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Authors: Patrick Samphire

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BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
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With only the glow of the Martian grass outside and the sparks of tiny, darting firebugs, the conservatory was a dark and shadowed place. Papa had always kept it unfashionably overgrown and tangled, and at night, the shadows could have concealed a dozen men.

Putty dodged between two rows of trees, neatly avoiding a snapping serpent oak that lunged out of the darkness. I caught up with her as she slipped the key out of some hidden pocket in her nightgown.

I put a hand on her shoulder. “I'm going first. Don't argue.”

If anyone was going to have starblades thrown at them, it was me.

I pulled the outer door gently open. The only sounds I could hear were the occasional sleepy muttering of the fern-trees, the creak of crickets, and the quick
snap-snap
of dueling-beetles. I let out a relieved breath. Whatever Putty might say, the men were long gone.

Putty darted past. “Follow me!” she said, and leaped into the shrubberies. I rolled my eyes and let her go. If I didn't let her run around wildly for a while, we'd never get back to bed.

Clouds of night-bees rose around us, their enormous pale eyes staring like mad moons. My nightshirt flapped awkwardly around my legs. Putty was a clear white shape a dozen yards ahead of me. The grass was wet and the air was chilly.

“Be careful!” I hissed. The fern-tree forest was dangerous at night. Deadly razor-saw weeds sprouted like snares beneath bushes, and dagger-thorn bats swooped low over patches of stain-moss, hunting for warm-blooded prey.

“Don't be ridiculous, Edward,” Putty said. “I'm hardly going to get caught by anything. I've done this a thousand times.”

“You've—” I bit back the comment. Now was not the time.

“Just watch where you're going,” I said as I pushed my way into the grumbling fern-trees. “If we get eaten by bear-cats, Mama will never forgive us.”

Five minutes later, Putty came to a stop.

“They have to come through here,” she said. “It's the only safe way.”

She wriggled into a snarl of bushes and vines. I got down on my hands and knees and followed her. We peered through the leaves into a clearing. There was no one there.

“See!” I whispered. “They didn't come this way. Now can we go home?”

Putty gave me a look of contempt. “Don't be a dunderhead, Edward. They had an awful lot further to come than we did. They'd have to find their way out of the rocks, then through the trees.”

I settled myself as comfortably as I could on the damp ground. All of a sudden, I was horribly tired again. The effects of the stickleberry juice still hadn't worn off completely. All I wanted to do was fall back asleep. At least Putty was easily bored. When the men didn't turn up, she would lose interest. I let my eyelids droop shut and rested my forehead on my arms. Maybe just a few moments of sleep. That would do me. Then we could go on home.

Putty elbowed me in the side. I glared at her. She nodded toward the clearing.

Blast it!
One of the intruders had come out of the fern-trees. I'd been sure they'd be gone. The man peered around angrily. His dirty shirt was torn down one side. He was squat and short, as though he'd been sat upon by an elephant. His face was so squashed he looked like a frog. Frog-face sat heavily on a log and dropped his head into his hands.

What now? I hadn't planned on us actually catching the intruders. This was bad.

A sudden crack was the only warning I got. A hand grabbed me by the back of the neck.

“Well, well,” a voice said. “What have we got here?”

 

4

Caught!

Fingers squeezed my neck so hard I thought my spine might break. Our captor wrenched us up through the undergrowth. A clump of snatch-thorns bit into my leg. I gasped.

“Spies,” the man breathed into my ear. He squeezed tighter.

I twisted around and caught a glimpse of our captor. He was a native Martian. If all you've ever read about native Martians is the mean-hearted nonsense in newspapers like
The Martian Chronicle
, you might not realize that they are as human as the rest of us. No one knew exactly when the first humans had come to Mars, but it had been thousands of years ago. Over those millennia, under the influence of the low Martian gravity, they had evolved into a tall people with long, thin limbs and elongated faces. Just like people on Earth, native Martian skin color varied from light to dark, although I'd never seen a native Martian with very pale skin, and every native Martian had rich brown eyes.

Native Martian civilization had reached its peak back in the second century BC, eighteen hundred years before the first British explorers discovered Mars. Back then, dragons flew through the skies of Mars and crossed the void between the worlds, and the Martian civilization was greater than that of the Egyptians or the Romans.

Once, there must have been wild dragons on Mars, but by the time the Ancient Martian Empire had reached its peak, all those that remained had been kept as pets of the Martian emperors, to be entombed with them when they died. With the collapse of the empire in the first century AD, the last of the dragons were buried.

Dragons were now extinct and the Ancient Martian Empire had fallen long ago, but the native Martians remained.

The Martian's dark eyes stared away from us, as though we were of no interest to him.

A native Martian will never look you in the eyes.
I'd read that somewhere. I'd thought it was a rumor, some stupid, cruel gossip as ridiculous as Mama's idea of native hovels. Now I wasn't so sure.

“Let go!” I shouted, and kicked out at the native Martian. He kept his eyes turned away as he shook us. My neck creaked and for a moment my vision went dark.

With his thin, stretched limbs, the native Martian should have been frail and weak, but this man was far stronger than me. He heaved us out of the bushes, then dumped us into the clearing. Putty's elbow caught me on the ear as she fell on top of me. My face thumped into the ground. I saw grass and dark shadows, and the legs of the Martian's frog-faced companion coming toward us.

I rolled away, but Frog-face was already on me. He kicked me, and I collapsed again, losing my breath. Through streaming eyes, I peered up at our captors. They were standing over us, just out of reach, so I couldn't even kick at them.

“You know what I think?” the Martian said, still not looking directly at us. “I think that with these two little fish, we can get whatever we want from that inventor. We don't need to break in. He'll just hand it over and say thank you.”

Frog-face shook his head. “That's not our orders. We're not to be seen.”

“We've been seen,” the Martian said. “Unless you want me to cut their throats, that's not going to change.”

I put a protective arm around Putty. If they tried anything, I would throw myself at them. Putty was fast and slippery. If I gave her a couple of seconds, she'd be away. She'd raise the alarm.

“Don't be stupid,” the other man said. “We'll take them back with us. Get new orders. See what
he
wants to do with them. If he says he doesn't want them, then you can cut their throats.” He turned to us. “Get up.”

He aimed a kick, and I scuttled back.

The Martian's strong hand closed on the back of my neck again and pushed me across the clearing. From what I remembered about the fern-tree forest, we weren't far from the road. I glanced at Putty. She was walking bent over, as though every step was painful. There was no way she could run like that.

She turned her face toward me and winked. I hid a grin. She was faking it. I should have realized. Now all we had to do was overpower our captors, knock them out, and get away.

Easy …

Frog-face walked a couple of steps ahead of us. His broad, muscular shoulders looked as solid as the Great Wall of Cyclopia. The Martian hadn't loosened his grip an inch. He was marching us like a pair of geese on the way to market.

Up ahead, the fern-trees thinned, and I caught the first glimpse of the road and the hulking steam carriage beside it. We were out of time.

I stepped across a fallen branch and pretended to stumble. The Martian's hand instinctively tightened as I fell, and my momentum dragged him forward a pace. He lost his balance, and I kicked out, slamming my bare foot into his knee. I heard a crack, and the man shouted in pain. His hands let go. Putty slipped free, and I threw myself at Frog-face.

I caught the back of his shirt and let my weight drag him down.

With a roar, the Martian was on me, gripping me by the arm and pulling me up. His hand came toward me in an open-handed slap. I jerked away, but the blow still snapped my head back. I squinted through the tears to make sure Putty had gotten away.

She hadn't. She was standing behind us, a branch in her hands. As I staggered away, she cracked it against the back of the Martian's head. He collapsed to the ground, unconscious.

“No!” I shouted. “Get away!”

She shook her head and stepped toward Frog-face, her branch coming up and around again. This time, she didn't have surprise on her side. The man caught the branch in his left hand. He curled his right hand into a fist and jabbed at Putty's face.

My legs felt like they were made of paper, and my knees didn't want to hold me up. I half lunged, half fell in front of Putty. Frog-face's fist caught me on my shoulder. He leaped over me, right for Putty.

I grabbed his legs and hung on. He crashed down. His knees thumped into my chest. Air shot from my lungs. I couldn't see. My arms loosened even as I tried to hold on.

Then there was a sharp crack, and something fell across me.

Everything swirled into darkness. I subsided on the grass.

*   *   *

I awoke to find someone patting my face. In fact, they were patting it quite hard. More like slapping it.

“Come on, Edward! Get up!”

I forced my eyes open. Putty stood above me, holding her branch in one hand while bringing the other up to slap me again.

“All right, all right,” I mumbled. My whole body was battered, bruised, and throbbing.

Both men were lying knocked out on the ground. Putty must have hit Frog-face across the back of his head while I was hanging on to his legs.

“Should I tie them up?” Putty said. “I don't have any rope, but we could use their clothes.”

I struggled up. I felt like a landfish that had been trampled by a pack of hungry buffalo-wolves.

“No,” I said. “They might wake up. Let's just get out of here.”

Putty put her shoulder under my arm to help me upright.

“You're not very good at fighting, are you?” she said. “You were lucky I was there.”

I glared at her, and she grinned back.

After a few minutes, the house came into sight through the drooping fern-trees. Lights glowed from the dining room and filtered faintly through the conservatory from the drawing room beyond, but otherwise the house was in darkness.

“At least we know one thing,” Putty said.

I stared at her through exhausted eyes. “Huh?” I said, showing my usual instinctive grasp of what Putty was talking about.

“We know where those men were from.”

“We do?”

“Honestly, Edward. Don't you listen?”

I frowned and tried to pull my battered brain cells together.

“Their accents,” Putty said. “They were both from Lunae Planum. Anyone could have told.”

Anyone except me, it appeared. The Lunae Planum was an enormous desert far to the north, made up mostly of red rocks and sand. It would have been stunningly boring if it hadn't been for the river valley that cut through its heart.

Not that river valleys were particularly exciting in general. I mean, you have a river, and a valley, and, well, there's only so much of that kind of thing you can be expected to take.

But this one was different. The river had once been one of the centers of Ancient Martian civilization. It was lined with ancient, ruined temples, and in the desert around it were the dragon tombs. When Sir Stanley Robinson, the British explorer, had first discovered the river in 1648, he had named it the Martian Nile. But as it turned out, there was a lot more to the Martian Nile than a bunch of old ruins. The dragon tombs were stuffed full of incredible inventions and devices that had been preserved through the centuries by the dry, hot desert air. Nobody on Earth had ever dreamed of such technology. It had changed everything.

Even when the Ancient Martian Empire disappeared, the native Martian people had remained, in small towns and villages beside the ruins. I supposed there must be an accent native to the area, but I had never thought about it.

“How do you know what a Lunae Planum accent sounds like?” I said.

“Really, Edward,” Putty said, managing to look superior even though she was shorter than me and wearing a sodden, grass-stained nightgown. “The foreman of Mama's workers is from Lunae Planum. Didn't you notice how similar they sounded to him?”

I wasn't sure I had ever heard the man speak, and I couldn't have pointed him out if you'd asked me to.

“Mama told you not to bother the workers,” I said as we approached the house.

“I didn't! I just overheard. That's all.”

“Well, don't overhear again. They've got work to do.” I sighed. “You know we're going to have to tell Papa?”

Putty perked up. “I could do it, if you like. I've had lots of practice at waking people up. It's one of my specialties.”

“Actually,” I said, “I've got something else for you to do.”

“You do?”

“Yes. Because I've been thinking and I figured something out.”

Her eyes widened. “You have?”

“Yes. I figured out that
you
took my
Thrilling Martian Tales
. Now you're going to get it and give it back.”

Putty's jaw dropped. “But I haven't even read it yet!”

BOOK: Secrets of the Dragon Tomb
6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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