A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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“Silence!” a soft voice whispered.

From beyond the panels I heard angry and excited voices. Above the others one voice rose in tones of authority. “What is wrong here?”

There were muttered exclamations and curses as men bumped against pieces of furniture and ran into one another.

“Give us a light,” cried a voice, and a moment later, “That is better.”

“Where is Yo Seno? Oh, there you are, you fat rascal. What is amiss?”

“By Issus! he is gone.” The voice was that of Yo Seno.

“Who is gone?” demanded the other voice. “Why did you summon us?”

I was attacked by a warrior,” explained Yo Seno, “who came demanding the key to the apartment where Haj Osis keeps the daughter of—-.” I could not hear the rest of the sentence.

“Well, where is the man?” demanded the other.

“He is gone—and the key, too. The key is gone,” Yo Seno’s voice rose almost to a wail.

“Quick, then, to the apartment where the girl is kept,” cried first speaker, doubtless the officer of the guard, and almost at once I heard them hasten from the apartment.

The girl at my side moved a little and I heard a low laugh. “They will not find the key,” she said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because I have it,” she replied.

“Little good it will do us,” I said ruefully. “They will keep the door well guarded now and we cannot use the key.”

Phao laughed again. “We do not need the key,” she said. I took it to throw them off the track. They will watch the door while we enter elsewhere.”

“I do not understand,” I said.

“This corridor leads between the partitions to the room where the prisoner is kept. I know that because, when I was a prisoner in that room, Yo Seno came thus to visit me. He is a beast. I hope he has not visited this girl —I hope it for your sake, if you love her.”

“I do not love her,” I said. “She is only a friend.” But I scarcely knew what I was saying, the words seemed to come mechanically for I was in the grip of such an emotion as I never before had experienced or endured. It had seized me the instant that Phao had suggested that Yo Seno might have visited Tavia through this secret corridor. I experienced a sensation that was almost akin to a convulsion—a sensation that left me a changed man. Before, I could have killed Yo Seno with my sword and been glad; now I wanted to tear him to pieces; I wanted to mutilate him and make him suffer. Never before in my life had I experienced such a bestial desire. It was hideous, and yet I gloated in its possession.

“What is the matter?” exclaimed Phao. “I thought I felt you tremble then.”

“I trembled,” I said.

“For what?” she asked.

“For Yo Seno,” I replied, “but let us hasten. If this corridor leads to the apartment where Tavia is in prison, I cannot reach her to soon, for when Haj Osis learns that the key has been stolen he will have her removed to another prison.”

“He will not learn it if Yo Seno and the padwar of the guard can prevent,” said Phao, “for if this reached the ears of Haj Osis it might easily cost them both their lives. They will wait for you to come that they may kill you and get the key, but they will wait outside the prison door and you will not come that way.”

As she spoke she started to walk along the narrow, dark corridor, leading me by the hand behind her. It was slow work for Phao had to grope her way slowly because the corridor turned sharply at right angles as it followed the partitions of the apartments between which it passed, and there were numerous stairways that led up over doorways and finally a ladder to the level above.

Presently she halted. “We are there,” she whispered, “but we must listen first to make sure that no one has entered the apartment with the prisoner.”

I could see absolutely nothing in the darkness, and how Phao knew that she had reached her destination, I could not guess.

“It is all right,” she said presently, and simultaneously she pushed a wooden panel ajar and in the opening I saw a portion of the interior of a circular apartment with narrow windows heavily barred. Opposite the opening, upon a pile of sleeping silks and furs, I saw a woman reclining. Only a bare shoulder, a tiny ear and a head of tousled hair were visible. At the first glance I knew that they were Tavia’s.

As we stepped into the apartment Phao closed the panel behind us. Attracted by the sound of our entrance, quietly executed though it was, Tavia sat up and looked at us and then, as she recognized me, sprang to her feet. Her eyes were wide with surprise and there was an exclamation upon her lips, which I silenced by a warning forefinger placed against my own. I crossed the apartment toward her, and she came to meet me, almost running. As I looked into her eyes I saw an expression there that I have never seen in the eyes of any other woman—at least not for me—and if I had ever doubted Tavia’s friendship, such a doubt would have vanished in that instant, but I had not doubted it and I was only surprised now to realize the depth of it. Had Sanoma Tora ever looked at me like that I should have read love in the expression, but I had never spoken of love to Tavia and so I knew that it was only friendship that she felt. I had always been too much engrossed in my profession to make any close friendships so that I had never realized until that moment what a wonderful thing friendship might be.

As we met in the center of the room her eyes, moist with tears were upturned to mine. “Hadron,” she whispered, her voice husky with emotion, and then I put my arm about her slender shoulders and drew her to me and something that was quite beyond my volition impelled me to kiss her upon the forehead. Instantly she disengaged herself and I feared that she had misunderstood that impulsive kiss of friendship, but her next words reassured me.

“I thought never to see you again, Hadron of Hastor,” she said. “I feared that they had killed you. How comes it that you are here and in the metal of a warrior of Tjanath?”

I told her briefly of what had occurred to me since we had been separated and of how I had temporarily, at least, escaped The Death. She asked me what The Death was, but I could not tell her.

“It is very horrible,” said Phao.

“What is it?” I asked.

I do not know,” replied the girl, “only that it is horrible. There is a deep pit, some say a bottomless pit, beneath the lower pits of the palace; horrible noises—groans and moans arise perpetually from it and into this pit those that are to die The Death are cast, but in such a way that the fall will not kill them. They must reach the bottom alive to endure all the horrors of The Death that await them there. That the torture is almost interminable is evidenced by the fact that the moans and groans of the victims never cease, no matter how long a period may have elapsed between executions.”

“And you have escaped it,” exclaimed Tavia. “My prayers have been answered. For days and nights have I been praying to my ancestors that you might be spared. Now if you can but escape this hateful place. Have you a plan?”

“We have a plan that with the help of Phao here may prove successful. Nur An, of whom I told you, is hiding in a closet in one of the apartments of the little prince. We shall return to that apartment at the first opportunity and here Phao will hide all three of us until some opportunity for escape presents itself.”

“And we should lose no more time in returning,” said Phao. “Come, let us go at once.”

As we turned toward the panel through which we had entered I saw that it was ajar, though I was confident that Phao had closed it after us when we entered and simultaneously I could have sworn that I saw an eye glued to the narrow crack, as though someone watched us from the dark interior of the secret corridor.

In a single bound I was across the room and had drawn the panel aside. My sword was ready in my hand, but there was no one in the corridor beyond.

 

VII. — THE DEATH

WITH Phao in the lead and Tavia between us, we traversed the dark corridor back toward the apartment of Yo Seno. When we reached the panel marking the end of our journey, Phao halted and together we listened intently for any sound that might evidence the presence of an occupant in the room beyond. All was silent as the tomb.

“I believe,” said Phao, “that it will be safer if you and Tavia remain here until night. I shall return to my apartment and go about my duties in the usual manner and after the palace has quieted down, these levels will be almost deserted; then I can come and get you with far less danger of detection than were I to take you to the apartment now.”

We agreed that her plan was a good one, and bidding us a temporary farewell, she opened the panel sufficiently to permit her to survey the apartment beyond. It was quite empty. She stepped from the corridor, closing the panel behind her, and once again Tavia and I were plunged into darkness.

The long hours of our wait in the darkness of the corridor should have seemed interminable, but they did not. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible upon the floor, our backs against one of the walls, and, leaning close together so that we might converse in low whispers, we found more entertainment than I should have guessed possible, both in our conversation and in the long silences that broke it, so that it really did not seem a long time at all before the panel was swung open and we saw Phao in the subdued light of the apartment beyond. She motioned us to follow her, and, in silence, we obeyed. The corridor beyond the chamber of Yo Seno was deserted, as also was the ramp leading to the level below and the corridor upon which it opened. Fortune seemed to favor us at every step and there was a prayer of thanksgiving upon my lips as Phao pushed open the door leading into the apartment of the prince and motioned us to enter.

But at the same instant my heart sank within me, for, as I entered the apartment with Tavia, I saw warriors standing upon either side of the room awaiting us. With an exclamation of warning I drew Tavia behind me and backed quickly toward the door, but as I did so I heard a rush of feet and the clank of accoutrements in the corridor behind me, and, casting a quick glance over my shoulder, I saw other warriors running from the doorway of an apartment upon the opposite side of the corridor.

We were surrounded. We were lost, and my first thought was that Phao had betrayed us, leading us into this trap from which there could be no escape. They hustled us back into the room and surrounded us, and for the first time I saw Yo Seno. He stood there, a sneering grin upon his face, and but for the fact that Tavia had assured me that he had not harmed her I should have leaped upon him there, though a dozen swords had been at my vitals the next instant.

“So!” sneered Yo Seno. “You thought to fool me, did you? Well, I am not so easily fooled. I guessed the truth and I followed you through the corridor and overheard all your plans as you discussed them with the woman, Tavia. We have you all now,” and turning to one of the warriors, he motioned to the closet upon the opposite side of the chamber. “Fetch the other,” he commanded.

The fellow crossed to the door and, opening it, revealed Nur An lying bound and gagged upon the floor.

“Cut his bonds and remove the gag,” ordered Yo Seno. “It is too late now for him to thwart my plans by giving the others a warning.”

Nur An came toward us, with a firm step, his head high and a glance of haughty contempt for our captors.

The four of us stood facing Yo Seno, the sneer upon whose face had been replaced by a glare of hatred.

“You have been sentenced to die The Death,” he said. “It is the death for spies. No more terrible punishment can be inflicted. Could there be, it would be meted to you two,” as he looked first at me and then at Nur An, “that you might suffer more for the murder of our two comrades.”

So they had found the warriors we had dispatched. Well, what of it? Evidently it had not rendered our position any worse than it had been before. We were to die The Death and that was the worst that they could accord us.

“Have you anything to say?” demanded Yo Seno.

“We still live” I exclaimed, and laughed in his face.

“Before long you will be beseeching your first ancestors for death,” hissed the keeper of the keys, “but you will not have death too soon, and remember that no one knows how long it takes to die The Death. We cannot add to your physical suffering, but for the torment of your mind let me remind you that we are sending you to The Death without letting you know what the fate of your accomplices will be,” and he nodded toward Tavia and Phao.

That was a nice point, well chosen. He could not have hit upon any means more certain to inflict acute torture upon me than this, but I would not give him the satisfaction of witnessing my true emotion, and so, once again, I laughed in his face. His patience had about reached the limit of its endurance, for he turned abruptly to a padwar of the guard and ordered him to remove us at once.

As we were hustled from the room, Nur An called a brave good-bye to Phao.

“Good-bye, Tavia!” I cried, “and remember that we still live.”

“We still live, Hadron of Hastor!” she called back. “We still live!” and then she was swept from my view as we were pushed along down the corridor.

Down ramp after ramp we were conducted to the uttermost depths of the palace pits and then into a great chamber where I saw Haj Osis sitting upon a throne, surrounded again by his chiefs and his courtiers as he had been upon the occasion that he had interviewed me. Opposite the Jed, and in the middle of the chamber, hung a great iron cage, suspended from a heavy block set in the ceiling. Into this cage we were roughly pushed; the door was closed and secured with a large lock. I wondered what it was all about and what this had to do with The Death, and while I wondered a dozen men pushed a huge trap door from beneath the cage. A rush of cold, clammy air enveloped us and I experienced a chill that seemed to enter my marrow, as though I lay in the cold arms of death. Hollow moans and groans came faintly to my ears and I knew that we were above the pits where The Death lay.