aarna awoke lying prone on a rocky prominence in a large, dim pit. Head hanging over the side, she could see more ledges below her, but the bottom was veiled in deep shadows.
Her head throbbed mightily, and her tongue was swollen and dry inside her mouth. The copper taste of her blood lingered in the recesses around her teeth and gums. She longed for water.
Her body hurt so much that at first she was incapable of movement. For some interminable period she tried to remain frozen and breathe as little as possible. At last she found the willpower to pull herself to her hands and knees.
It was then that she realized the extent of her injuries. Her breasts, abdomen, and thighs were smeared with dried blood and dirt. Her wrists and ankles were severely abraded from the ropes which had bound her so tightly. She had a large, misshapen bruise over the left side of her torso from her fall into the pit. Breathing was painful, and after gingerly feeling the area she realized that her ninth rib was broken.
The pit was filled with a powerful, almost overwhelming smell of death and corruption. The closest source of the stench was a moldering pile of bodies on the ledge near the pit's wall. She estimated that there were twelve to fifteen of them, festering in varying states of decomposition. It appeared that most of them had been killed by arrows or crossbow bolts and then dumped over the edge. The sweet, sickening miasma brought back memories of battlefield carnage that she had experienced, bloated bodies of enemy dead ripening in the sun.
The ledge was thirty feet from the top of the pit, the rim of which was studded with large spikes. Above them she saw a handful of soldiers gazing down at her. As she looked up, one of the men dropped her clothes over the side. They landed in a tangle beside her.
From the shallow angle of the light slanting into the hole, she guessed that it was now quite late in the afternoon. She was very hungry, and sitting down for her morning meal seemed an eternity ago.
The palpable atmosphere of despair settled over her like a gray, smothering blanket. There was no possibility of climbing to the opening above. Even if she climbed atop the corpses, she would still be more than twenty feet from the top. The moist, slippery walls of the pit offered few projections to scale them, assuming the unlikely possibility that she could do so undetected. The nearest ledge below her was much farther down, and there was no promise of an exit below.
The walls of her prison were not uniformly solid. Rather, they were pocked with innumerable holes and caves of varying size and depth. An abundance of dank, foul water ran from many of them, trickling quietly in weird, irregular courses down into the darkness. As she grew accustomed to the silence, she noticed that infrequently she could detect sounds of unseen life, slithering in the network of caves.
I am lost; this is the end, she thought hopelessly. How stupid I was to fly straight into capture. I deserve to die here, in secret. This way, she thought, no one would know how the last Taarakian had disgraced herself and her people.
Taarna heard footsteps and scuffling above. She looked up and saw a man being hoisted over the precipice. He was deliberately thrown out into the pit so that he would miss her ledge. In a shocking instant he tumbled past her, screaming, his arms flailing. There was neither time nor opportunity to act. Eyes wide, she watched him fall out of sight, then heard the chilling impacts as he struck unseen obstacles far below. She was filled with pity and horror. A chorus of jeers and laughter followed from above, and the barbarians smirked down at her.
Witnessing this cruel and senseless death banished all feelings of self-pity and drove her to action. I'm still alive, she thought. That has to be worth something. Slowly, stiffly, she began to put on her gear. Doing so was exquisitely painful, but she bent her will to the process and tried to master the pain. Her mental and physical conditioning helped her to regain movement. As she dressed, she heard a familiar sound: the screech of her bird.
Some distance away, the barbarians were having a difficult time putting the animal down. Three men were trying to hold him with ropes, while two others prepared to kill him with a large, bolt-firing weapon.
"Hold it still and I'll put an arrow through it's head!"shouted the gunner. He looked through his sights and found his target. He squeezed the trigger and fired, but he was premature--his companions did not yet have control. Beating his wings furiously, Alata jerked to the side, and at the last instant one of the soldiers was pulled into the path of the missile. It struck him squarely in the back.
With only two holding the ropes, the bird was able to break free. He rushed at the gunner and his helper, knocking them down before they could fire again. Soaring into the air, he pulled the last two men along behind. They continued to hang onto the ropes until Alata flew low over a sturdy pipe. They struck it forcefully and were flung to the ground.
Taarna had just finished pulling on her boots when to her surprise, Alata suddenly appeared over the pit, into which he dove with a loud, courageous cry.
In an act remarkably agile for someone so battered, Taarna leapt off the edge. She relied entirely on instinct, having no time to gauge time or distance. For a heart-stopping instant she was suspended in space, her body out over the pit. She strained for the horn of the saddle, and then suddenly she had it, and she fell into the seat as the bird passed. The sudden jolt caused pain to shoot through her from the broken rib. She was able to find the reins, however, and at her signal Alata powered his way upwards to freedom.
The chieftain heard the commotion with the bird, and turning, saw Taarna and her mount climb into the sky. He was shocked at her escape, and he sensed the displeasure of his new master at this unanticipated development. His consternation quickly turned to rage. "Mount the bats!" he screamed. "I want her dead!"
The cavalrymen scrambled to their mounts, and shortly thereafter an explosion of red and brown bats filled the evening sky, their hideous screeches and squeals ringing through the air.
Taarna was relieved to see that the sword was still sheathed on the saddle; the fools had not bothered to seize it. Her instincts told her to head for the mountain with the green sphere. Its glow pulsed against the evening sky.
The bat riders climbed rapidly, and soon were directly behind her. She saw them coming and urged Alata to fly faster, and she pulled the animal up and from side to side evasively. But no abrupt turns were possible because her pursuers would be able to cut across her arc and get even closer.
The maneuvers proved of no avail; in less than a minute from her escape from the pit, her pursuers were within range. Taarna heard popping sounds, and suddenly heavy bolts were flying past her. One at last found its mark, striking the bird in the neck at a shallow angle, piercing its trachea. Alata faltered and went down, shrieking pitifully.
They plummeted into a small, rocky canyon situated on an elevated plain near the base of the mountain. The bird struck and glanced off the canyon wall, no longer flying but falling, and Taarna was dismounted. They both slammed violently into the ground, narrowly avoiding giant shards of green volcanic glass which ringed the canyon floor. The impact knocked her unconscious. Her liver and spleen ruptured, and blood began to flow into her abdomen. She fell behind Alata and was motionless.
After a few moments, she regained her senses. Her vision doubled and the world spun sickeningly. The bird lay cast over upon his side, breathing heavily, pink frothy fluid oozing from his mouth. The bolt was still deeply imbedded in the animal's neck, and it twitched as the bird struggled to breathe. She angrily pulled it out and threw it away.