Though Heroes Fall - Chapter One
Added On: June 8, 2013 1:29 am
Type: Prose
Community Series: MOTU Classic

Though Heroes Fall

A Tale of He-Man

By Scriptor


“Oft evil will shall evil mar indeed in very deed….”

Theoden, King of Rohan. (r. III 2980-3019)


"Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it."

William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham. (British Prime Minister, 1766-1778)


“When animus and anima meet, the animus draws his sword of power and the anima ejects her poison of illusion and seduction. The outcome need not always be negative since the two are equally likely to fall in love….”

Carl Jung. (Swiss analytical psychologist, 1875-1961)


******


Prologue

Chapter One – Plots and Plans

Chapter Two – Knight Sacrifice

Chapter Three – The Machine

Chapter Four – The Price of Power

Chapter Five – Questions without Answers

Chapter Six – Up to an high Place

Chapter Seven – Harm and Healing

Chapter Eight – The Place where Evil dwells

Chapter Nine – Friend and Foe

Chapter Ten – Loss

Epilogue – The Giving

******

 


1.1 Prologue

There were stars, many stars – a firmament of them spreading wide and far, out of sight, out of mind and time, beyond and onwards to worlds of imagination. Two moons hung low in the sky, tinged with azure light; a quiet sea rolled and sighed beneath the night’s reflective brightness – and the jagged black shape of an island barred a shadow over all.

And yet it was not wholly dark, that blackness marring the etched silver of the sea; a faint glow hung over it, and it flickered, first faint then brighter, an eldritch light which skilled and seeing eyes would know for the presence of powerful sorcery; powerful – and altogether malign.

Blue-silver light of moons and stars warred with the purplish tinge of magical power, a light that clung like balefire in its sullen glow. There were other lights – but they lay hidden within that rising cone of rock set about with the scarcely-stirring waters of night – for they were not meant to be seen. Within was darkness – yet a darkness touched with fire. There were torches – and such sources as burn without flame – and yet owe all to craft and nothing to sorcery. There was stillness – and the subtle, steady throb of hidden power for such ears as could hear it.

And there were voices.

The echo of their speech was lost, trapped and muffled by the rock-vaulted cavern with its dim light of candles and of flame. A fire burned steadily – but gave off no heat, consumed no fuel that could be seen and was itself of purple hue. All about, where the walls leaned to listen, shadows conspired in corners. A woman and a man spoke together.

His voice was obsequious, a fitting foil for the imperiousness of hers.

“So it is true, then; Hordak’s Horde do indeed possess such a wonder?”

“Yes, my lady. The matter is beyond all doubt.”

“And it has worked before? We may be sure of it? But yes; indeed we may – for we have his word for that. Very well – very well. Fetch me my scrying glass; I must know for certain before we take this step. The stakes we wager for are very high; each throw made must needs be well-founded.”

“Indeed, my lady, for, were we to fail, then the lord –”

“We shall not fail; I shall not fail! Fetch me the glass here!” The voice was haughty, certain of being obeyed.

Pale purple light glowed in the heart of a crystal – her long hands enveloped it lovingly; she spoke – and light leaped and flamed within, irradiating the cavern in its deathly wyrdlight. She leaned close; her silver-strange eyes reflected back from the heart of the crystal. Long she gazed, her hands weaving strange patterns, while her companion, torn between wonder and fear, both leaned close and cringed, plucking at his straggling black beard. The inner glow made planes of light and darkness of her face as she gazed both near – and far. At last she let the light die down and straightened, a tall, slender woman in a robe so blue that it might be almost be black.

“It can be done – it will be done! Nor shall we miscarry!” She paced, her pale hands gesturing. “Combined with the power I have drawn from my – other source – then to gain command of this as well would be stupendous – nothing less. Success would lead to the greatest overthrow Eternia has ever seen – and doubly so in this case. We should soon be in a position to take power throughout all its kingdoms – for none would dare oppose us – and I do mean none. Many would even flock to aid us willingly. Yes – yes indeed; the lure of it would be well-nigh irresistible. Allied to our – talents – a weapon so deadly, backed by such power, would be unstoppable – and all lies indeed within our reach.”

The man’s eyes glowed red in the light. “And yet the risks are great; what if he should –”

“He will not,” she countered quickly. “He suspects nothing – I am certain of it. And by the time that he does then he will be committed to a needless war which will distract him long enough for us to secure our objective. And then we shall strike with our new weapon and, with him out of the way, the kingdoms and lordships of Eternia will either bow the knee – or fall – one by one. And all will be ours.”

“Is this power you speak of really so strong?” marveled the other.

“Indeed it is – an ancient strength that lives on inside that guarded place. And it has an edge of steel. Oh, he has tried to get his claws on it many a time and oft – and has always failed. But that is because he is a noisy, pridesome fool, lacking subtlety – and because he has not troubled to understand the source of that power – and how it must be channeled.”

“The which you do, my lady?”

“The which I most certainly do, count. I have long studied the ancient lore and I have scried deep into the patterns of power – and I know this to be true. There is but one key to that place – and but one way to secure that key.”

“A true key – of iron, or else one composed of sorcery?”

“Of neither; I spoke but in metaphor – and yet it is as unfailingly the key as if it were indeed composed of or one or the other.”

“I – do not understand, my lady.”

She favored him with a smile. At least her mouth made that motion, though her eyes barely joined with them. “Serve our interests well and soon you shall. The rewards we seek from this intrigue are great indeed – and well-worth the risk entailed in essaying them.”

“But, tell me – this key; what is it?”

It is a he – and he is a man.”

“A man – who is a key? But how so? And who is he?”

“Why, then there indeed is a riddle for you to ponder, count!” She laughed, arch in humor. “My library is at your disposal if lore you seek!” She gestured wide with a pale and slender arm.

His face, already dusky, grew darker. “I have not time for such games, my lady. I wish –”

“I know what it is you wish for – and I shall secure it for you. As promised. But first there is work to be done. We shall unleash war – but must be certain that we ourselves remain unscathed to reap the benefits. Our enemies will cancel each other out – and leave us free to move against what survives of them.”

“Tell me. I am eager to know!”

“In good time; in good time.”

“You spoke of a key.”

“Indeed. And to that very end I have plans to make – or rather to perfect, for something of this has long been in my mind. Much of the necessary preparation is, indeed, already in place – thanks to my foresight. All the same, it will not be an easy task; the key – this man I spoke of – will not wish to turn for us; not at all. Overcoming his reluctance will require a subtle combination of – persuasions – both of body and of mind. And, with him, both are strong – or seemingly so.” She gave a paring of a smile.

Her associate’s reply was a dismissive snort. “Even the strongest break – sooner or later.”

“Indeed so; yet it is all a matter of method – and indeed of intention. Strong he is – and yet he remains the weak point in the defences. In strength of one kind lies weakness of another; a most intriguing paradox.” She shrugged elegantly. “But first we must secure what we require from Etheria. And to that end we must turn our minds and endeavours.” She paced awhile in thought and her associate’s eyes followed her with a dull red glow. At length she stilled again and spoke. “I shall open negotiations with our secret allies within the Horde – for without what they can secure for us then all will be in vain.”

“You mean –”

“I mean just what I say; we must first despoil the Hordelord – and ensure that he apportions the blame for his loss appropriately. And then we must have the key to Grayskull brought here so that I can begin work on – making it turn.”

“But how long will that take?”

“That is difficult to judge; these matters – done with due care – cannot be hurried. But I am well-prepared for the inevitable struggle – and shall, of course, succeed in time. Once he is in my hands. And that we must also attend to.” She paused, her fine features thoughtful, her strange-hued eyes intent. “But be aware; if we are to set this in motion then we must be certain; quite, quite certain.”

“What would you have me do? But name it!”

A long, shapely finger traced over her dark-tinged lips. “My thoughts again turn towards the realm of Randor. It is there that we shall find the means to secure what we have need of. Yes –” She smiled slender satisfaction and turned to her eager associate. “Bring me in reports from our eyes, our ears there; all that our intelligencers can muster – I shall need such matter ready to hand without delay. Offer the customary rewards; and – as ever – warn them what will happen should they fail me. The usual things; you know what to say.”

“My lady; I shall do your bidding.”

“See that you do. It is the only way in which your lost powers can ever be returned to you. Now leave me; I would be alone to think.”

Her tall, slim figure paced again, back and forth, back and forth. Then, turning once more to the crystal, she cast her hands over it and revived its cold heart of purple fire.

“Show me –” she intoned, “show me –” Bent low to its depths she long remained, intent and unmoving – and the light played violet over her pallid hair, the finely modeled contours of her head. And then her face rose – and changed – and her chill laughter filled every corner of the cavern with its unhallowed sound.

******

1.2

Plots and Plans

The sound of battle sounded from below the walls; staves clashed together, separated and came together again – but the guardsmen on duty above paid little heed, for they were well used to it. The pleasance of the Palace stretched away into trees, a green place of well-trimmed lawns and borders where fountains lifted to the sunlit morning air. Two young people were engaged in fighting – or at least its outward appearance – there. The girl was tall, shapely and red-headed, with the lithe and easy grace of a born athlete – and maybe a hint of studied aggression in her swift movements; the boy slim, youthful, with an open countenance and a cheerful mop of yellow hair. A casual observer might well judge them a handsome pair, worth the watching as they trained. For so they named it, that sparring both physical and mental which made up their days, the common currency of their exchanges. This morning was like many more before it – and so were the exasperated words of the girl.

“No, Adam! For the ten-trillionth time, NOT LIKE THAT! By the Ancients, how can any boy be so clumsy, so handless – so useless? Now, try again!”

“Oh, but must I? I mean – really? Couldn’t we rest now? It’s hot and I’m thirsty and –”

He fell silent at the ominous look on her face, then smiled sheepishly, lop-sided – and held up a placating hand. “All right, all right – here I come –” He launched himself at her, failed to counter her swift side-step, received a thump on the backside from her staff and, turning, found himself brought low to the lawn by her flying tackle about his thighs. With a gasp he drew in some air and widened his eyes, letting the breath out slowly and looking up at her where she crouched above in the defense position, her green gaze keen upon him for any signs of retaliation. There weren’t any; instead he lay rather comically spread-eagled and quite unmoving. He screwed shut his eyes, assessing the damage. “I think you’ve broken my back,” he moaned. “I’m sure my spine’s sheered through – or at least badly damaged.”

But she only laughed callously at his sorry plight. “That’ll teach you to carry-through properly and not get jumped, then, won’t it? Besides, the only real damage is to your ego.”

“What little of it you’ve left intact, that is.”

“Oh, quit whining, Adam. Don’t you think that worse things happen in battle? Far worse.”

“Worse than you, you mean? Seems pretty unlikely.”

“Get up; come at me again.”

“And get knocked over again? Huh! Think I’ll pass on that one, thanks.” He folded his arms behind his head and crossed his legs as if composing himself for a nap.

Teela inserted the staff under him and applied the most literal kind of leverage.

“Ow! That hurt!”

“But it does seem to have cured that broken back of yours, doesn’t it? Now get your lazy tail over here and face up.”

“But why? I know how this’ll end.”

“Then learn faster and one day it might not; come on.”

“Don’t be mean to me, Teela; it’s my birthday –” he caught her raised red eyebrow “– soon.”

“Uh-huh – and when it is, then you get the day off.”

“Really?”

“Sure; it will just mean double training each day until then to make up for it.”

“Teela!”

“Just kidding – probably. Come on; let’s see if you do any better on this pass.”

He did; not that it actually kept him on his feet; he looked up at her as she again bent over him.

“You know? I really wouldn’t want you as an enemy; I’m already a mass of bruises with you as a friend; technically a friend. And anyway; shouldn’t you be showing more respect for your future king?”

“And if that ever happens then I hope that the Elders are really going to be watching over us.”

He stuck out his princely tongue at her, but she shook her head, setting her long tail of hair swaying redly. Adam’s elevated status was a standing joke between them; yet Teela was not laughing now. Somehow the innately simple fact of their friendship and daily closeness had grown more complex as Adam and she had themselves grown. Particularly of late.

“Respect has to be earned, not just given,” she said seriously, almost sternly. “If you are going to rule, then you need to be ready. One day you’ll have to go into battle in defense of your people, do your duty. What will you do then?”

Adam shrugged. “My best, I suppose.” His voice was flippant, to mask his uneasiness; this was all getting a touch too close for comfort; time to change the subject – once again. But he couldn’t resist defending himself – at least a little. “Anyway, I do train, don’t I?”

“Sort-of. And that only because I make you.” She frowned down at him as he lay there, his hands behind his head in that insouciant way which irritated her so. “It doesn’t exactly make you a hero, does it? I mean, look at He-Man –”

“Do we have to? Or talk about him – again?”

“He’s a good example for you to follow.”

“Ummm.”

“And, besides, as the one and only prince around here, you should be showing some leadership: training hard – and getting a grip on yourself.”

“I’d rather get a grip on you.”

“In your dreams, squirt. And, speaking of dreams, getting yourself out of bed before the late forenoon would help, too.”

“Hey, I need my sleep!”

“You need a long run, some well-focused upper-body exercises and a cold bath that’s what you need.”

“To be just like you, you mean? Well, I’ll tell you what: every dawn you can do the run and work up a good sweat while I catch up – on some much-needed sleep. And then I’ll come and join you.”

“For the exercises?”

“No! In the bath, of course –”

He rolled nimbly away from her attempt to stuff grass in his mouth, but couldn’t escape her revenge for long. Pretty soon she had him held pinned down while her free hand tunneled up under his shirt and mercilessly ticked the heaving ribs within while he giggled and squirmed and begged breathlessly.

“Stop it! Enough – I’m sorry; I’m sorry –”

“Prove it.”

“Oh no – Anything – just stop!”

“So you’ll come on the runs with me? Every morning?”

“Not under any circumstances whatsoever. I – oh no – don’t – hate running and – oh, please , Teela, stop – just stop! All right! All right – I will! Please – I can’t stand it!”

“The run and the weight training – agreed?”

“And the bath?” He grinned up at her with laughing blue eyes.

On impulse she leaned forward and planted a swift kiss on his cheek, then stood, in excellent spirits now that she had her way.

“Dawn tomorrow we start, then; the hill route, I think.” She smiled sweetly, ruffled his bright hair as he sat indignantly up and went on her way, ignoring the admiring stares of some visiting plenipotentiaries from Grymus.

Adam collapsed back on the grass and groaned. “I do wish she wouldn’t do that.” It wasn’t altogether clear whether he meant the punishment she had meted out or else the kiss. He groaned again. “I’m done for, Cringer – no way out of it now. I need a drink –”

The striped cat, awake now, licked at his whiskers in agreement.

******

1.3

But watchful eyes had observed this playful little scene; paid ears, hearing, now earned their treasonous wages; hireling lips made their report. And, when it was made, there was chill laughter – and the drawing-up of plans.

******

1.4

Orko the Trollan paused; he felt a shadow pass and a sudden chill, as if a cloud had eclipsed the sun; a spider walking over his hand. And this he knew of old to be a warning. He had not, after all, always been a comical little conjurer – even if no-one much remembered that any more – sometimes not even Orko.

But old habits, old feelings die hard – and something was wrong; very wrong. A movement; he sensed a movement in the patterns of power, the flux which guided the timeless elemental magics of Eternia, holding them forever in complex and fluid balance. And now that balance had shifted – and was, for the present at least, out of true. Alerted he concentrated hard – and was at once rewarded. Someone was drawing on great power – drawing it from afar – yes – and – and scrying – and their eye was on Eternos. He tried to determine the source – but a wall of willpower fenced the sorcery, hedging it about with caliginous and arcane power – and he could not break through. To linger long on that plane of magic was to risk alerting the other to his presence – and that someone knew well what they were about. So he disengaged his mind and tried his best to cover his tracks in a cloud of deception; he only hoped that it had worked; it was never his best spell even at the best of times.

And now he was worried – and quite, quite sure that this was indeed a warning – and a stark one. As for the scrying – and the eye turned on Eternos – he could not believe that they meant well by it. It just felt – wrong – and his magic-reared bones did not like it. He must speak with the Sorceress – and warn his friends that trouble was looming; as ever, there would be little need to search too far for its source – that was usually pretty plain. But the magnitude and unknown nature of the power he had sensed had surprised him – almost jarred him. Yes; he must certainly share this with the Sorceress – but dared not do so on the occult plane for fear of issuing a warning to the other – the one with such ready access to this unfamiliar source.

He must cut short his stay here and leave at once; he must go home.

******

1.5

Dawn came up – and Prince Adam was up with it – largely because Teela had yet again invaded his bedchamber to remind him of his promise – and to ensure that he kept it by emptying the better part of a jug of water over his sleepy head as he hugged his bolster. Now, clad in his training suit and running shoes he stood shivering in the dim cold of dew time while Teela went into her impressively thorough and rigorous regime of pre-run stretching exercises.

“Well – I’m here,” he stated, somewhat obviously.

“Only because I made you,” she observed tartly from the ground. “Otherwise you’d still be slumbering in your scratcher ’til the crack of noon.”

“Sounds good to me,” sniffed Adam.

“You’re incorrigible.”

“Oh, I distinctly hope so.”

“Hopeless.”

“No; pretty hopeful, mostly. In spite of all.”

“Still feeling sorry for yourself?”

Adam shivered again, looking up at the steadily-lightening sky. “Just promise to come and look for me if I don’t get back until nightfall, huh?”

“Don’t be so limp!”

“But I am limp. I like being limp. Limp is good.”

“I’ll remind you of that when you complain of blisters – again.”

“They were really bad! And there were three of them!”

“You big sissy.”

“That’s not fair! Besides, I’m here, aren’t I?”

“Point reference as before. But, since you are here, don’t just stand there moaning and feeling sorry for yourself – stretch!”

Bending obediently to her order, Adam hid his smile. Teela, over a year his elder, had been around for as long as he could remember; they had grown up together like siblings – and she had soon assumed a protector’s role over him; it seemed to come naturally to her. Folk at the Palace had long before taken to calling her ‘Adam’s Bodyguard’ in good-natured jest, partly because she was such a tom-boy and un-girlish, and the moreso in that she was so fiercely protective of young Adam; woe betide anyone who dared harm or even speak over-harshly to the prince. No; she alone was permitted to rule him and scold him and knock him about. And in time the jest had grown to be almost the truth; it was when she argued her father into allowing her to train with the Guard cadets – and when she started beating them in almost all their drills, that some wag had named her “the little captain” – and the name had stuck. Of course, few would call her little – or a tomboy – these days; at least not to her face – and certainly never, ever twice. And so Prince Adam had a bodyguard – and a trainer, who harried him constantly and bullied him shamelessly and frequently despaired over his slack attitude. And yet in some strange way it worked, and he knew that he was fitter and stronger than he had ever been – and was secretly proud of the hard muscle he was steadily acquiring.

“Quit the stalling, you weakling – the sun’s already up.”

“Yeah; I wonder if he feels half as bad about it as I do.”

“How come you’re such an idiot?”

“I’ve had a lot of practice.” He grinned sidelong; self-deprecation was a speciality of his.

“I suppose I should just be glad that you’ve practiced at something.” She shook her head. “Come on, then – or there’ll be no breaking your fast for your sorry highness.”

Adam – though he never would admit it to her – actually rather enjoyed the dawn runs Teela had been inflicting on him; nor was he as slow and flatfooted as it suited his purpose to make out – not by a long way. All the same, the girl ran like a deer, swift and tireless, her bronze head with its floating skein of hair soon disappearing from view as the steepness of the track increased. Soon there was only birdsong, the rhythmic crunch of his footfalls and the sound of his breath as he ran, finding his pace and feeling just fine. His sword, slung on a baldric over his shoulder, bounced gently on his back – Teela always insisted on their taking personal arms on runs – “for the practice.” He smiled to himself as he ran; she thought of little else, bless her. Not that she was wrong, of course – the threat was real, ever-present, for Eternos was a kingdom beset by dark and dangerous enemies. But not of late – and surely not today; not on such a day with the sun climbing the skyline of the mountains and casting gold over the valleys below.

And then there was shouting echoing though the trees ahead – shouting and – the clash of blades! Adam’s heart leapt – and he leapt with it, sprinting uphill now at a pace that would have made even Teela take back most of her well-chosen words on his apparent lack of athletic prowess. And then a voice, shrill, female – called his name, and echoed off the rocks of the pass above, dying slowly into the trees.

Ad –d – d – d! Am –mmm!

And he gritted his teeth, looking suddenly older than his sixteen years, and tore on upwards. Even as he did so he heard engines start into life – and a sleek gray shape rose into the air above the dark line of the forest. The ship banked, turning sharply, and he heard the throttles open up as she lifted, accelerating low along the line of the road towards him. The roar of the ship mingled with Adam’s own roar of fury; it came on straight at him, but he did not flinch – his hand was already over his shoulder reaching for the hilt as he pounded on, snarling – and a stone turned under his foot and he fell, pitching forward heavily as the craft swept directly overhead, very nearly giving his hair a new and permanent parting. He lay a lengthy moment while colored lights danced intricate patterns across his eyes – and then he rose and made the best pace he still could on up the road. The echo of the ship’s passing sounded its last recessional; Adam was alone. Breathing heavily and limping a little he entered the trees; just as well that he had been forced to slow; someone had cunningly dug a shallow pit, right where the line of forest darkness stole a runner’s vision after the sunlight. Not only that, but two ropes were strung across the track at different heights. They had been well-prepared; he had to grant them that. And now they were gone – all but the one of them who would clearly not be leaving anytime soon. And gone too was Teela. Adam went over to examine the body; nothing to identify him, of course – but all his gear had a serviceable, well-worn look to it; his weapons were the only clean thing about him. Mercenaries, then, tasked with a mission – and one which had succeeded. At least for most of them it had. He rolled the body over, grimacing at the staring eyes gazing sightlessly up into his. Teela’s work? Surely not – and yet? Adam sighed, and rose slowly to his feet.

He must go back to the Palace and report what had befallen. There was no point in effecting the transformation – none at all. They were long gone now, far out of even He-Man’s reach. But perhaps not out of the range of Duncan’s scanners. Not that he relished telling Man-at-Arms that his daughter was gone – but it had to be done. Securing the chape of his blade, Adam set off down the track at the best speed he could muster.

******

1.6

Darkness, lit with the lurid flicker of flame; darkness and a sense of space as well – a great and lofty cavern whose height was illuminated only when the flames burned up brighter and, with their dying, fell back into deepest shadow.

The voice which spoke was cold, deliberate and soft; a voice used to being obeyed, to quelling lesser beings – and one to whom all beings were lesser.

“So, Hordak summons me, does he? Makes accusation against me and bids me – orders me – go to him and render account of myself?”

The envoy of the Horde gravely nodded his reply. “So speaks the lord Hordak.”

The being sat back into its terrible throne, a seat of power composed of the bones of many great creatures – a thing of horror and threat. There was a silence, sinister in its depth and length. Then the dark figure stirred within its hooded robe; a fiery glow of eyes came from deep within the cowl.

“And by what right does he think to command my subservience, my presence on Etheria?”

“By right of overlordship, since once you swore your allegiance to him; and since it has not pleased him ever to revoke that pledge – or else to consider it broken.”

“And if I should choose to refute that claim, to deny his lordship over me – then what would follow from that?”

“Compulsion – the bending of his wrath, his terrible might upon you; and your most assured overthrow.”

There was silence; the flames seemed to burn lower, their light quelled.

“Then to Etheria I shall come.” The figure rose to its feet, a tall and commanding presence, a darkness blacker than the shadows about it. “Indeed I shall come – but in war and with armed might and power to teach your lord who is the true master of the darkness.” His voice rose, and the hood fell back, revealing the grinning skull that served as a face, the glowing eyes bent on the envoy before him. “For I am Skeletor, Lord of Destruction, rightful ruler of Eternia and overlord of fate – and against me none may stand – none!

The emissary took two swift steps back – and then the Havoc Staff with its horned skull head materialized in Skeletor’s hand – and it belched forth a jet of pale green fire which enveloped Hordak’s servant and curled itself about him, burning and piercing – and slaying.

With a strangled cry the envoy was flung backwards and landed hard, lying very still; tendrils of smoke rose from the lifeless body.

Skeletor lowered the staff, adjusted the hang of his cloak to a nicety – and resumed his seat. His clawed hands stroked the bone arms of his throne, and then he spoke.

“Tri-Klops?”

“My lord?” The burly figure with its oddly-shaped head emerged from the shadows.

“We have business on Etheria – with Hordak. Summon all my vassals; bid then come to me with all their powers, their musters and their might. And make ready my battlefleet. I intend to strike both swiftly and soon, before he can ready himself for our onset.”

“My lord, I shall – but it will take time to –”

The mask of bone turned to him, unspeaking.

“Yes, my lord,” came the reply – and Tri-Klops bowed and hastened about his master’s business.

******

1.7

The ship hummed along; the grey-grizzled leader of the hirelings ducked under the bulkhead and growled at his men. “I told you – she’s not to be harmed. Bound and secured – but not marked in any way. You got that? So keep your dirty paws to yourself, you swablets! Or do you need a reminder of what I did to Rolla back there?”

His men, cowed by the killing of one of their own number, backed off.

“I warned him many a time not to drink on the job – but he didn’t listen, did he? An’ to keep his hands off the girl. She’s valuable to us – an’ not to be damaged. But Rolla had to know best, didn’t he? So he had it comin’ an’ you all know it. I did for him square an’ all – gave him his chance – you all saw me. So quit your gripin’. An’ you keep well away from her, too, if you mind what’s good for you!”

He bent to examine the girl; the drug wouldn’t wear off for some time yet – but she’d wake helpless to resist them anyway – the ropes would see to that. After she was delivered and paid-for she wasn’t his concern. But he didn’t much envy her – not at all. His shivered slightly at the memory of those uncanny eyes, that trilling laugh. Not his concern, he repeated to himself. He was being paid – and well – to do a job of work – and he would see it done, too. So he settled himself down to watch that his orders were obeyed.

The ship sped onwards.

******

1.8

The Palace was steeped in gloom after a downcast Adam had made his report. It was not long before he was summoned before the king and queen, his parents. They listened to his account with care and did their best to make him feel better.

“Adam, for the last time – it wasn’t your fault!” King Randor frowned down at his son; sometimes he simply did not understand the boy and his shifting moods; sometimes he found it hard to recall that he had himself once been a nearly-seventeen-year-old. Times had been different, then, he told himself sternly – and boys had grown up faster.

His mother, though, knew her son well; well enough not to ask.

“We shall get her back, Adam – fear you not,” she said in the quiet, calm manner that characterized her every word and action.

“Yes, Mom.” The reply was dutiful, but the voice subdued, almost sullen – and his eyes remained lowered. “Can I go now?” She sighed inwardly, and placed a restraining hand on her husband’s twitching arm as their son slouched from the Throne Room.

The prince made some desultory efforts to read, even to complete the Ethics essay set for him by his tutor, but he could not settle to anything and was soon back demanding action of Man-at-Arms. But Duncan had only very limited readings to help him track the kidnappers’ craft. It was plainly not going to be easy to trace Teela’s whereabouts.

Adam listened to the reports coming in, watched the grave face of his mentor and restlessly paced the room like a caged animal. He came to a halt before the desk, running an agitated hand yet again through his fair hair; it already looked like a hayrick hit by a hurricane.

“What do we do, Duncan? What do I do?”

“We wait; there is nothing else that we can do,” came the grim response.

“But – surely –”

“Look, lad, they didn’t take her without reason –” he went on as the boy groaned and turned about, pacing again. “You say that they were probably mercenaries; your judgment on the body and its gear is echoed by Mekanek and the others who are recovering it now. That means they were hired to seize her – and some kind of falling-out took place. And so –”

“Skeletor! It must be!” Adam whirled to face him again.

“– And so,” repeated Man-at-Arms firmly, “they will be in touch with us soon with some kind of ransom demand. It stands to reason. And so –” he held up a calloused hand to forestall the next outburst “– we must wait. And there is as yet no evidence as to who hired these men. Yes; it could have been our bone-featured friend, of course. And yet – mercenaries isn’t quite his style; not when he has all his warriors and his legions to choose from. But no doubt we shall know soon enough.”

Not soon enough! They could be doing anything to her – anything!”

The boy was growing frantic again, and Duncan sighed and drummed his fingers on the surface of his station. “It’s not very likely, though, is it? They want something from us, and she is the key to that. So they won’t harm her, will they? Not as a first move. I know you’re upset, Adam – but do use your head.”

“I don’t know how you can be so calm!”

“Practice,” came the laconic reply.

That cooled Adam like one of Teela’s cold baths. Crestfallen, he looked at Duncan, nodded slowly, and sat down. “I’m – sorry. But I feel really bad about this.” His head fell and he gave a short laugh, quite devoid of all humor. “Mom and Dad spent ages trying to convince me that it’s not my fault.” He looked up at Duncan’s stern face, then looked quickly away. “But they didn’t succeed.”

“Plainly not. But that doesn’t make them wrong – or you right, does it?”

At least Adam could meet his eyes again. “No. No it doesn’t. It just feels that way.” He was silent awhile, chewing his lower lip. “I just want to do something; this waiting flays me.”

Duncan nodded unhappily. He seemed to have aged some years in the last hours – even his moustache appeared to droop dispiritedly; but, in fairness, he had not blamed Adam – and that, somehow, made it far, far worse. Now Adam arrived at a decision.

“I’ll to Grayskull,” he told Man-at-Arms, “and seek the Sorceress’ aid. If anyone can help, then she can.”

“Wait here awhile first, Adam. We shall surely find out something soon – all our eyes are in the sky.”

“But I can’t just hang around here like a spare part!” blurted the prince, his hands gesturing in frustration. “I must do something!”

“Be patient; or at least as patient as you can manage.”

“How can I be patient when I feel – responsible!”

Duncan looked at his young charge and shook his head. Best to deal with this right now.

“All right – all right. So tell me, Adam; in what way is this your fault, then? These dawn runs weren’t your idea but hers – isn’t that so? And Teela ran on ahead.”

“Alone! I shouldn’t have let her – I could have kept up!”

“Only as He-Man – and we both know why that wouldn’t have worked. See sense, lad.”

“I should have been with her – that’s why I feel responsible for what happened to her!”

“How you feel and the plain truth aren’t the same thing.” He sighed. “They seldom are. And I’m afraid that you aren’t being rational.”

Rational! Is that all you can say? Teela’s been taken!”

“Yes, I was aware of that, thanks. But getting yourself into a state over it won’t bring her back any faster, will it?” He spoke on to balk the inevitable response. “I’m serious, Adam. It’s calm thought and rational behavior will win the day here – not ranting in a passion. Oh, I know well-enough why you’re doing it – but that doesn’t make it right. Even if it does speak well for your lo –” he paused a mere instant “– loyalty.” There was even, perhaps, a slight smile visible beneath the broad moustache, though Adam did not see it.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to be as calm in a crisis as you are, Duncan.” He sighed and shook his blond head.

“You will – in time,” replied his mentor with conviction. “As I said; practice.”

“Elders forbid that I should get any more like this!” He groaned and yet again disordered his hair. “Oh, Duncan – I just want her back!”

“So do I, lad; so do I. And get her we shall.”

“But it’s been almost –”

And then the comms buzzer sounded and Man-at-Arms answered, his face tense. Adam watched, listened, as his mentor questioned, his eyes on the younger man’s face.

“Very well – then carry on, Commander.” He put down the receiver slowly, and Adam leaned forward with pounding heart.

“Go on – tell me – do we know where they’ve taken her?”

Duncan shook his head. “No – not that much. But we now have a ransom demand – and instructions.”

“And –?”

“I’d – rather not say – at least until the king has been informed –” For the first time, Man-at-Arms was avoiding Adam’s eye, but the prince rocketed up and seized his shoulders.

“Tell me! I need to know!” He shook his mentor with the frustrated urge to action, and Duncan first sagged – and then met his eyes.

“I should have had to tell you in the end, I suppose – Well; it’s this. They want He-Man, and He-Man only, to go to them, alone and unarmed to make –” His voice wavered and he looked down; Adam had never seen him like this – never – and his eyes were huge in his face as he listened. “To make – an exchange –”

Adam paused still a long, long moment, then slowly patted his mentor’s shoulder and smiled grimly. “Is that all? Easy enough, then. Give me the co-ordinates and a sky-sled and I’ll be on my way.”

“Oh no you ruddy well won’t!” Duncan’s voice had swiftly recovered its old authority. “You, Prince Adam, are staying right here!”

“Well of course I am – it’s He-Man they want, not me.” He essayed a grin – but there was no answering bravado; none.

“Don’t you split hairs with me, boy. You and I both know what this means. Teela is no more than bait so that they can get their hands on you. And we cannot afford that.”

“But, Duncan –!”

“Save it, Prince. You are heir to the throne here and you have – responsibilities.”

“I’m also He-Man – and you know as well as I do what that means,” came the spirited reply. “I won’t leave Teela to them when it’s me they want! I can’t – and I just won’t!”

“We shall get her back another way; we can negotiate –”

“They want He-Man –”

“And him they cannot have!” flared Man-at-Arms. “Do you think this land could sustain his certain loss – not to mention that of its heir? It’s completely out of the question!”

“But it’s my duty – He-Man’s duty! I know that for sure; I should do – it was you who taught it to me!”

“The demands of duty must always be tempered by those of prudence – or all valor is in vain,” recited Duncan, reminding him of a lesson once learned – and now plainly forgotten in the heat of youthful impulse and anxiety.

“But, Duncan – it’s Teela!”

“I know. My daughter, remember? However –”

“I can save her! And that’s just what I’m going to do!”

“Adam, just think, will you? Consider the consequences of what you’re proposing. Do you really understand what you would be taking on if you place yourself in their hands – what they could do to you?”

“I have no choice!”

“There’s always a choice! And this one is not as clear-cut as you seem to think! You talk of duty; you also have one to this realm, to your parents. You can’t just abandon that!”

“Every time I go out and fight as He-Man I take that risk!”

“Fight – yes; not deliver yourself over like a sacrifice! Adam – it’s not the same thing; it just isn’t!”

“I can handle it!”

“I’m sorry – but I really don’t think that you can; not this time. The risk is incalculable – and what have I always told you about those kind of odds?”

“But you do it – all the time!”

Duncan sighed. “I also weigh the risk – all the time. That’s why I’m still around. You can’t; not yet. You simply haven’t been at this game long enough to know how to. And I want you to have the time to learn.” He shook his head, looking down, knowing that his argument from the head would not appease Adam’s hasty heart.

It didn’t.

“You don’t seem to place much faith in He-Man’s capacity to deal with this!”

Duncan looked up, fixing the prince with a steely eye. “I know pretty well what he can do – and what he can’t. Better than you do right now, it seems.”

Adam, angered, turned away. After a pause Duncan’s voice spoke, rather more placatory in tone.

“Look, Adam. I know how you feel – but Teela fell into this trap and it’s primarily my responsibility to get her out of it, not yours. I need some time to think, to plan – and then we’ll act. In force.”

“It’s too great a risk!” argued the prince heatedly. “If they detect your approach –”

“They won’t –”

“And if they do – what then? We can’t play dice with Teela’s life!”

“Then at the very least go to Grayskull first and seek out the Sorceress.”

Adam shook his head. “There’s no time for that now. I won’t let them keep Teela a moment longer than I have to.”

“This isn’t the right way – it’s all far too hasty! We need to calm down – both of us – and then consider our options. Anything has to be better than youjust giving yourself up. We can decoy them, surround the area of the parley – there are plenty of alternatives. Just give me some time.”

“Duncan – we don’t have any time! And using force is just far too much of a risk. No – He-Man must go – as demanded.”

Duncan sighed and looked at the ardent young face, the quivering, almost coltish body before him. Not quite seventeen years old and already in a fair way to be man; it showed in the set of his shoulders, if not yet in his eyes. But he was still a boy for all that, and still had much to learn; too much for this sudden onset of responsibility.

“Adam – listen to me – please! Alone? Unarmed? Even as He-Man it’s hopeless. Be told!”

“No – not this time, old friend. I must do this thing. You know that I must.”

Duncan was silent: and this lad was widely regarded as an idler, a shirker, even a coward. “You won’t be stopped, will you?” he said quietly.

“You know that I won’t be.” Adam was also calm now – if that was indeed the right word.

“Then go to your parents and comfort them; they feel Teela’s loss as keenly as we do, but they cannot allow themselves to show it, for the greater good of the realm. That is what it means, Adam, to be a king.” It was uttered sternly, quite without anger – but it made Adam’s throat swell, his eyes well-up.

“I’ll – I’ll do as you say and go to them.”

He couldn’t look at his mentor, but Duncan reached and lifted his chin in his hand and peered at him close, then nodded. “Go to the hangars when you are done. I will await your call and come to you there.”

*****

1.9

Adam came away from his parents’ presence with a heavy heart. He could not tell them – of course he couldn’t. But it hurt dreadfully, knowing that he would very possibly never see them again. His mother had somehow sensed his inner agitation (he could hide little from her) and had carefully steered his father away from dangerous ground as they spoke – but it had wrung Adam’s heart to leave them with all those words unsaid. Now, as his pace quickened, his mood was grim and determined. He would not call Man-at-Arms to meet him; his plan now was to slip away unnoticed, before they could try to dissuade him. They wouldn’t succeed – and time might well be precious. He would transform himself, take a sled and go. It would save trouble and fuss and – and in any case he couldn’t trust himself to go through all that again without breaking down.

At the doorway of the hangars Cringer was lying, plainly waiting for him. Adam bent and picked up the cat, holding the soft fur to his face. Cringer just knew; he could tell what Adam planned.

“No, Cringer – not this time – though I’m grateful. They said alone, and that means just me – or, rather, just He-Man. Turning up with Battle Cat would, huh, provoke things. Though, Elders know, I’d much, much rather not go all alone.” He sighed, and the rough feline tongue licked his face. “I’ll do my best, anyway.” The cat’s yellow eyes were mournful and he mewled in discontent. “I know, I know. Look at the pair of us, huh? The heroes of Eternia! Just a scared kid and his cowardly pet! I really wish that – But, no – that’s pointless. I must go; I simply have to – and lingering won’t help.” He put the cat down gently and squared his shoulders. “So long, old pal. Be seeing you.”

The hangar was deserted, the sky-sleds stood ready in long ranks, each in its bay. He chose one he used often; it might be – well – lucky. He would need every iota of that – and then some. By the time the Palace scanners picked him up he’d be on his way and it would be too late for them to stop him. He carried out the necessary routine checks by rote while his mind moved on quite another plane; the technicians knew their business, and he trusted them, and, in any case –

A voice spoke at his back; one that he knew. He turned.

Man-at-Arms stood there, fully uniformed, three of the Guard at his back.

“Prince Adam – I place you under arrest, in the name of the king!” His face was gray as he spoke, but the weight of authority in his voice brooked no argument. “You, Highness, will come with me – and will first surrender your sword. Lieutenant Andros!”

His men, also clutching stunners, looked no happier than he. Their young leader obediently took two paces forward, unspeaking, and held out his hand to the prince. It was Man-at-Arms who spoke again, his voice now less formal.

“Come along now, Adam. You must obey your royal father’s will. There’s a quiet cell made ready for you until you learn better sense from wiser heads. Your books are already there for you – and writing paper. I’m sorry – but I have my orders, my duty to perform.”

Slowly Adam dismounted the platform and approached his mentor. He smiled sadly – and reached out to embrace him, all-too aware of the pricking in his eyes. “I’m sorry too,” he whispered. “But we must each of us do as we must. You see, I too have my duty to perform.” So saying he brought down his elbow hard onto Duncan’s weapon arm, and caught it as it jumped from his grasp. “A trick you taught me!” he said, with the maniacal grin of the desperate as he turned Man-at-Arms like a human shield before him – and brought the stunner into play. The three royal guardsmen, shocked by his action – and appalled at the idea of opening fire on their prince – were soon relieved of their dilemma by being stunned senseless. Then Adam released Duncan – but kept his distance.

“I’m so sorry – for this, for acting against your advice, for losing Teela – for everything! But you do see why I have to go, don’t you?” He looked into Duncan’s face and tried to laugh, but it had a cracked sound to it. “Or if you really can’t do that, then please just lie to me and tell me that you do!”

Duncan looked at the pale and strained face before him, noted the tears glistening amid the long lashes. He was very young, for all his passionate determination. He sighed and shook his head. “I don’t need to lie, Adam – not at all. You see, if you hadn’t got the drop on me, then I intended to make use of the He-Man robot we made that time to deceive Skeletor; it would have got me close enough – and it would have kept you out of harm’s way. I could have stunned you before arresting you – but – somehow, I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.” He gave his head a rueful shake. “But I do understand why you feel the need to go – of course I do. I’m not altogether blind, you know – and I was young myself, once.” He smiled – a poor-enough effort, but not without its own form of courage.

“I – don’t know what to say to that –” admitted Adam, and the tears were falling unchecked now. “And I guess that you probably do know best , too – and I’m really scared – right now I am. But it will be all right once I’ve – I’ve –”

“Made the change,” finished Duncan for him. “I know.” He shook his head again. “And I can’t even tell you to take care, can I? Since that would clearly be ridiculous, under the circumstances. But I will tell you that I’m proud of you, say ‘Good Journey’ and – be with you in thought.” Adam bowed his head, overwhelmed. “Now, come here, lad, and let me embrace you in my turn.” He stepped forward, holding out his arms – but Adam shook his head and backed off.

“Likewise in thought, Duncan – but not for real! No; sorry – but I know you too well, old friend – too well –” Though he ached for that hug, truth to tell, and his vision was blurred as Duncan’s arms fell to his side with a shrug.

“And I guess you do, too. Oh well – it was worth a try; after all, it was me who taught you the elbow-disarm move – as you reminded me. Go on, then, Adam – make your change and be on your way. I shall check over that sled one last time –” He winced at his own choice of words – but made to the platform and busied himself, ignoring the sound and light display taking place behind him. A huge brown hand touched his shoulder and he looked up – and up – and smiled wryly. “Well, I couldn’t stop you now, even if I wanted to, could I?”

“No; I don’t suppose you could,” answered the deeper voice of He-Man with a sad smile. “But – if you were still willing to give me that hug –?”

“I’ll try – but I suddenly need much longer arms.”

They clasped a long moment, communicating without words. Then He-Man stood Man-at-Arms off, holding his shoulders and looking down at him hard.

“Now, don’t you come after me – understood? They won’t play fair unless we do.” Man-at-Arms nodded mutely, forbearing to make the obvious point that ‘they’ wouldn’t play fair anyway; ‘they’ never did. “And –” and here He-Man’s voice seemed to tremble – “one last thing; will you take the Sword of Power and guard it for – for – whoever comes after me?”

“No,” answered Man-at-Arms stoutly. “I cannot do that. But I can and will guard it for you – and for no other – until you return.” He held out his hand – and He-Man gently placed the hilt of the precious thing within it, and nodded, speechless.

He mounted into the sled and started her up; the stunned guards were stirring now – it was time to be gone. He looked into the eyes of his mentor. “Look after them all, Duncan. And I will send her back to you, whatever the price.”

“Don’t send her – bring her back yourself, Adam – I mean – Oh, get gone with you! And Good Journey.”

He stood there, sword in hand, staring out long after the sky-sled was gone on its way.

******

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