudden, and we, and the others, thrust through the portals of the hut, casting the sleen nets to encompass whatever might lie within. I gave a cry of rage. We caught nothing. Our hut was empty.
In a moment other men came to our hut. "They are gone," said one.
"The camp is empty," said another. We looked at one another. Arn was furious.
"Reconnoiter," I told two men, "and swiftly, and well." The men, and Arn, looked at one another, apprehensively. They had only then realized, with full awareness, that we ourselves were now penned within the stockade, which might now serve as the same trap for us as it might have served before for panther girls.
The two men swiftly went out to scan the surrounding forest.
I did not think that panther girls laid in wait outside, for we had made a careful examination of the area before we had entered the stockade. Still, I did not wish to take the chance that we might have missed them, or, even, that they might have withdrawn before our examination of the area, intending to return when we might be within the stockade. The most likely hypothesis was that they, unaware of our presence in the vicinity, had, on business of their own, left the stockade before dawn. They might have attacks, or hunts, of their own to attend to. Perhaps they had learned of the advance of the girls of Hura toward their territory and had gone out to make reconnaissance, or oppose them. Perhaps they were lying in ambush, pasangs away, for a party of the men of Marlenus. Perhaps they, because of Hura or Marlenus, or for other reasons, had decided to abandon their camp?
I looked about. No, there was too much left. And there was no indication of hurried flight.
I saw spears about, and bundles of arrows.
Panther girls would not have left them. They would return.
One of the two men I had sent out to reconnoiter reentered the hut. "There is no sign of panther girls," he said.
Arn and his men breathed with relief.
"They will return," I said.
"What shall we do now?" asked Arn.
"Do not yet roll the sleen nets," I smiled.
He looked at me.
"Let us sit down and take council," I suggested.
Two men posted as sentries in the forest, we sat down in one of the huts.
"They will probably return before dark," said Arn.
"Perhaps sooner," said one of his men.
"We do not know from what direction they will come," said another.
"We do know," said Arn, "that they will return to this place."
The men grunted their agreement.
One of the men, glancing about the hut, said, "Ka-la-na!"
He pointed to a side of the hut.
There, tied together by the necks, were some six bottles of Ka-la-na.
He went to them and looked at them, lifting them. They were in dark bottles. He turned them about. "From the vineyards of Ar," he whistled. It was choice Ka-la-na.
"The panther girls were fortunate in their spoils," said one of Arn's men.
"Put them down," I said.
Reluctantly the man did so.
"Shall we return at dawn tomorrow?" asked one of my men, of me.
"Perhaps," I said. I did not care, however, to lose the time.
I did not know how long it would take for Hura, and her band, to reach our area of the forests. Besides, what if Verna and her band returned tonight, and then, again, departed before dawn tomorrow?
"I have a better suggestion," said Arn.
"You wish to remain in the camp," I said, "concealed, and surprise them upon their return."
"Yes," said Arn.
Several of the men looked at one another with pleasure. That would be delicious sport.
We would await them, with nets, in their own camp. Then, when they had tied shut the gate behind them, we would leap forth and take them, within their own stockade.
"That is a splendid plan!" said one of Arn's men.
The others nodded their agreement.
They looked at me, all. I did not wish to lose the time for another, know from whence the panther girls might return. This would make it difficult to ambush them deeper in the forest. And one might, in such an attempt, outside the stockade, lose several of the girls. They would not expect to be ambushed in their own camp. They would not be on their guard. They would be, by their own walls, unable to escape, entrapped.
I nodded. "We shall wait in the camp," I said.
"Good!" said Arn.
The man, one of Arn's, who had seen the Ka-la-na by the wall, crawled over to it. He pulled the bottles into his lap, and began to work at the cork of one of them.
I looked at Arn.
"Do not become drunk," said Arn to the man.
"I shall not," he said. With his sleen knife he had pried the cork up a bit from the bottle. He then, slowly, with his fingers and teeth, managed to withdraw the cork.
"Later," I said.
He looked at Arn, and Arn nodded. The man, irritably, thrust back the cork in the bottle.
"What if they do not return today?" asked a man.
I shrugged. "Then they do not return today," I said.
"They will return by nightfall," said Arn.
"The day has been long," said one of my men.
It was now late in the afternoon. We had eaten some foods we had brought with us, in our pouches, and. too, taken some food, bread and dried meat, which we had found in the huts.
I glanced out of the hut, at the sun. The day was long. The day was hot. I returned to the hut, and sat down.
Arn was chewing on a piece of dry Sa-Tarna bread. He washed it down with a swallow from his flask, filled earlier at the nearby stream. We had changed the guard twice in the forest.
"Panther girls," said one of Arn's men, "commonly return to their camp near dusk."
"That will be more than two Ahn," grumbled another man.
"It is time to change the guard again," said one of my men. He, and one of his fellows, rose to their feet.
"I," said Arm grimacing, "have not, for more than a year, tasted Ka-la-na from Ar."
"Nor I," said one of his men.
It was indeed choice Ka-la-na. My mind, more than once, had wandered to it.
"Captain," said one of my men.
"Very well," I said. The panther girls, in all probability, would not return for another Ahn or two.
The fellow who had removed the cork from the bottle was first to it, and again withdrew the cork.
He threw it to his lips and threw back his head.
I took the bottle from him.
"That is enough," I said.
"It is good!" he said.
"We shall open only this bottle," I said. "The others we may enjoy later."
They would not become drunk. One bottle of Ka-la-na among ten men is nothing. Ka-la-na is not paga or the strong beer of the north.
I did not, on the other hand, want the entire stock of Ka-la-na emptied.
Our project must not be jeopardized.
The two men, men of mine, who were going forth to relieve the guard, had their swallows from the bottle. They then left. Arn then took the bottle and drank from it, his head back, swiftly.
"Enough," I said.
The men, his and mine, passed the bottle about. In a short time the two men who had been relieved of guard duty in the forest re-entered the hut. They, too, had their Ka-la-na. There was little left.
"Captain," said one of my men, handing me the bottle.
I put back my head and finished it. It was bitter, the dregs, but it had in it the warmth and flash of the fine Ka-la-na of Ar. It was a red Ka-la-na. It was a choice Ka-la-na. The vineyards of Ar, as those of Cos, were among the finest on all Gor.
I went again to the entrance to the hut, and once more looked out.
The sun was lower, but it was still bright and warm. Heat, soft and still, hung among the branches and leaves.
It was more than an Ahn until dusk.
I turned to re-enter the hut. At the threshold I stumbled.
My hand clutched the jamb.
"We are fools!" I cried.
Arn looked up at me, blinking. The man who had opened the bottle of Ka-la-na, he who had first drunk, and most deeply, lay at one side of the hut, his knees drawn up to his stomach. "Get him!" I said. "And run! Run!"
The men stumbled to their feet, unsteadily. Two of them tried to lift the man who was lying at the side of the hut. "I can't see!" screamed one of the men. Arn climbed to his feet, and then fell to his hands and knees, his head down.
We fled, stumbling, falling, from the hut. To one side, behind me and to the left, I saw a net, swift and white, heavily corded, weighted, drop over a man. I heard the shouts of panther girls.
Holding Arn, stumbling, by the arm, I ran toward the gate.
Trying to clear my vision, I felt, suddenly, the sharp jab of one spear, and then another. I reeled unsteadily. I shook my head. There was blood at my chest and stomach. "Back!" I heard. "Back!" At the gate there were four panther girls, thrusting with spears, held in their two hands, prodding us back. Arn fell to his knees. I lifted him, and turned back toward the hut. I fell once, and then struggled again to my feet. Half-carrying Arn I regained the darkness of the hut. I groped for my bow. I shook my head. I must not lose consciousness. Arn fell to his hands and knees, dazed. I found a black tem-wood arrow, a sheaf arrow, and fitted it unsteadily to the string of the great bow, the yellow bow, from the wine trees of Gor. I could find no target. I was breathing heavily, sweating. I tried to draw the bow. I could not draw it. The arrow fell from the string.
I looked outside.
One of my men had fallen unconscious to the ground. Another, futilely, weakly, was fighting slave snares, held like a trapped animal in the cruel, taut cords. Then he was pulled from his feet, and I saw a panther girl, a blond girl, her hair wild, leap toward him, her spear lifted in two hands.
I saw another man lying on his belly. Two beautiful panther girls bent to him. One jerked his wrists behind his body, binding them. The other had crossed his ankles and was swiftly fastening them with binding fiber.
I saw two men, in slave manacles, chained to a post of the gate.
With a cry of rage I threw down the bow and kicked out the back of the hut.
I shook my head wildly, seized Arn by one arm, and dragged him through the break in the hut.
Outside I looked about.
At one side of the hut, where I could not see, I heard the heavy snap of slave manacles.
I stumbled to the sharpened saplings forming the wall behind the hut.
I reached down, seizing one with both hands, trying to pull it up.
We were locked within this fence. Arn, beside me, groggily, slipped to his knees. I shook him, viciously.
Together we managed to loosen one of the saplings, and then, together, we slipped through the wall.
"They are escaping!" I heard cry. "Two! They are escaping!"
Thrusting Arn along beside me, holding his arm, we found a trail among the trees. I heard more cries behind us, of panther girls in fury. We heard the sounds of pursuit. Panther girls are swift, fierce hunters.
"Get up!" I cried. "Get up!" I slapped Arn fiercely, and dragged him to his feet.
Groggily he ran beside me.
An arrow swept past us. I heard the cries of pursuit, the sounds of branches being broken and rudely thrust aside.
There was suddenly a great, heavy steel snap at my feet.
Arn cried out in pain and fell forward.
Locked on his right ankle were the heavy, sharp steel teeth of a slave trap.
I fought the heavy, curved steel jaws, but they had locked shut. The Gorean slave trap is not held by a simple, heavy spring as would be the trap for a panther or sleen. Such a spring, by a strong man, with his hands, might be thrust open. This trap had sprung shut and locked. The heavy steel curved snugly about his ankle. The sharp teeth, biting deeply, fastened themselves in his flesh. It could only be opened by key.
He would be held perfectly. It was a Gorean slave trap.
I pulled at the chain, a heavy chain, concealed under leaves.
It led to a ring on a post, sunk deeply into the ground. I could not budge the post.
I heard the pursuit, almost at hand, breaking through branches.
Arn looked at me, agonized.
I put out my hand to him. Then I turned and, stumbling, sick, began to run.
I fell against a tree, and again struggled to my feet. An arrow struck near me.
I plunged into the underbrush, hearing the sounds of pursuit.
I began to grow dizzy. It was hard to see. I fell again, and again stumbled to my feet and, unsteadily, attempted to run.
I do not know how far I ran. I do not think it was far. I fell in the brush.
I must get up, I screamed to myself, I must get up!
But I could not get up.
"Here he is," I heard.
I opened my eyes and saw about me the ankles of several panther girls.
My hands were dragged behind me. I felt slave steel locked on my wrists.
I fell unconscious.
The girls now knelt about me, in a circle. They were silent. I looked up at the large, white, swift moons. There were three of them, a larger, and two smaller, looming, dominating.
The girls were breathing heavily. They had set aside their weapons.
They knelt, their hands on their thighs, occasionally lifting their eyes to the moons. Their eyes began to blaze. They put back their heads. Their lips parted. Their hair fell behind their heads, their faces lifted to the rays of the moons. Then, together, they began to moan and sway from side to side. Then they lifted their arms and hands to the moons, still swaying from side to side, moaning. I pulled at the thongs that bound me. Then their moaning became more intense and the swaying swifter and more savage, and, crying out and whimpering, they began to claw at the moons.
Mira leaped to her feet and tore her skins to the waist exposing her breasts to the wild light of the flooding moons. She shrieked and tore at the moons with her fingernails. In an instant another girl, and then another, and another had followed her example. Only Verna still knelt, her hands on her thighs, looking at the moons. Beneath the moons, helplessly, I sought to free myself. I could not do so.
Mira now, the others following, crying out, tore away the scraps of panther skin that had yet concealed their beauty. They now wore only their gold, and their ornaments. Now, moaning, crying out, the she-beasts of the forest, the panther girls, hands lifted, clawing, began to stamp and dance beneath the fierce brightness of the wild moons.
Then, suddenly, they stopped, but stood, still, their hands lifted to the moons.
Verna threw back her head, her fists clenched on her thighs, and cried out, a wild scream, as though in agony.
She leaped to her feet and, looking at me, tore away her skins.
My blood leaped before her beauty.
But she had turned away and, naked, her head back, had lifted her hands, too, clawing at the moons.
Then all of them, together, turned slowly to face me. They were breathing heavily. Their hair was disheveled, their eyes wild.
I lay before them, helpless.
Suddenly, as one, they seized up their light spears, and, swaying, spears lifted, began to circle me.
They were incredibly beautiful.
A spear darted toward me, but did not strike me. It was withdrawn.
It could have killed me, of course, had its owner wished. But it had spared me.
Then, about me, the panther girls, circling, swaying, began a slow stalking dance, as of hunters.
I laying the center of the circle.
Their movements were slow, an suddenly one would cry out and thrust at me with her spear. But the spear was not thrust into my body. Its point would stop before it had administered its wound. Many of the blows would have been mortal. But many thrusts were only to my eyes, or arms and legs. Every bit of me began to feel exposed, threatened.
I was their catch.
Then the dance became progressively swifter and wilder, and the feigned blows became more frequent, and then, suddenly, with a wild cry, the swirling throng about me stood for an instant stock still, and then with a cry, each spear thrust down savagely toward my heart.
I cried out.
None of the spears had struck me.
The girls cast aside the spears. Then, like feeding she-panthers they knelt about me, each one, with her hands and tongue, touching and kissing me.
I cried out with anguish.
I knew I could not long resist them.
I fought the thongs, but, by their bodies, was thrust back. I felt Mira's teeth in my shoulder.
Suddenly I saw a movement in the darkness, behind the girls. One of the girls suddenly screamed, and was pulled from me, her arms pinned behind her back by a man's hands.
The girls suddenly looked about themselves, startled. They were seized from behind by the strong hands of men. They screamed.
I saw Verna's arms, too, pinned behind her. I recognized the man, in hunter's cap who held her.
"Greetings," said Marlenus of Ar.
"The girl, Verna," he said, "had fled."
"Thank you, Warrior," said Marlenus, dismissing the man. Then Marlenus turned to me. "You see," said he, "the game is already begun."
It was a hot afternoon, late in the afternoon. It was the day following Verna's flight.
"We have caught an escaped slave," said Hura.
Hura reached to Verna's collar. She dug her fingers between the neck and the steel and jerked it, twice. "The collar of this slave girl," she said, "says that she belongs to Marlenus of Ar."
"I am not one of your girls!" screamed Verna. "I am not one of your girls! I am Verna! Verna, the outlaw woman! Verna, the panther girl!"
"I will give you a steel knife," said Marlenus, "and forty arrow points for her."
"Very well," said Hura.
"I do not care if you beat me," said Verna, in pain. "I have felt the whip."
But Marlenus dragged her past the whipping post. I could see that this frightened her.
"Who are you?" asked Marlenus.
"I am Verna," she said, "the outlaw."
Then, to her astonishment, and that of all those watching, saving the Ubar himself, Marlenus took the key to her collar from his pouch. He opened the collar and replaced the key in his pouch. He then removed the collar from her throat and cast it to one side, in the dirt.
She looked up at him, puzzled.
"Hamstring the outlaw," he said.
Hanging is a not uncommon penalty in the northern forests for outlawry. Another such penalty, not infrequently inflicted, is hamstringing.
"No, Ubar!" she said. "Please, Ubar!"
A fifth huntsman, at a sign from Marlenus, stepped behind the girl. He removed his sleen knife from its sheath. I saw the edge of the blade touch the right tendon.
"I am a woman!" screamed Verna. "I am a woman!"
"No," said Marlenus. "You are an outlaw."
"I am a woman!" screamed Verna. "I am a woman! I am a woman!"
"No," said Marlenus. "You have only the body of a woman. Inside your body you are a man."
"No!" she wept. "No! Inside I am a woman! I am a woman!"
"Is it true?" asked Marlenus.
"Yes, yes!" wept Verna.
"You acknowledge yourself a female then," asked Marlenus, "within as well as without."
"Yes" cried Verna. "I am a female!"
"Completely?" asked Marlenus.
"Yes, yes," wept Verna, "I am completely a female."
"And not a man as well?" pressed Marlenus.
"I am completely and only a female," wept Verna.
"Then," said Marlenus, "it seems we should not hamstring you as an outlaw."
Verna's body shuddered with relief. She shook in the arms of her captors.
But they did not release her.
"Then," said Marlenus, "you may be hamstrung for being an escaped slave girl."
Terror sprang anew into Verna's eyes.
It was true. The second penalty for an escaping girl, one who has fled before, is not uncommonly hamstringing. I had seen hamstrung girls, begging, piteous in the streets of Ar. It was not a pleasant sight.
"Hamstring the slave," said Marlenus.
"Master!" screamed Verna. "Master!"
Marlenus' hand indicated that the knife, poised, hesitate. The words that she had spoken stunned us, all save Marlenus. She had called him Master.
The huntsmen held the slave.
"Please, Master!" wept Verna. "Do not hurt me! Do not hurt me, Master!"
"The slave begs for mercy," said one of the huntsmen.
"Is this true?" asked Marlenus.
"Yes, Master," wept Verna. "I am yours. I am your girl. I am your slave. I beg for mercy. I beg for mercy, Master!"
"Release her," said Marlenus. The huntsman resheathed his sleen knife. The others released the girl. She knelt on the ground, her head down. her hair forward, her shoulders and body shaking, trembling with terror.
The other girls, too, were frightened, Verna's girls, in their panther skins, chained by their right ankle. Hura, and Mira, too, were shaken.
Verna had been shattered. Her pride, her obstinacy were gone.
She looked up at Marlenus, as a slave girl looks to the eyes of a master.
She knew then she was his.
Swiftly, lightly, the panther girls sprang into the tiny clearing not five yards from her. The binding fiber, in snare loops, was loose in their hands.
Ilene was on her hands and knees. She was in the grass. She wore only the bit of pleasure silk. She was breathing heavily, gasping. She looked at the panther girls
One of the panther girls, elated, strode to her and tied a length of binding fiber about her throat, tightly. She then backed away from her.
Ilene was on her hands and knees, looking at them, the binding fiber tied on her throat, its free end in the grasp of one of her captors.
"We have caught you, Slave," said one of the girls.
I dropped down behind them.
With two quick blows I stunned them. I tore away their halters, improvising gags. Then, with binding fiber from their own pouches, I tied their hands behind their backs. Their weapons and accouterments I threw to one side.
They lay on their stomachs.
"Stay as you are," I told them. "And spread your legs widely," I told them.
They did so.
"More widely," I said.
They did so. They could then spread them no more widely. It is very difficult for a captive to rise from this position. Also, psychologically, it induces a feeling of helplessness.
I then went to Ilene, who was now standing, frightened, and I removed the binding fiber from her throat.
"You were excellent bait," I told her.
I then took the binding fiber and, looping it several times about the throat of each captive, tied them together by the neck. The fiber which separated them was about eight feet in length, enough to serve as a double leash.
With the fiber I pulled them to their feet. I regarded them, my fist on the leash.
"You have been caught, Slaves," I told them.
They regarded me with fury.
"Take the slaves to our camp," I said to Ilene.
"Yes, Master," she said. She led them away.
I looked at the two panther girls, being led away. They were the first of our catches.
The men of Tyros, I knew, familiar with islands and the sweeps of gleaming Thassa, were inexperienced in the forest. The panther girls were their guides, their hunters, their scouts, their shields.
If I could make it so that the panther girls feared to leave the camp, and, in the marches, would insist on remaining near the long slave chain, putatively protected by their numbers, the men of Tyros would be, for many practical purposes, deprived of the services of their otherwise dangerously effective allies. Most importantly, I supposed, they would lose the services of their huntresses and guards. If the panther girls were in their camps, or near the slave chain in the march, it would be much simpler for me both to approach and withdraw. If the men of Tyros knew, as they would, that I might come and go as I pleased, this would have an unsettling effect upon them. Too, it should produce dissension between the men of Tyros and their allies, the lovely panther girls of the northern forests.
That day I took nine more panther girls. Five I took with the aid of Ilene.
The arrows which had struck the men of Tyros had been those of panther girls, taken from my captures. The men of Tyros and the girls of Hura did not know the nature nor the number of their stalkers. The first man, felled at the conquest circle, had been felled with a pile arrow from the great bow. The others had fallen to the arrows of panther girls, of which I had acquired a great number.
Mira had first betrayed Verna. She had then betrayed Marlenus of Ar. Her treacheries were not yet completed.
I approached her with the stealth of a warrior. She lay in her own small shelter. Other girls lay about. I did not touch them in my passage.
I lay behind Mira in the darkness. Her back was to me. She lay on her right side, her head on her right arm. She twisted in her sleep. She was restless. I was patient.
She rolled over on her back, and extended her legs, her head turned from side to side. Then her head was still. She was now mine.
I knelt across her body, one leg on either side of her, pinning her, confining her movements.
Her eyes suddenly, startled, opened. She saw me. In terror, a reflex action, uncontrollable, her mouth, lips wild, opened. I thrust the heavy wadding deep in her mouth. She could utter not the smallest sound. As my right hand did this the loop of panther skin, twisted in its center, fell from my hand across her face. Swiftly, the twisted part deeply between her teeth, I knotted it with a warrior's tightness behind the back of her neck. The wadding would not slip. I then turned her on her stomach and bound her wrists behind her back. Then I bent to her ankles, crossed them, and tied them together.
"Do not struggle," I told her.
She felt the blade of the knife at her throat. Her eyes wild over her gag, she nodded her understanding.
"Do you understand what you are to do?" demanded Vinca.
"I can't!" wept Mira "I can't!" tears strained her cheeks from beneath the blindfold I had fastened on her before bringing her to this predesignated clearing.
She could not see who it was who spoke to her. She knew only that she knelt, stripped, blindfolded and bound, before a harsh female interrogator, one whose uncompromising strictures and imperious tones could only be interpreted as those of a leader of a large and important band of panther women.
Also, to her left and right, moving about, from time to time, were the other two paga slaves, those beside Vinca. Mira could have no way of knowing how many were present at her interrogation nor if those present were merely a delegation or smaller group drawn from a larger band. Indeed, she knew little more than that she was being severely addressed by one woman, and that there were others about. Ilene I had left with the other prisoners, chaining her, belly to a tree, by slave bracelets. Mira, kneeling blindfolded, interrogated, did not even know if I were still present.
Vinca, the red-haired girl, did her job well. From time to time, when not satisfied with an answer, or, sometimes, for no apparent reason at all, she would, unexpectedly, strike the blindfolded, bound, cowering Mira with the switch. Mira never knew when she would be struck. She wept. She would sometimes flinch from blows that had not even fallen.
"Please do not hit me again," wept Mira.
"Very well," said Vinca.
Mira lifted her head and, gasping, straightened her body.
Then suddenly the switch would fall again, with lashing ferocity.
Mira put down her head again, shuddering. I observed the fingers of her small, crossed, bound hands. I did not think it would take long now for Vinca to break her.
"Do you understand what you are to do?" demanded Vinca.
"I cannot!" wept Mira. "It is too dangerous! If I were found out, they would kill me! I cannot do it! I cannot do it!"
I motioned to Vinca. No more blows fell.
"Very well," said Vinca.
There was a long silence.
Mira lifted her head, unbelievingly. The ordeal was over.
"Are you finished with me?" she asked.
"Yes," said Vinca.
Mira's head fell forward on her breast. Then she took a deep breath. She lifted her head.
"What are you going to do with me?" she asked.
"You will find out," said Vinca. The Vinca gestured to the two other paga slaves, my girls, in the skins of panthers. They unbound Mira's ankles and pulled her, still blindfolded, to her feet. One on each arm they conducted her through the forest until they came to a place we had agreed upon, in which we had placed four stakes. I followed silently.
Mira was put on her back and her two ankles were bound, widely apart, to two stakes.
Then her wrists were unbound from behind her back and they, too, were bound widely apart, to two stakes.
"What are you doing with me?" begged Mira.
"You are no longer of use to us," said Vinca.
"What are you going to do with me!" cried Mira.
"We are staking you out for sleen," said Vinca.
"No! No!" cried Mira.
The last knot was fastened. She was secured. "Please no!" cried Mira.
I handed my sleen knife to Vinca. Mira, blindfolded, felt the blade in her thigh. "No!" she cried.
Vinca handed the blade back to me, which I cleaned and replaced in my sheath.
Mira, staked out, blindfolded, felt a woman's strong hand take the blood from her thigh and smear it across her belly and about her body.
"Please!" wept Mira. "I am a woman?
"I, too," said Vinca, "am a woman."
"Spare me!" cried Mira. "Keep me as your slave!"
"I do not want you," said Vinca.
"Sell me to a man!" she cried. "I will make him a docile slave, a dutiful, obedient and beautiful slave?
"Are you a natural slave?" asked Vinca.
"Yes," cried Mira, "yes! Sell me! Sell me!"
"Do you beg to be a slave?" inquired Vinca.
"Yes," wept Mira, "yes!"
"Untie her," said Vinca.
Weeping, still blindfolded, Mira was untied and thrown before me on her knees.
"Submit," said Vinca, sternly.
Before me Mira performed the gesture of submission. I held her crossed wrists. "I submit myself, Master," she said.
She was now my slave.
I nodded to Vinca.
Mira was again thrown back on the grass.
"Let the slave," said Vinca, "be now staked out for sleen."
"No!" cried Mira. "No!"
Swiftly Mira, blindfolded, found herself bound as before to the stakes, if anything more securely. Only now she lay there a bound slave.
"Leave her for the sleen," said Vinca.
"Command me!" cried Mira. "I will do anything for you! Anything! A slave begs to be commanded!"
"It is too late," said Vinca.
"I beg to serve you!" she wept. "I beg to serve you!"
"It is too late," said Vinca.
"No!" cried Mira.
"Gag her," said Vinca.
Again I thrust the heavy wadding of fur deep in Mira's mouth, and tied it securely in place with the strip, twisted, of panther skin.
We then withdrew, leaving the slave Mira lashed helplessly between the stakes.
As we expected, it did not take long. Soon, prowling about in the brush, some yards away, was a sleen, drawn by the smell of the fresh blood, her own, smeared on Mira's slave body.
The sleen is a cautious animal. He circled her, several times.
I could smell the animal. So, too, doubtless could the others, and Mira.
She seemed frozen in the lashings.
Movement will sometimes provoke the animal's charge, if within a certain critical distance, which, for the sleen, is about four times the length of his body.
The sleen scratched about in the grass. It made small noises. Tiny hisses and growls. The prey did not move. It came closer. I could hear it sniffing.
Then, puzzled, it was beside her. It thrust its snout against her body, and began to lick at the blood.
I removed a pile from one of the tem-wood arrows and capped the arrow with a wadding of fur.
Mira, blindfolded, helpless, threw back her head in terror. It would have been the scream of a bound slave, naked, staked out for sleen. But there was no sound for she had been gagged by a warrior. He had not even entitled her to utter a sound when the very jaws would be upon her. Her body pulled back, shuddering like that of a tethered tabuk set out by hunters for larls. First the sleen began to lick the blood from her body. Then it began to grow excited. Then it thrust forth its head and took her entire body, from her waist to the small of her back, in its jaws, and lifted it in the lashings.
I loosed the padded arrow. It struck the sleen on the side of the snout. Startled, it growled with rage, and leaped back, away from the prey.
Then it stood over her, hissing, snarling, defending its find against another predator.
Then the two paga slaves other than Vinca came forward, dragging the carcass of a tabuk. I had felled it before seeking Mira in her camp. They threw the carcass to one side.
After much snarling and growling the sleen turned to the side, its snout still stinging, and seized up the tabuk and disappeared in the brush.
I found the arrow, removed the wadding and replaced the steel pile.
Vinca and her girls had now unbound the lashings that fastened Mira. With difficulty they took from her mouth the heavy gag. They let the panther skin then hang about her neck and wound the wadding about it, that it might be soon replaced. They did not remove the blindfold. They put her on her knees and tied her hands behind her back.
"You know what you are to do, Slave?" asked Vinca. Numbly, half in shock, Mira nodded her head.
She was to betray the panther girls of Hura's band. In my camp, there were several bottles of wine, which had been taken originally from Verna's camp by Marlenus, and then from his camp by the men of Tyros and the girls of Hura. It had been abandoned at their first campsite by the conquest circle. I had had my slaves, captured panther girls, bring it along, carrying it in our slave caravan. I had thought it might prove useful. I did not expect it would be drunk by all of the panther girls, but, if I could deprive the men of Tyros of more of their dangerous, beautiful allies, it would be to my advantage.
"Tomorrow night," said Vinca, "you are to give the wine to as many of the panther girls as is possible."
Mira, blindfolded, kneeling before the harshly spoken Vinca, put down her head. "Yes, Mistress," she whispered.
Vinca put her hands in her hair and shook it. "We can pick you up again when we want you," she said. "Do you understand?"
Mira nodded, miserably.
"Are you a docile, obedient slave?" asked Vinca.
"Yes, Mistress," said Mira. "Yes!"
"Bring skins," said Vinca, "that we may now disguise this slave as a panther girl."
Mira was unbound and helped into skins. They were the same which had been taken before from her.
Her wrists were then bound again behind her back and I regagged her.
The bottles of wine, brought by one of the paga slaves, were slung, knotted, about her neck.
When we were close to her camp I removed the blindfold from her eyes.
She looked at me, piteously. In her eyes there was still the fear of the sleen.
"I shall show you where your guards are placed," I said.
"Then, with your skills, you should be able to return undetected to your place in the camp."
She nodded, tears in her eyes.
I took her by the arm and, nearing the camp, by gesture, showed her the placement of the two guards. She nodded. We then went to a place from which, with care, she should have no difficulty in re-entering the camp.
This morning the men of Tyros had doubtless awakened pleased and confident, eager to be again on their way to the sea. Then, to their horror, and that of the girls of Hura, it had been impossible to rouse many of the panther girls, indeed, all who had last night drunk of Mira's proffered wine.
The girls would have been deeply unconscious. They would have responded to nothing, save perhaps with a twist of their bodies and an almost fevered moan.
Suddenly I was alert. I detected in one of the small, narrow, open tents, abandoned, a movement.
Giving no sign I continued as before, looking about the camp. Then, when my presence was concealed by the side of the tent, I slipped into the brush.
In a few moments I discovered, kneeling in the tent, her back to me, with drawn bow, a panther girl. She had been pretending to be drugged, but had not been. She had had as yet no opportunity for a clean, favorable shot. She could not risk a miss. Other tents, and moving women, had been between us. I admired her, muchly. What a fine, marvelous, brave woman she was. Others had fled. She had stayed behind, to defend her fallen sisters of the forest.
It, of course, had been her mistake.
From behind I took her by the arms. She cried out with misery.
I bound her, hand and foot.
"What is your name?" I asked, as I fastened the knots on her wrists, behind her back.
"Rissia," she said.
I carried her to where the other girls lay and put her on the grass among them.
"I am not a slave," said Verna to Marlenus of Ar, though she wore his collar.
They looked at one another for a long time. She had saved his life in the stockade, interposing her body and weapon, the crossbow, between him and the maddened, desperate attack of Sarus. He had not struck her, a woman. I had taken his sword from him, and given it to one of my men. Then, she had turned, and leveled her crossbow at the heart of Marlenus. We could not have stopped her, did she then fire. The Ubar, in chains, stood at her mercy. "Fire," he had challenged her, but she had not fired. She had given the crossbow to one of the men of Ar. "I have no wish to kill you," she had said. Then she had turned away.
Yesterday, she had returned of her own free will to the beach, and in her power, a captive panther woman, whose name was Hura.
"Take from the throat of this woman," said Marlenus, "the collar of a slave." He looked about. "This woman," he said hoarsely, "is no slave."
From the belongings of the camp of Marlenus, which had been carried to the stockade, was taken the key to the collar. It was removed from the throat of Verna, panther girl of the northern forests.
She faced the Ubar, whose slave she had been.
"Free now my women," she said.
Marlenus turned about. "Free them," he ordered.
Verna's women, startled, were freed of their bonds. They stood on the beach, among the stones, rubbing their wrists. One by one, collars were taken from their throats. They looked at Verna.
"I am not pleased with you," said Verna to them. "You much mocked me when I knelt slave, and wore garments imposed upon me by men." She then pointed to her ears. "You mocked me, too," said she, "when rings were fastened in my ears." She regarded them. "Are there any among you," she said, "who wish to fight me to the death?"
They shook their heads.
Verna turned to me. "Pierce their ears," she said, "and put them all in slave silk."
"Verna," protested one of the women.
"Do you wish to fight me to the death?" demanded Verna.
"No, Verna," she said.
"Let it be done as Verna has said," said I to Thurnock. Orders were given.
In an Ahn, the girls of Verna knelt before her on the beach. Each wore only clinging, diaphanous slave silk. In their eyes were tears. In the ears of each, fastened through the lobes of each, were earrings, of a sort attractive in each woman.
The skins of the women who had protested "Verna!" were now worn by Verna herself.
She strode before them on the beach, looking at them. "You would make beautiful slave girls," she told them.
I saw that the woman called Rena, whom I had used in Marlenus' camp, before departing from it, was especially beautiful.
I sat in the captain's chair, in authority, but crippled, huddled in blankets, bitter. I knew that I was an important man, but I could not move the left side of my body.
It was all for nothing.
"You," challenged Verna, to the girl who had protested, "how do you like the feel of slave silk?"
She looked down.
"Speak!" ordered Verna.
"It makes me feel naked before a man," she said.
"Do you wish to feel his hands, and his mouth, on your body?" she asked.
"Yes!" she cried out, miserably, kneeling.
Verna turned and pointed out one of my men, an oarsman.
"Go to him and serve his pleasure," ordered Verna.
"Verna!" cried the girl, miserably.
"Go!" ordered Verna.
The panther girl fled to the arms of the oarsman. He threw her over his shoulder and walked to the sand at the foot of the beach.
"You will learn, all of you," said Verna, "as I learned, what it is to be a woman."
One by one, she ordered the girls to serve the pleasure of oarsmen. The girl, Rena, fled instead to me, and pressed her lips to my hand.
"Do as Verna tells you," I told her.
She kissed my hand again, and fled to him whom Verna had indicated she must serve.
Their cries of pleasure carried to me.
Marlenus regarded Verna. "Will you, too," he asked, "not serve?"
"I know already what it is to be a woman," she said. "You have taught me."
He reached out his hand, to touch her. I had not seen so tender a gesture in the Ubar. I had not thought such a movement to be within him.
"No," she said, stepping back. "No."
He withdrew his hand.
"I fear your touch, Marlenus," she said. "I know what you can do to me."
He regarded her.
"I am not your slave," she said.
"The throne of the Ubara of Ar," he said, "is empty."
They looked at one another.
"Thank you," she said, "Ubar."
"I will have all arrangements made," he said, "for your investiture as Ubara of Ar."
His men gasped. My men could not speak. I, too, was struck with silence.
To be Ubara of Ar was the most glorious thing to which a woman might aspire. It meant that she would be the richest and most powerful woman on Gor, that armies and navies, and tarn cavalries, could move upon her very word, that the taxes of an empire the wealthiest on Gor could be laid at her feet, that the most precious of gems and jewelries might be hers, that she would be the most envied woman on the planet.
"I have the forests," she said.
Marlenus could not speak.
"It seems," he said, "that I am not always victorious."
"No," she said, "Marlenus, you have been victorious."
He looked at her, puzzled.
"I love you," she said. "I loved you even before I knew you, but I will not wear your collar and I will not share your throne."
"I do not understand," he said. I had not thought, ever, to see the Ubar as he stood there, looming over this woman, whom he might, did he choose, seize and own, but standing there numb, not understanding.
"You do not understand," said she, "because I am a woman."
He shook his head.
"It is called freedom," she said.
Then Verna turned away from him, in the skins of a panther woman. "I shall wait for my women in the forest," she said. "Tell them to find me there."
"Wait!" cried Marlenus of Ar. His voice was agonized. His hand lifted, as though to beg her to return to him.
I was startled. Never had I understood that the Ubar of Ar could be thus. He had cared, he then understood, and we, too, for this lonely, proud, beautiful woman.
"Yes?" asked Verna, turning to regard him. In her eyes, too, I thought I saw moisture.
Whatever Marlenus might have said to her, he did not say. He stood still for a moment, and then straightened himself. With one hand he tore from his throat the leather and claws he wore there. I saw that among those barbaric ornaments was a ring. I gasped, for it was the seal of Ar, the signet of Glorious Ar. He threw it to Verna, as a bauble.
She caught it.
"With that," he said, "you are safe in the realm of Ar. With that you can command the power of the city. This is as the word of the Ubar. With this you can buy supplies. With this you can command soldiers. Any who come upon you and see this ring will know that behind you stands the power of Ar."
"I do not want it," she said.
"Wear it," said Marlenus, "for me."
Verna smiled. "Then," said she, "I want it." She tied the ring on a bit of leather about her neck.
"The Ubara of Ar," said he, "might wear such a ring."
"I have the forests," she said. "Are they not more beautiful even than the city of Ar?"
They regarded one another.
"I will never see you again," said Marlenus.
Verna shrugged. "Perhaps not," she said. "But perhaps you will."
He looked at her.
"Perhaps, sometime," she said, "I will trek to Ar. I have heard that it is a fine city."
"And perhaps," said she, "from time to time, you might come again to hunt in the northern forests."
"Yes," he said. "Such is my intention."
"Good," said she. "Perhaps, sometimes, we can hunt together."
Then she turned to depart.
"I wish you well, Woman," said Marlenus of Ar.
She turned to face him, and smiled. "I, too," said she, "wish you well."
Then she turned and vanished into the dark green shadows of the northern forests.