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3 days' ride

Chapter Text

Tars Tarkas pressed the medallion into John’s hand. “Leave a Thark his head and one hand and he may yet conquer,” the looming alien snarled, baring his strange, flat teeth in a ferocious rictus of a grin. Fire reflected off the squinting blackness of his eyes, lending them a terrible aspect, until he glanced to Sola, and his odd, long face softened in a way entirely unlike a human face would. Sola was crouched behind John, still shaking. She still didn’t seem to notice Tars’ odd regard for her. 

Tars glanced over his shoulder as rough Thark voices raised and subsided outside the hut and huffed, “Go, Dotar Sojat, you miserable blasphemer! Do not allow yourself to be caught again!” This was punctuated by another shove by Tars’ lesser arms, towards a smaller door-flap at the shadowed back of the hut. John’s head was whirling, but he rolled over onto his feet and grabbed Dejah’s arm, stumbling towards the outside. 

Sola meanwhile had gathered up what appeared to be pieces of riding tack and a few nicked and battered metal weapons, clearly scavenged from fallen red man ships. She bundled it all up with a leather thong and threw the mess over her shoulder, pushing John and Dejah out into the red setting sun. Dejah, to her credit, seemed to be taking it all in stride far better than John or Sola, not sparing a glance for Tars Tarkas as the back door-flap of the hut fell closed on his pained face. 

John heard the hoarse voice of Tal Hajus ring out across the sand on the other side of the hut some moments later, after Sola had led them through the maze of Thark huts and to a paddock of strange, eight-legged creatures Dejah later told him were called thoats . Sola, tight-lipped and stiff, hurried them over the fence of the paddock and threw John up onto a thoat, climbing onto one herself after seeing that Dejah already knew how to ride. He swayed in the strange saddle as the thoat shifted underneath him, trying to keep his balance in a rigid, molded piece of leather made with people much taller and skinnier in mind. Sola leaned across and insistently pushed two sets of reins into his hand. There was a mocking bite in her voice as she said, “Ride, Dotar Sojat , unless you want to jump across the desert until you die of thirst.” 

Dejah slapped the scaly back of her thoat, and it rumbled and leaped the rough fence of the paddock, followed closely by Sola. John had the presence of mind to squeeze the barrel of the thoat’s enormous chest between his thighs and grip the--pommel?--of the odd saddle before it, too, surged underneath him and took off after Dejah and Sola. This blasted animal is faster than any Earth horse! 

The twin moons of Barsoom were setting into the orange blush of dawn as the three sped across the desert, and John eventually figured out the rhythm of the thoat’s run enough to sit comfortably astride. Really, not too dissimilar from the old cavalry horses back home, save the extra set of legs.  

The sun crested the distant cliffs across the vast expanse of sand and dirt in front of them, and in a blink the purple of the Barsoomian night was chased away by brilliant daggers of sunlight. Dejah whooped and shouted “It is three days’ ride— follow me!” 

Sola also yelled into the wild, dusty empty space; a harsh, sobbing howl that sounded like it had been torn from deep inside her many-ribbed chest. John glanced over and saw her holding her thoat’s reins with her two lower hands, while her upper arms were drawn in close to her body, one four-fingered hand covering her mouth and the other splayed across her upper sternum. The gesture was so overtly emotional--so obviously heartbroken--John looked away quickly, uncomfortable. The sound plucked at a similar chord, deep inside him, one that was shot through with dust and rain and Earth sunbeams, the broken rafters of a burned-out cabin--

Through the odd, rhythmic thunder of thoat feet, the many-footed thumping of another Barsoomian monstrosity resounded behind them. John and Dejah both whipped around to meet the pursuing fresh horror--and the blurring, cavorting form of Woola sprayed a great plume of dust into the air as the happy beast whuffled and darted around the legs of the thoats. Sola yelled back to John and Dejah, “You belong to him! Woola will follow you anywhere on Barsoom!” 

Her voice still sounded unsteady, but John was glad at least that she was talking at all. Lord knows he wasn’t the most conversational of fellows, and he’d managed to somehow charm Dejah into thinking he could be useful. He was sure she felt the same way about him, considering the calculating gleam in her eye every time she looked his way. He felt remarkably like a side of beef whenever he had her attention, being turned this way and that, being acknowledged and considered only insofar as much as he could be of use. 

They rode on, until the smoke and glimmer of the Thark village disappeared into the dunes, and the broad shoulders of red monoliths hid them from anyone who cared to pursue. Heat rose from the red sand, and the wind sang through the stone spires, and nobody spoke for many miles. 

---

As the day wore on and the sun again began to slant towards the other edge of the horizon, a tangled shape of ruins in the distance became more apparent, rising out of the desert like spiderwebs. The shattered shell of a city lay in the shadow of a mountain, elegant circular architecture swooping through the endless regularity of the desert. A broad scar ripped through the land as far as the eye could see, cleaving the city in two halves, leaving only the circle of the watchtower they stood near intact. It looked like a place that a war had come through, yet there were no bones. No evidence of anyone, living or dead--not even scavengers. 

John broke the tired silence to ask, “What happened to this place?”

Dejah and Sola both turned to look at him, twin expressions of pain on their sun-bronzed faces. For a moment, the two seemed to share in their moment of distress, but Sola’s face twisted into a mocking sneer, and she huffed and shifted to face away on her thoat, stretching her impossibly long legs against saddlesoreness. Dejah looked askance, and seemed to decide that Sola wasn’t going to be forthcoming with an explanation to the pale stranger. She met his eyes again, and he read a powerful kind of fear there--very deep, and very old. 

She spoke as if the very name was too heavy to bear. “Zodanga happened.” 

Sola scoffed a few meters away, a sharp exhale that echoed off the stone walls of the outpost they stood near. John thought he caught her muttering, “Red men destroying red men,” to herself, but her voice wasn’t free of the same kind of fear he saw in Dejah’s eyes. 

Dejah sighed, and cast a critical gaze around the circular structure overlooking the city. She gathered her reins in one hand and swung over the side of her thoat, landing with a soft thump in the dusty ground. “We camp here for tonight. There’s a spring in the lee of this mountain, and we’ll be safe from the beasts of the desert in the watchtower.” 

Sola nodded once, still with her back turned, and slid off her thoat as well. She led the animal around and gestured impatiently to John to hand her the reins of his thoat. He obliged, and sprang off the back of the creature with only a bit of unsteadiness. Just like an Earth horse, indeed.  

The tall alien stilled and regarded him then, towering and limned gold by the waning sunlight. The curving glyphs of her brand scars appeared filled with mercury as they stretched and shifted over the muscles of her neck and shoulders. Her eyes were shadowed by the odd planes of her face, and he squinted up at her, shielding his eyes against the sun with a dusty hand. 

At length she let out a breath, and her shoulders drooped. She placed a lower hand on his shoulder, staggering him with the weight. Her four fingers gripped, and kept him from falling, and he gasped at the creak of his bones under her hand. Another hand tipped his chin up, so he had no choice but to look into her wide-set eyes, his head motionless between the unforgivingly sharp points of her tusks. Her face was unreadable. 

When she spoke at last, her voice was quiet and even. “I forgive you, Virginia. It is not your doing that I was too soft for the likes of the Thark horde. I would have been cast out someday with or without you.” 

John stared. From this close he could see the small, almost delicate-looking frills concealing the holes of her ears behind her enormous eye sockets, and tiny, freckle-like striations in the green of her face behind smudged facepaint. A pair of almost-invisible nostrils flared and disappeared in time with her breath, a detail of Thark faces John had never been close enough to notice. Without the stark white designs she seemed to usually ornament herself with, her inhuman face looked surprisingly vulnerable. 

She released him suddenly, and he ducked to avoid being slashed by her tusks as she straightened to her full, formidable height. With an air of exhaustion, she walked towards the far side of the watchtower, leading the two thoats as one would lead horses, clearly to find a place to tie them up beside Dejah’s. 

John wobbled, and finally fell on his backside into the sand. Dejah glanced over from where she was investigating the saddlebags on her tied-up thoat, but once she seemed to determine that he wasn’t injured or about to expire, she lost interest. John breathed the thin, Barsoomian air, and turned over Sola’s words in his mind. It was almost too much to think about and the thick, dull teeth of guilt sank into the base of his skull and stayed there. Irritated, he shook his head like a dog shaking off water. The feeling did not disappear. 

At least you aren’t chained up in that Thark encampment, he reasoned, grumpily trying to avoid any more existential ethical rumination, and at least you can sleep tonight without being drugged or bludgeoned into unconsciousness. 

His stomach rumbled, a sound so utterly unexpected after the chaos and violence and tense boredom of the day that John was up on his feet and looking wildly about for the source of the noise before he realized. Dejah didn’t even bother to look over at him this time before calling out, in a strangely forced voice, “Help me make a fire, Virginia, so we don’t have to eat our dinner raw and bleeding.” 

He consciously loosened tense muscles and slowly, deliberately walked over to the rough camp that Dejah and Sola were in the process of setting up. Dejah was using her sword to hack out a rough firepit in the shadow of the watchtower, Sola was striking flint against steel into a small nest of tinder. Up close again it was impossible to ignore that Dejah stood taller than him, and just as broad, swinging her heavy, bright sword around like a twig. John stopped and stared for a moment at his compatriots, the strangeness of the situation growing stark. So different from Virginia.

Dejah looked up and gave her sword a little wave. “Go on, there’s a patch of sandwood down by the spring, fetch some up. It’ll burn for a few good zodes.” 

He complied. It certainly did not do to quibble with a lady, especially if that lady was holding a blade that would put Colonel Powell and his ceremonial toothpick to shame. Whatever the hell a “zode” is...

---

Dinner, it turned out, was a few rangy lizards; tough and sinewy beasts with the ubiquitous extra limbs that Barsoom seemed to require of its fauna. After Sola had at last produced a tiny ember in her handful of tinder, she had disappeared down the steep cliffsides of the watchtower for about an hour--a zode?--hefting a worn blaster across her shoulder. Dejah had quickly taken over firekeeping, directing John to add or subtract the stringy sandwood until a small bed of coals glowed steadily against the cold purple night. 

John spoke little, to Dejah or Sola once she returned. Sola went through the thoat saddlebag she had meticulously reorganized and with a small “Ha!” came up with a small bag of spices. John watched as she efficiently skinned and eviscerated the rabbit-sized lizards, disposing of the innards in the bed of coals and rubbing the carcasses with her Thark spices. Dejah also watched, crouched next to Sola, and wrinkled her nose at the blood and bits that the lizards’ bodies spilled onto the sand. 

Sola speared the lizards on the straightest pieces of gnarled firewood and handed one each to Dejah and John. John grunted in thanks and set about browning the lizard over the gold coals, resting the makeshift spit up on a jagged rock at the edge of the fire pit. After a time he glanced over at Dejah, who appeared frozen, still holding the raw lizard carcass out in front of her. Her eyes were wide, her previous callousness and bravado gone. 

He shuffled over, around the fire. “Here, mmm, hold it like this.” 

He took Dejah’s hands and clasped them firmly around the stick, then pulled gently on her arm until she was holding the spit out over the edge of the fire pit. As her arm extended, the light of the fire arced around the line of her biceps and deltoids--easily bigger than John’s, the obvious evidence of a lifetime of familiarity with her sword and far heavier weapons besides. 

He stared. Once again, the sharp reality of his helplessness on this hostile planet made itself known, a harsh contrast next to companions who were no more surprised by the lethal dangers of the desert as one would be at the passage of the sun in the sky. 

Somewhat warily, he released his grip on Dejah’s hands, making sure she wouldn’t drop the lizard into the fire. At last he looked into her face. 

Like pearls, tears shone in both of her eyes, but did not fall. She was biting the inside of her cheek, clearly unwilling to lose her composure in front of--him? Sola? She had made it clear that she thought of him as little more than an animal, like a highly unusual lab specimen, but no more. It was hard to imagine her standing on her dignity for his sake. 

At somewhat of a loss, John pulled his hands away from Dejah’s and sat back on his haunches, making a gentle, questioning noise. Dejah met his eyes, then quickly wiped at her face with her left hand, not removing the carcass from the fire. Sola sat on the other side of the fire pit, turning her own lizard over the coals, utterly oblivious to their little drama and seemingly lost in thought, staring into the glowing coals.

After a time, Dejah spoke, quietly. “I have never eaten...the flesh of another being, before. It was not our way in Helium.” 

John rocked back on his heels, almost shocked. He scratched at a scab on his bare knee and thought, reaching over to turn his own lizard over the coals. Grease dripped into the glowing bed, sizzling and popping against the burning wood. 

After a moment of chewing on this new revelation, he spoke. “What did you eat? In Helium?” 

Dejah’s glittering onyx eyes lost their focus, and her face softened a bit as she turned inwards, to memory. “Oh such delicacies as you could not even imagine, John Carter. Feasts for the turning of the moons. Tables and tables of karris root, stuffed with juen leaves, rubbed in spices from deep in the earth...steamed taccus , so tender it bursts in your mouth, toma wines from the canyon tribes at the edge of the city, sweet yeloden fruit from the trees in the glass courtyard, countless varieties of the great spores that we breed and grow underground, with such myriads of flavors…!” 

Her stomach growled, audibly, and her voice fell, muttering bitterly in Barsoomian too quiet and too fast for John to understand. At somewhat of a loss, he looked to Sola, who had apparently decided her lizard was cooked by Thark standards and had already begun tearing it apart with her teeth. Bits of raw, sapphire-coloured meat clung to her fingers and mouth as she disassembled the lizard’s body with the methodical nature of one who knows exactly how living beings are put together, and has spent their lifetime taking them apart. The light of the fire glinted off her fearsome tusks, stained dark and gleaming. 

Dejah, too, came out of her memory and looked at Sola, and shuddered deeply. The tall alien at last noticed her hesitation and gestured with an arm not engaged in pulling apart the lizard. “You must eat, red woman. The desert will not forgive your compassion.” 

Her thick, tattooed shoulders stiffened at Sola’s voice. “You think I do not know that, Thark? Do not--condescend to me.”

Sola shrugged and continued eating, the cast of her body quite clearly responding Whatever you say, red woman. Despite himself, John stifled a snort at Sola’s deep indifference to Dejah’s haughty tone. 

At last, Dejah’s interminable pride seemed to waver, and she wilted, pulling her lizard out of the fire. It was close to overcooked, grease running out of it, the spare muscles browned and toughened against the creature’s thin bones. She picked at it experimentally, pulling off a gobbet of meat and with great effort, very deliberately placed it in her mouth. Her face screwed up. John stifled another somewhat hysterical giggle. Sola even paused in her thorough inspection of scraped-clean lizard bones to watch Dejah’s reaction to her first taste of meat. 

The warrior-scientist-poet princess of Helium chewed slowly, wrinkling her nose, until her eyes popped open and shone. “It is good ! I cannot believe I have never eaten this before! What other secrets are your people keeping from us red men, Sola?” 

Surprised, Sola let out a braying laugh which echoed off the dark stone bulk of the watchtower. Her lower right arm tossed the last of the lizard bones into a pile by her side, and she crossed her upper arms over her bony knees, shaking her head, eyes squinting with mirth. “Sometimes, Tharks think that the red people of Helium are so concerned with not becoming Zodanga, that they do not think they can use the land at all. You never keep what you take from Barsoom for long--the desert will take you back when your time comes. Tharks say, we eat and then we are eaten.”  

Dejah swallowed her mouthful of lizard and stared, agog, at Sola. With effort, she collected herself, and said in a more sincere tone, “Were you a philosopher of your people, Sola?” 

The atmosphere of good humor disappeared so suddenly that John felt like the air had been sucked from his lungs. Sola laughed again, but this time low, so coldly and harshly that Dejah flinched. Black disdain suffused Sola’s voice. “Do not condescend to me, Dejah Thoris. This is not philosophy, this is common sense among...my people.” And Sola raised her head and met Dejah’s eyes, the ghost of a fearsome snarl sharpening her face. The dark, raised lines of her brand scars appeared as metal as Dejah’s mirror-bright sword in the firelight. 

The two women held each other’s gaze for a long, hard-edged moment. Finally it was Dejah who yielded, casting shuttered dark eyes down to her lizard and allowing her shoulders to droop. Sola sniffed, the thin slits of her nostrils flaring, and her aspect became as distant as it had been before, aloof and terrifying and untouchable. The exchange felt as old as Barsoom itself, hostility made more ferocious for the exhaustion and familiarity carried alongside it.

John felt an odd sense of deja-vu, and quietly let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. The sounds of the desert rushed back in to fill the tense silence--unfamiliar insects, the wind over the sand, the dry rustling of the sandwood bushes. An unexpected wave of homesickness washed over him, and more than anything he suddenly ached to feel damp earth under his feet instead of glasslike sand. Even to look at something green in this desolate landscape felt like it would lift his heart. 

At last he remembered his own lizard, now roasted a little too dark on one side from his distraction. Some of Sola’s Thark spices had caramelized and sunk into the whorls and hollows of the lizard’s many-limbed body. The thick, musky smell reached his cold nose in a wave of heat, and the demand of his stomach became impossible to ignore. Without thinking, he brought the lizard to his face and sank his teeth into its blued body, hearing the snapping of tiny brittle ribs. Grease and flavor exploded across his tongue, a riot of sensations and tastes utterly strange to him. He chewed slowly, overwhelmed by new sensation. 

The Thark spices were bright and warm, suffusing the meat with a kind of sharp, citrusy bitterness. Underneath it there was the familiar--salt--and a less familiar taste that pinged around John’s memories like a bat in a barn without alighting on anything in particular. 

He took another bite and considered, lost in thought. A memory surfaced, like a string softly plucked. An Oriental gentleman--a soldier--sat next to him on a train westward, squinting at an American newspaper. Carefully, in halting English, asking him for directions from the next stop. Their ensuing conversation, about the beginnings of the war, about their complicated loyalties. The soldier’s gratitude, as they parted on the dusty train platform, him pressing a small root into John’s hand. “You give to your wife, she will cook with it. Many thank-yous, John Carter!”

The root had tasted like summer sunlight, when he brought it back to Sarah. She cut tiny flakes of it with a tarnished knife, and they had eaten them together, sitting at the table he had built last fall. John had flinched at the crunch of earthy heat, at first thinking wildly that the soldier had for some reason wanted to poison him. Sarah had laughed, eyes shining, and cut off another piece to pop in her mouth. It’s just a different kind of spice, John. The world isn’t out to get you all the time, you know.

A knot of sandwood in the fire popped, and John’s memory sank beneath the sea of his thoughts once again. He was still on an alien planet, sitting beside two women whose civilizations had fought bitterly for centuries, helpless as a newborn in this blasted endless desert. No closer to finding his cave of gold, no closer to a quiet retirement--in fact, quite a bit farther from it. Fucking intolerable. 

But at least the lizard tasted good, and he could sleep unharassed tonight. That would have to be enough.

Chapter Text

Dejah woke John before the rose-colored sun crested the horizon, when the world was still soft and purple. The scene that greeted him was oddly reminiscent of his days in the cavalry--Sola was already awake, scattering the ashes of their fire and tacking up the thoats. Behind her hung twin halos of Barsoom’s moons, glowing pink and gold against a bed of unfamiliar stars. The desert was alive with foreign sound--the rhythmic hum of alien insects, distant bird song, the rustling of the wind and a thousand other creatures besides, risen to begin hunting while the day was still cool and sweet. 

John blinked groggily up at the splendor of these strange heavens and yelped when Dejah yanked away the warm saddle blanket he was cocooned in. He tugged at his clothes-- what on God’s green earth was he wearing? --right, the rough tunic from the Thark larva chamber. John wrapped his arms around himself when it was clear that the worn animal skin, which barely qualified as clothing, would provide no greater cover or warmth. She grinned wickedly at his sudden, hard shiver and whispered, “Are the nights so mild on Jasoom that you cannot rise before the sun, John Carter?” 

He squinted up at her and rubbed his nose-- fucking freezing, what the hell --concentrating on keeping his shivers under control as he sat up. Dejah, blast her, was still wearing no more clothing than she was the day before; a truly scandalizing outfit that left her stomach, shoulders and most of her powerfully muscled legs bare. No goosebumps marred the tattoos swooping across her dusky skin, and when she shifted to crouch next to him he felt heat positively emanating from her. 

There was now an expression of bemusement on her face as he continued to shiver. “John Carter, I spoke in jest, but you must tell me if your body is not suited for our climate. You do us no good if you freeze to death, or burn up in the heat of our days.” She punctuated this statement with a hard poke to John’s definitely sunburned shoulder. Another shiver wracked his body, this time born of the double stings of his abraded skin and the soft wind that blew the cold morning air up the skirt of his tunic. 

John glared at Dejah, who was examining the way his reddened shoulder had turned white under the pressure of her poking finger and then faded back to match the rosy shade of the freckled skin around it. She went to poke him again, and John twisted to smack her hand away before she could prod at him further. 

Dejah’s face registered half a second of surprise, like she wasn’t actually expecting John to protest being examined like some kind of lab specimen, before her face warmed with a small grin. She spoke, more gently than before. “Do not worry, John Carter. There is a plant I know of that grows by the spring in the lee of the cliff, down below the tower. It will help protect you from the sun. And we will keep you covered until night falls.” 

She stood then, hefting the saddle blanket, and walked off towards where Sola was securing the last saddlebag to John’s thoat’s tack. Dejah tossed her John’s saddle blanket up on the side of the thoat, and held it in place while Sola swung the saddle up and over. John felt another brief pang of homesickness at the familiarity of the motion, odd shape of the thoat nonwithstanding. 

Blessedly, the two Martian women seemed to have come to a careful kind of truce--the tension from the night before had eased enough for them to trade a few exchanges in quiet, fast Barsoomian across the back of the thoat as Sola finished tightening the saddle’s double girth straps. John stood and dusted himself off, rolling his shoulders and wincing at the pull of burned skin and bruised muscles. His stomach whined, the stringy lizard of last night’s dinner already an absent memory. The pain of extensive sunburns made itself known in a wave of prickling heat across his body and he groaned, gritting his teeth against suddenly weak knees. His head swam, the soft purples and pinks of the Barsoomian desert blurring and melting like candlewax in his vision. He heard a muffled thwack, and Sola’s voice, tinged with concern, then a sound like the great rushing of wind between dark canyons, and nothing. 

---

Dejah ran her fingers across her scabbards’ stiff, polished leather, embossed with the blocky high script of Helium’s old tongue, fingers pausing to tighten the knots which secured them in battle-readiness on the tack of the thoat. The scabbards held old weapons, older than she was, forged by her mother before ascending the throne, and their darkened blades held the names of her grandmothers for generations back, all of them smiths and engineers and great warriors. Anxiety bit at the back of her throat, like the spines of an uncooked kulel seed. She had spoken more gently than she believed she was even capable of, to that man John Carter, of all people--she didn’t want him to worry. After all, she was of royal blood and a brilliant strategist to boot, and it was not acceptable to give one’s inferiors the impression that they had to be concerned with something as simple to secure as their own welfare. But now the place in herself from where she had pulled such compassion felt desperately out of reach. 

She pulled sharply on the thoat’s girth straps one last time, and the creature shifted and whuffled through the double nostrils behind its skull-ridges. She felt the hot puff of its breath against her face and looked askance at it, giving it a sharp, stiff-fingered jab in the soft spot behind its nearby second elbow. “Don’t try your luck, thoat. I am stronger than you.” 

The thoat shifted again and stood still, acknowledging having lost this battle of wills. Dejah slapped its side affectionately, feeling even in the midst of her mental turmoil the simple satisfaction of an alliance with a creature that didn’t give a warhoon’s ass about honor, pride, or the fact that she could still feel the heavy lump of greasy lizard sitting in the pit of her stomach being digested more slowly than she would like. Best not to think about that

Another memory rose to her, less a sequence of events that she remembered properly and more of a warm fragment: standing next to one of the palace’s thoats, watching intently as an older woman had lashed the practice scabbards to its tack with the speed and ease of years of practice. 

“Now you try,” the armsmaster had said, pulling apart the whole configuration with a flick of her wrist. “They tell me you have a good memory for knots, the old coves at the science academy. You’d best show as much enthusiasm for our martial tradition, little Dejah.” 

She had tied the scabbards after only one false start, and then immediately pulled at their anchoring knot in the same way the armsmaster had. The leather straps had fallen away with startling speed, and Dejah only managed to catch one of the scabbards before they clattered to the dusty ground. The armsmaster laughed uproariously and clapped her on the shoulder with one massive, calloused hand. “So quick! Your mother was the same way, when I taught her. Do it again and let me take a look before you loose yon anchor knot. Then you will practice until your fingers bleed, until you can tie this form in your sleep, and then, 10 padan from now, we will move on to the next one.” 

Dejah had nodded, eyes shining. Her teachers up in the palace had only briefly glossed over this particular kind of knowledge, that the settlements on the outer reaches beyond Helium’s bridge had discovered and honed over the thousand year Zodangan war. Her textbooks had included only the simplest sketches of the tack and weapons, but the armsmaster had been contracted by the palace specifically because of her knowledge of the old traditions of thoat combat. 

In the thoat-rider cultures of red Barsoomians, the different configurations of knots, securing weapons, and tacking of a thoat was a language as complex as any that could be spoken in Helium. The way any number of scabbards, weapons, and tools that could be lashed to the side of the saddle meant the difference between succeeding in a treaty negotiation or accidentally declaring war on another red faction, and the traditions ranged to cover the simplest, most utilitarian forms to tack that took multiple zodes to put on the back of a thoat. It was an art and a tradition that had only grown over the long Zodangan war, yet still seemed to be consistently undervalued by the more elite intellectuals of Helium’s core. Rarely were any of these skills taught to those raised on the other side of the bridge, in the core of the city proper. Dejah’s grandmother had married a woman from the horse tribes, and shrewd ruler that she was, had immediately seen the value of raising her own daughters and granddaughters in the martial traditions of her partner. 

Thus, the armsmaster--a friend of her grandmothers’; an enormous, burly woman tanned a red so deep it was almost black, with the swooping orange tattoos that marked her as a thoat-rider. Her name was Saor, a name that Dejah continually had trouble pronouncing correctly through the clipped, drawn-back syllables of Helium’s royal dialect. 

It had taken Dejah zodes upon zodes of patience to earn the trust of Saor. When she was a child she had begun in the scorching light of the practice yard, hot even for a red Barsoomian, as she drilled the sword-forms until she was unable to keep her hands wrapped around the rough wooden hilts of the practice blades, and Saor would be mirroring the sword-forms with her heaviest practice blades next to her and shout “Keep going, little Dejah! Do you think a thark will let you take a break if you tire? Do you think a warhoon will grant you mercy? Do you think a banth understands the concept of honorable combat? The desert does not forgive!” 

The dry wind tousled her hair, and she squeezed her eyes shut against a sudden upwelling of emotion. What would Saor and her grandmothers think, seeing her cower from her duty to the people of Helium? Surely they looked down upon her with disdain, for her fear of Sab Than, for her fear of dying at the hands of Tharks, for her dishonor to her family-- 

A sharp whack on the top of her head from the other side of the thoat pulled her out of the dark sea of memory. She jumped, and raked her fingers through where her hair had come loose from its tight knot. 

Ow , Sola, what in Iss’s name--” 

“It is Virginia!” she hissed, and Dejah heard the thump of a saddlebag falling to the ground and Sola’s footsteps hurrying away. Dejah breathed out sharply through her nose and rolled her eyes. The thoat rumbled deep in its scaly chest, looking askance at her with one limpid black eye. She shrugged back. Who knew what would concern a thark, anyway? 

“Dejah!” Sola’s voice, gruff and insistent, interrupted her thoughts. “Something is wrong with him! Come here!” 

Dejah stepped out of the shadow of the thoat, rubbing its nose and feeling her second eyelid flicker reflexively against the sun’s glare. “He is fine, Sola, he turned pink from the heat but that is all--” 

She trailed off as saw Sola crouching over John Carter’s very limp, very still pink body. A cold hand closed around Dejah’s thudding heart and she immediately pushed the fear down, deep into her stomach, where all other existential anxieties got similarly crushed into tiny, dark boxes. There is always time for fear later, Saor’s voice echoed in her head. Cool focus trickled through Dejah’s mind like bubbles through water. She heard herself speak as if from a distance. 

“There is a spring and an old waypoint three zodes from here. We can strap him to my thoat and cover him with any spare fabric we have.” Already her hands were moving, pulling the rough length of a folded sunscarf from the thoat’s saddlebag. She gestured to Sola. “Lift him up here, I will make sure he does not fall.” 

Sola’s primary hands fluttered anxiously around John Carter’s face and shoulders, but her secondary hands worked their way under his limp body and she lifted him effortlessly. He looked so fragile in her arms, bones and muscles starting to show in sharp relief under his strange pale skin. His head lolled. 

Dejah met Sola’s eyes for a brief, heavy second--then turned quickly and swung up the side of the thark, settling into the saddle and tightening the stirrup-straps around her legs with the unconscious ease of an action performed thousands of times. She gestured to Sola, who was now at eye level with Dejah. “Ready.” 

Sola’s slitted nostrils flared and her tiny, delicate ears flicked backwards in concentration as she eased John Carter’s limp body up into the saddle, in front of Dejah. One of her primary hands cradled the back of his head, the length of her scarred green fingers dwarfing his skull, until Dejah caught his weight against her chest. She flicked the light fabric of the sunscarf around John Carter’s front, and wrapped it loosely around him to cover as much of his body as possible from the sun’s heat. A part of her--the scientist part, the sparkling, faceted shard of cold unemotionality that she peered out from the core of with increasing frequency--noted that even when apparently burning and feverish for a Jasoom creature, John Carter’s body temperature felt lower than any Barsoomian’s, and despite his size his body was denser than she might have expected. Curious--Jasoom’s gravity must be a significant factor heavier than Barsoom’s...would explain his small stature and his incredible athletic ability...likely also that his body has not adjusted fully to this atmosphere or climate, or perhaps altitude…

John stirred faintly against her, and she saw his face tense in discomfort. Sola, too, saw this, and her eyes flicked back to Dejah’s for only the briefest second before she too jumped on top of her thoat and squeezed its ribs with her bony knees. “What direction is this spring?” 

Dejah shuttered her second eyelid and surveyed the day-bright desert around them, the expanse stretching in all directions from the vantage point of the ruined tower they had camped next to. Thuria and Cluros hung low in the sky, twin blue crescents against the brilliance of the desert sky. She cleared her throat and said, “A few degrees off from Cluros is where we should be headed. If I am remembering our charts of this land correctly, it is in the lee of the mountains, at the opposite end of the valley. It used to be an old mushroom farm for the city here, before Zodanga. It is shaded and there is shelter there.” 

Unspoken between her, Sola, and the unforgiving desert was the end of that sentence, “... unless it has already been claimed, and then we will kill whomever claims it, for we judge our need to be greater than theirs. ” And neither held any illusions that anyone else would think any differently; such was the way of things on Barsoom. You eat, or you are eaten.

Dejah jabbed her thoat’s sides with her heels and tightened her arm around John Carter’s wiry torso. The thoat leapt down the lee side of the tower’s embankment, skidding in the dust, followed closely by Sola. The two women rode on, through the sun, the rhythmic three-beat music of their thoats’ broad feet against the sand the only sound besides the wind which sang its bitter harmonies through the artificial valley Zodanga’s cruel passage had left. 

 

Chapter Text

Cradled in Dejah’s broad arms, wind singing past his face and fluttering the edges of the soft sunscarf which encircled him, John dreamed. 

The desert reminds him of starving, always, and of the damned spider-cave. Wandering and thirsting and hungering in the wilderness for days after his and Sarah’s cabin--

Wandering and thirsting and weeping and riding mindlessly through town after town, seeking somewhere where the rain couldn’t find him and he could no longer remember the feeling of black, bloodstained earth underneath his fingernails--

Wandering aimlessly through the desert, in utter stillness and silence. Riding for long enough to realize that he didn’t intend on coming back, and letting his horse run loose on the third day out from the town at the end of the train tracks, and then, eventually, wishing with savage and mindless animal thirst that he had kept the creature so that he could split its skin and drink its hot blood, because anything would be a comfort in this hell, even the choking bitterness of the spineless cactus, chlorophyll and fibers between his teeth and-- 

Wandering into an Apache camp, starving and thirsting and begging to die, to not die, to vomit, to eat, to sleep, to not dream anymore, to dream always and forever--

And then he was held. And his body wracked violently with nausea, with convulsions, and he knew not how much time had passed. In his dreams human faces shifted and morphed, flickering with green like the spineless cactus, nostrils narrowing to slits, eyes growing huge, teeth growing long, and then like a sunrise returning back to human. Bitter liquid slid down his throat and the faces swam and a heaving mass of larvae writhed around him, wailing with odd two-voiced harmonies, covered in sweat and whitened dust and amniotic egg fluid hardened into scale-like flakes. And then rolling through the fur on the floor, naked, sweating and freezing over and over again, tumbling down into darkness, living ten thousand lives dredged up from the scorching core of the land that he had wandered over. Forgetting every single memory he had experienced or invented and opening his eyes to the first blush of soft sunlight through the knotted joints of the wikiup like a newborn. 

He remembers the sunlight in the wikiup like it’s seared into the back of his eyes, the first sane memory after those weeks of madness in the desert. Cooling sweat sticks the rough cotton, fur, buckskin to his skin, tanned and burned so dark that his hands look like those of another man. Someone was in the wikiup with him, too, sitting so still that he doesn’t notice them at first, but he startles when he does. An Apache, of indeterminate gender, with arms looped over their knees and unreadable dark eyes watched him from across the banked firepit. The kick of fear that thrums through his chest feels distant, his body too tired to provide the accompanying spike of adrenaline that he’s accustomed to. Smoke and dust drift through beams of sunlight which filtered through the buckskin smoke-hole covering, pulled askance in the dry heat of the day. The slow dance of particles through the air swam in John’s vision, and he shut his eyes tightly. But reality seemed to be holding, for the moment. Small blessings

He runs his tongue over his teeth, tastes the acid of vomit and dehydration. Speaking is a monumental effort. “How long?” 

The Apache raises an eyebrow, visibly confused. John tries again. “Cuánto...tiempo?”

Comprehension dawns. “Te encontramos vagando por el desierto...hace tres días. Por lo general, los hombres blancos no son tan estúpidos como para pasear tan cerca de nuestra casa.” The words come lilted strangely, also sounding thick and unfamiliar to the Apache’s mouth. I’ve slept for three days..?!

The Apache shifts, goes to stand up, and John feels fear twist in his chest again. His gaze flickers around the interior of the wikiup, searching in vain for anything that could be used as a weapon. He goes to sit up and finds his hands and feet bound snug under the furs and blankets with tough leather. Impossible to chew or break through. But the Apache merely crosses to the other side of the dwelling and rustles around inside some baskets, retrieves a waterskin and some food--a pemmican cake, a handful of berries. A wickedly long knife glints at the Apache’s belt; a young man, John decides, from the timbre of his voice and his clothing. Surely his body needs food, but nausea still curls around his throat and stomach.

“¿Por qué no me has matado todavía?” says John instead of vomiting, or crying, or embarrassing himself further. The Apache pauses, and settles in front of John with the double handful of food, and meets his eyes with a cool gaze. By all rights this is what John should have asked upon waking; why he wanted to know how long it had been since these people had found him wandering around like a madman in the desert, he doesn’t know. But more pressing, why indeed keep him alive?

The young man in front of John takes a minute to understand the question, opens and closes his mouth a couple of times, choosing words. John strains to listen, concentrating hard on deciphering the young man’s heavily accented Spanish. The wind roars in his ears and fire is burning his blood; igniting like the dead desert brush in the summer. He falls to darkness once again, the words of the Apache man echoing strangely between his ears. 

 

-----

 

As the sun slowly rose higher above the distant mountains, and the desert once again warmed to her usual red brilliance, Dejah held John Carter’s limp body and felt her thoughts tumble through her head like so many grains of sand. Idle, scientific speculation about John Carter’s small, too-dense body, her sparse knowledge of tharks and thark culture, her present tentative alliance with Sola. After a shallow, watchful sleep and some reluctant self-reflection, she cringed at her words from the night before. A philosopher of her people? Who was Dejah trying to impress with that question? She herself wasn’t a philosopher of Helium and she was sure if Sola had asked the same question about some children’s rhyme, she too would have felt the rash irritation of being condescended to. Her own experiences in the thark camp had roundly contradicted everything Helium had taught her about Sola’s people--far from being mindless animals, they had hierarchies, and customs, and a religion, a deeply held and complex history of their own that even Helium’s brightest minds were wholly ignorant of.

Dejah once again felt a hot flush of shame--a religion indeed, one that she and John Carter had unforgivably disrespected when they snuck into their temple. Sola’s desperate prayer echoed in her burning ears. There were sects of Helium’s faith that forbade all but the oldest, most venerated priests from accessing the deeper cells of the temples in her own city, and trespassing upon those merited harsh, archaic punishments hardly seen in Helium’s otherwise secular justice system. She hardly wanted to think of the divine consequences the tharks wished upon her for treading on their most sacred ground. A wonder Sola even deigned to speak to her, after Dejah had pretty much single-handedly caused her banishment.

She glanced over at Sola, riding level with her and holding the leads of John Carter’s thoat in one of her secondary hands. In the fast-rising sun, only the most gruesome of her brand scars were visible, the rest subsumed by the soft green of her skin and the jerky motion of the thoat. At some point she had taken the time to wash the white paint from her face, and without it she looked...less fearsome. Less foreign. An ally at least --perhaps, maybe, a friend? 

A friend? Dejah considered this, idle scientific observation forgotten. She did not have many friends, even in Helium. The demands of her work and the fact of her station meant that she more frequently had...petitioners. Potential enemies. People who wanted things from her that weren’t the pleasure of her company. She had family, people like her father and her errant mother and the other women of her blood. She had Kantos Kan, and Saor. 

A pang of sadness lanced her heart. Warmer memories rose unbidden to the surface of her mind, flickering firelight in Helium’s old quarter, a table outside of Kan’s favorite bar after a hard day of training and diplomatic wrangling. Kan and Saor teasing her, drawing her out of her perpetual academic funk. The firelight arcing across the graceful lines of Kan’s face tattoos, not yet completed, and the far older scars and glyphs that adorned Saor’s body, all of them shapes as familiar as her own. 

She had thought, sometimes, that she might marry Kantos Kan. He was of good blood, from a military family--a practical and utilitarian match. And he had expressed to her that he might want to settle down and raise a few cubs of his own once he found a partner. She sometimes feared that he would make good on that wish with one of his many errant flirtations, but as the ords passed and his endless parade of brief flings, one-night stands and shallow dalliances showed no signs of changing, she stopped worrying. He was tied to her through duty and the battles they had shared, and though she would grant his request to leave her service when he asked, she hoped the day would not come. 

Not that her own feelings for Kan were even particularly amorous. She felt a warrior’s trust for him, that particular bond that had to stand up under the weight of their two lives. They were... reproductively compatible, she thought with a mental wince. Like her grandmothers, her taste for lovers, faint and infrequent as it was, ran far opposite to Kan’s easy, masculine charm. But...for the continuation of her line, and for her own contentment, she supposed he could be a fitting match. A partner in name and nothing more, and they could live out their days in much the same way as they had in friendship. 

The bulk of the fast-approaching mountains soon cast purple shadows over her and Sola’s passage over the dusky ground. Dejah’s second eyelid flickered in the shade, and she cast her eyes to Thuria and Cluros once again, mentally marking their angle relative and nudging her thoat back on course. Sola mirrored her almost instantly, shifting in her saddle and flicking her two sets of reins, and Dejah felt an unexpected spark of respect--practical, ungainly creatures thoats were, one had to be a truly excellent rider to direct their mount with such subtlety and speed... Saor would be impressed. John Carter lolled against her front, murmuring nonsense and stirring against the shift in direction. Dejah shifted uncomfortably in the thark saddle, feeling sore muscles doubly taxed by their fast pace and the Iss-cursed weight of Carter’s Jasoomian body. 

Sola glanced over at her, blinking as her own second eyelid flickered and disappeared in the relatively dimmer shade of the mountain. Fascinating, that the tharks also have such membranes, are they only for protecting their comparatively larger eyes against light, or wind and dust as well? Perhaps evidence of a convergent evolution--? 

“We are close, red woman?” Sola’s voice cut through the wind of their passage.

Dejah nodded, and turned her thoat once more. They rounded sharp, fast-approaching boulders, growing ever larger as they sped across the sand. After squinting up at Cluros for many more xats, she slowed her thoat and led them to a roughened bole of stone that rose out of the sand like the back of a sleeping animal. A silvered pool of water lay in its lee, pure and undisturbed, rippling like mercury in the soft wind of the Barsoomian day. Now that the three-beat tempo of thoat feet and the sharp whistle of wind no longer filled her ears, Dejah could hear the almost-silent songs of the desert. Rockbirds cooed in the shade, sand and gravel shifted as lizards and other creatures fled from two-legger presence, the musical calls of spinebirds. Sounds of the open desert, ones Dejah had grown up hearing, yet still she noted some primal frisson of anxiety at the space, at the emptiness. Tharks may have evolved out here, in the open desert, but her people had been born far beneath the ground, from buried springs and deep caves. 

Sola made an odd chuffing sound into the desert’s silence when she sighted the water, startling Dejah, who jumped in her saddle and almost tipped John Carter’s accursed limp body off the side of the thoat. She cursed vehemently under her breath. 

The green woman glanced over, mirth shining in the round depths of her eyes, and laughed like she had the night before. The sound echoed off the belly of the rock above them, startling a pair of lesser spinebirds into flight from some crevice in the nearby stone. Their long, feathered claws clattered as they climbed into the sky, wheeling around each other. 

Dejah felt the shadow of a rare grin tug at her face in concert, despite her irritation. “Catch this heavy Jasoom man before he pulls us both off the thoat.” 

Sola swung a long leg over the side of her thoat and held the reins in her secondary hands, gesturing with her primary hands for Dejah to throw John Carter down. Dejah did so, as gently as she could, but still winced a little at the ungainly thump of his body against Sola’s wiry arms. She then jumped off her own thoat, which flicked a baleful eye at her for all the fuss. She stared back and raised an eyebrow, daring belligerence. It whuffled through its anterior nostrils, blowing hot air across her face. She took its reins more firmly in hand and gestured to Sola to hand over her two thoats as well, leading them all to the far side of the spring’s pool and securing their leads around a boulder the way Saor had taught her. 

Sola, meanwhile, now cradled John Carter awkwardly in three arms while her free hand scratched at a tusk contemplatively. “Red woman, do you know if Jasoomians can drink desert water the same way your people can? Should I just...lay him in the water?” 

Dejah looked up from tying the last of the thoat’s knots. “What do you mean, drink the way my people can?” 

Sola bobbed her head in a way that reminded Dejah of an embarrassed shrug. “Red people...submerge themselves in water, yes?” 

Dejah nodded. 

Sola continued, voice unsure. “And...when you submerge yourself in water, and rub your bodies, that is how you drink? Through the skin? Like the crawlers that live in the canyon rivers?” 

Now Dejah laughed, snorting into her chest and letting the tension out of her shoulders. The spinebirds wheeling above cawed in response, echoing the clear timbre of her voice. When had she last actually laughed like this? Not for some time. She stood up straight and allowed her hands to begin unlacing her sword belt, hearing her scabbards fall to the sand as she turned to face the thark. 

Sola looked ready to run at the sight of all that Helium metal, hard tension and fight-readiness in every line of her body, even as she still held John Carter like a cub in her arms. Her free hand had disappeared behind her body, doubtless resting on the hilt of her wickedly long bone knife. Dejah slowed her movements, and turned to face Sola fully, keeping her body open and loose. Vulnerable. She wouldn’t reach for her swords, even as she ached to clean them from the dust and blood of the day. No fight here, thark she wanted to say into the desert silence. But the gentleness those words would require was still out of reach. 

Dejah took a breath, forcing herself not to see Sola’s hand on the knife as a scrabble waiting to happen. “No, no, red men drink the same way tharks do. Through the mouth.” Sola’s eyes were still narrow with irritation and tension.

Issus save me. She dug deep , for the gentleness. Softened her voice. Continued more tentatively. “We bathe in water as part of our sacraments to Thuria and Cluros, to honor the seas we came from. Red men are born from the water, and are returned to the water when we die. Perhaps John Carter’s people are from the ground, or the air instead. But truly, I do not know.” 

Sola sniffed, slitted nostrils flaring, but the hard countenance in her face fell away at Dejah’s words. She matched Dejah’s tone. “Tharks...do not like water as much as your people. We clean ourselves with sand, and keep water for drinking or cooking, mostly.” There will be no fight here either, red woman.

The tall thark looked away, her free hand leaving her knife and going to the carved pieces of bone she wore around her neck, among layers of finely woven wrapped cord. Dejah’s eyes followed the motion, distantly noting the extent of Sola’s ornamentation. She wondered at its function-- was all of it was religious? What did each piece denote? What kind of bone is it made out of? --Sola’s voice was soft and reverent in its deeper register. “Some tharks believe all water is the blood of Iss--their highest priests do not even drink water by itself, and instead survive on the moisture from the taccus plants.” 

She looked back and blinked at Dejah, who quickly became aware of the way she was staring at the thark. Their eyes met, and Dejah acutely felt their shared breath, the cautious peace between them, the fragile hope of offerings exchanged. The desert will take what you give to it, as you must take what it gives to you. Nothing more, nothing less.

Another breath, and the moment passed, gentle as the moons behind clouds. Sola lifted John Carter’s limp body in her arms, as if to remind her that he still lay insensate there. “All of which does not help Virginia. I thought you wanted him kept alive for your science, red woman.” 

Dejah turned, ignored her precious armor and weapons on the ground, untied waterskins from the thoats and bent to fill them. The clear water of the spring rippled across her tattooed hands, making the intricate glyphs and linework dance in the light. “I guess it cannot hurt. I do not know anything about Jasoomian biology, but if it is anything like mine he will surely appreciate the bath.” 

Sola bobbed her head again and lowered John Carter carefully to the edge of the pool, pulling off his rough leather boots with her free hand. She arranged him so his legs were in the water up to the thigh, and then wetted down the sunscarf Dejah had wrapped him in and placed it haphazardly over his face and chest. The whole tableau conspired to make John Carter’s usually stoic and unassuming aspect look faintly ridiculous, reminding Dejah of the many times she had found Kantos Kan in some similar position after high feast days. She suppressed another snicker. Satisfied, Sola sat forward on her haunches and used her secondary hands to cup water and drink deeply from the spring. 

Dejah set her waterskins aside and leaned forward on her knees, touching her forehead to the surface of the water and murmuring a prayer to Cluros and Thuria. Then in one quick motion she dunked her head completely under the water and sat back up, feeling cold rivulets run down her neck and back. She gasped, once, and drops of water hit her teeth and tongue. May Cluros and Thuria lead me to the banks of the water, may the sand beneath my feet quicken my passage, and may the wind sing gently at my back. Then, at last, she drank.

John Carter stirred next to Sola, and she turned to watch him with curious eyes. He coughed, once, and then spluttered into damp sunscarf, and violently struggled to be upright. Sola supported his back with a secondary hand when he looked like he might topple over. With fevered eyes Dejah watched him comprehend the water in front of him, and then he was tumbling forward, into it, putting his whole face under the surface like she had and drinking deeply. He dunked his whole head and shook like a calot, and then went to throw his entire body into the water before Sola grabbed the back of his tunic and stopped him. “Patience, Virginia. Do not muddy the water before we have all drunk our fill.” 

Now John Carter sat up and wiped the water from his eyes, breathing deeply. He looked absurd with his strange hair wetted down to his head, the wet sunscarf trailing from his shoulders, already drying in the arid breeze. “What happened? I passed out?” 

Dejah nodded. “The heat proved too much for your body, I think. Or the altitude--we were very high up, near the watchtower, and now we are in a lower valley.” She stood, and saw his eyes warily follow her motion, exhausted and disoriented as he was. “You are very heavy, John Carter. Are all Jasoomians as dense as you?” 

Offended confusion flashed across his face. Worth a try, anyways. She’d have plenty of time to interrogate him about Jasoom and its inhabitants later, once they reached Helium and her beloved scientific instruments. Sola huffed. “Leave your questions and let him drink.” 

He knelt to drink more deeply from the pool. At length, he finally sat back, water dripping from his face and hair in shining drops. The tunic he was wearing was soaked through in places, clinging to his strange, wiry body. He noticed both Sola and Dejah staring, and stiffened. “What is it?” 

Sola extended a secondary arm and poked his shoulder, much the same way Dejah had so many hours before. “You are so pale, like the white apes. Why?” 

John scrunched up his nose, but seemed willing to tolerate Sola’s poking far more than he had Dejah’s. “I…my father and mother were white. But I never knew them.” 

Dejah stared at him, aghast, but Sola seemed amused. She withdrew her hand, settling it back across her knees in figuration with her three others. “You really are like us tharks, Virginia! Born from an egg to the mercy of the tribe!” 

Now Carter looked truly lost, and he rubbed at his eyes. “Born in an egg? I think I came out squallin’ and kickin’ like any other. I ain’t a bird.” 

Sola opened her mouth again, but Dejah cut her off. “As you said, Sola, there will be time for questions later. Do you know if the tharks will pursue us across the desert?” 

Sola’s slitted nostrils flared, and she replied, “No. What care do they have for an exile and two red men, even if one of them is Dotar Sojat? He is honored among tharks, now. And tharks usually do not take hostages.” The bitterness in her tone was evident. “We are safe from Tars Tarkas, at least. As long as he remains jeddak of my tribe, and respects Dotar Sojat, he will not pursue us. But Tal Hajus may see this differently. If he challenges Tars Tarkas and wins, the tribe will follow him and then he may decide to take revenge on Dotar Sojat. You know,” she continued, turning her fearsome head to stare directly at Carter, “That was his friend you killed with one blow, four suns past. Tal Hajus has always been...aggressive, for he is as much warhoon as he is thark. But I have not seen him challenge Tars Tarkas so openly until you arrived.”

Dejah leaned forward, curious again despite herself. “Tharks and warhoon are cross-fertile?” 

Both Carter and Sola turned to look at her, amusingly similar in motion, wearing twin expressions of exasperation. So much like the faces Saor and Kan wore, when I talked to them of my science…

The melancholy knife in her chest twisted, hard, and all at once she felt the weight of responsibility settle around her again. Would she ever see them again, if she married Sab Than to save her people? She breathed through her nose, and Helium’s familiar cold, military logic trickled down into her aching heart, and willed that melancholy knife to become just another tool in her hands. There was a use for everything, on Barsoom. 

And there would be time for such melodramatic self-reflection later. She continued speaking before either Sola or Carter could answer her trifling inquiry. “Never mind. It matters not. We should sleep, and fill our bellies and our waterskins, and then wait for dusk to travel again. It is unwise to continue in the daytime if John Carter’s body cannot endure the heat.” 

She saw Carter’s mouth open in protest, and snapped before he could reply. “Do not question me. It is only by the grace of Iss and your value to Helium’s struggle that you remain alive, pale man. This is not your Jasoom, this is not your Virginia.” She hated how her tongue tripped over the strange Jasoomian syllables of John Carter’s home, and her lip curled in a snarl to punctuate her statement. Sola bobbed her head, seemingly uncaring, while Carter looked mutinous. But she saw how his hands shook with weakness, and weariness lined his face like shadows lined the desert’s dunes. “The desert is unforgiving, Carter. You must respect it, or you will die.” 

The mutinous expression disappeared, and Carter slumped. He said in a low, pained voice, into his chest, almost too low for Dejah to hear, “Another thrice-damned desert.” 

She stood then, and began unlacing her hardened leather armor. Pieces of it thumped to the sand, next to her scabbards. When her heavy, studded breastplate was free she let it drop with a sigh of relief, rolling her shoulders and feeling all the tiny muscles in her chest and shoulders twinge with the day’s strain. She began unwrapping the tight fabric between her skin and armor, and as more of her dusky skin was revealed she heard an odd choking sound. She looked up from her hands, moving almost by themselves in the rhythms of thousands of training days and battles. 

John Carter was bright red, again , and she huffed in annoyance. “What is wrong, Carter? Why are you pink again? Are you still feeling faint?” 

He shook his head and averted his gaze, very pointedly squinting somewhere into the distant desert instead of at her as she disarmed.  “It’s--immodest. Your, uh, you, you are exposed. I’m not--a woman, it’s improper to look at you. When you’re, uh, naked.” 

The last of her under armor layers fell away and she coiled them neatly, hand over hand like her mother and Saor had taught her, leaving only her soft cloth skirt and shirt. She stretched upwards, on her toes, pushing her tired body into the first shapes of the warrior’s forms, to guard against any more soreness. John Carter’s head moved, searching for a place to look, and at last settled on a spot somewhere above her head. “John Carter, you are a soldier of your people, are you not?” 

She heard him clear his throat. “Yes. I was.” 

Her body, stretched taut like a bow strung between the ground and sky, loosened, folded into itself. Her hands came forwards, down, around to settle on the ground as she sank into a deep stretch. Breathed. Saw out of the corner of her eye John Carter shifting uncomfortably in his damp tunic. “Then you must know that there are more pressing concerns in life than what I adorn myself with.” 

She waited for his reply, and instead felt silence. Continued moving slowly, fluidly, into the next stretch, bending her knees and turning to look up at the sky, and spoke after a few awkward moments. “We are both children of different wars, I suppose. My grandmothers and mothers have known the cruelty of the Zodangan war for a thousand years now, and raised me in their traditions. There is no shame in using the weapons of our bodies, so long as there is also respect. For one’s own and others.”

She sank deeper, sitting on the ground, and swept her arms to the side to grab the arch of her right foot. Her forehead touched her knee, and she flexed her abdomen against the familiar burn. She pitched her voice to reach him, from under her arm. “Trust me, John Carter, if you thought to take any liberties with me, you would find yourself quickly incapacitated. I am not interested in playfulness.” She released her right foot, and moved unhurriedly to grab her left without sitting up from her deep stretch. Distantly, she was aware of Sola rifling through the thoat saddlebags, pacing and puttering around. And John Carter’s awkward silence had intensified threefold at her words. 

She moved to sit up, and stretch towards the sky again, and caught a glimpse at John Carter’s face. Flushed with embarrassment and turned away from her, but also lined with such a deep grief that she felt a pull in her heart, to him. He was holding a plain band in his fingers, of gold or perhaps brass, and turning it over and over. Dejah had seen it when manhandling Carter’s limp body on and off the thoat, and spared no thought to its significance. But it was the only ornamentation that Carter had kept, through their rough ride. Perhaps it meant something to him. 

Dissatisfied with the way this conversation seemed to be going, Dejah finished her stretches in silence. Finally standing straight, she noted that Sola had disappeared, along with her thark rifle--presumably to hunt, or to patrol, or do whatever it was tharks did when they made camp. If Sola brings back another brace of lizards for us to eat, then by Issus I will bring back something that does not have a beating heart, the better to eat without a guilty conscience. Or an upset stomach. 

She wrapped her tougher outer shirt back around her body, and picked up her weapon belt. The cleaning of her swords and knives was a welcome, familiar task, quickly done, and when they were no longer stained with blue Zodangan blood she lashed them to the side of her thoat and made to gather some juen, or taccus, or whatever she might find here. 

John Carter still sat, despondent, at the edge of the pool. She approached and tapped his side gently with her foot, and he squinted up at her. No second eyelid? 

She stared back. “I am going to gather some plants for us to eat. For the love of Iss, do not move from this spot until I return.” 

Carter nodded once, unnamed grief and bloodshed and the lightning memories of old violence roiling murky behind his brown eyes. His gaze fell again to the ring of metal in his hands. Dejah sighed and turned, walking with long strides away from their spring and into the labyrinth of boulders to find food. What a fine mess.