A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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Both Nur An and I felt greatly refreshed and strengthened by our meal, however unpalatable it might have been. It had been some time since we had slept and though we had no idea whether it was still night upon the outer surface of Barsoom, or whether dawn had already broken, we decided that it would be best for us to sleep and so Nur An stretched out where we were while I watched. After he awoke, I took my turn. I think that neither one of us slept more than a single zode, but the rest did us quite as much good as the food that we had eaten and I am sure that I have never felt more fit than I did when we set out again upon our goalless journey.

I do not know how long we had been traveling after our sleep, for by now the journey was most monotonous, there being little change in the dimly seen landscape surrounding us and only the ceaseless roar of the river and the howling of the wind to keep us company.

Nur An was the first to discern the change; he seized my arm and pointed ahead. I must have been walking with my eyes upon the ground in front of me, else I must have seen what he saw simultaneously.

“It is daylight,” I exclaimed. “It is the sun.”

“It can be nothing else,” he said.

There, far ahead of us, lay a great archway of light. That was all that we could see from the point at which we discovered it, but now we hastened on almost at a run, so anxious were we for a solution, so hopeful that it was indeed the sunlight and that in some inexplicable and mysterious way the river had found its way to the surface of Barsoom. I knew that this could not be true and Nur An knew it, and yet each knew how great his disappointment would be when the true explanation of the phenomenon was revealed.

When we approached the great patch of light it became more and more evident that the river had broken from its dark cavern out into the light of day, and when we reached the edge of that mighty portal we looked out upon a scene that filled our hearts with warmth and gladness, for there, stretching before us, lay a valley—a small valley it is true—a valley hemmed in, as far as we could see, by mighty cliffs, but yet a valley of life and fertility and beauty bathed in the hot light of the sun.

“It is not quite the surface of Barsoom,” said Nur An, “but it is the next best thing.”

“And there must be a way out,” I said. “There must be. If there is not, we will make one.”

“Right you are, Hadron of Hastor,” he cried. “We will make a way. Come!”

Before us the banks of the roaring river were lined with lush vegetation; great trees raised their leafy branches far above the waters; the brilliant, scarlet sward was lapped by the little wavelets and everywhere bloomed gorgeous flowers and shrubs of many hues and shapes. Here was a vegetation such as I had never seen before upon the surface of Barsoom. Here were forms similar to those with which I was familiar and others totally unknown to me, yet all were lovely, though some were bizarre.

Emerging, as we had, from the dark and gloomy bowels of the earth, the scene before us presented a view of wondrous beauty, and, while doubtless enhanced by contrast, it was nevertheless such an aspect as is seldom given to the eyes, of a Barsoomian of today to view. To me it seemed a little garden spot upon a dying world preserved from an ancient era when Barsoom was young and meteorological conditions were such as to favor the growth of vegetation that has since become extinct over practically the entire area of the planet. In this deep valley, surrounded by lofty cliffs, the atmosphere doubtless was considerably denser than upon the surface of the planet above. The sun’s days were reflected by the lofty escarpment, which must also hold the heat during the colder periods of night, and, in addition to this, there was ample water for irrigation which nature might easily have achieved through percolation of the waters of the river through and beneath the top soil of the valley.

For several minutes Nur An and I stood spellbound by the bewitching view, and then, espying luscious fruit hanging in great clusters from some of the trees, and bushes loaded with berries we subordinated the aesthetic to the corporeal and set forth to supplement our meal of raw fish with the exquisite offerings which hung so temptingly before us.

As we started to move through the vegetation we became aware of thin threads of a gossamerlike substance festooned from tree to tree and bush to bush. So fine as to be almost invisible, yet they were so strong as to impede our progress. It was surprisingly difficult to break them, and when there were a dozen or more at a time barring our way, we found it necessary to use our daggers to cut a way through them.

We had taken only a few steps into the deeper vegetation, cutting our way through the gossamer strands, when we were confronted by a new and surprising obstacle to our advance—a large, venomous-looking spider that scurried toward us in an inverted position, clinging with a dozen legs to one of the gossamer strands, which served both as its support and its pathway, and if its appearance was any index to its venomousness it must, indeed, have been a deadly insect.

As it came toward me, apparently with the most sinister intentions, I hastily returned my dagger to its scabbard and drew my short sword, with which I struck at the fearsome looking creature. As the blow descended, it drew back so that my point only slightly scratched it, whereupon it opened its hideous mouth and emitted a terrific scream so out of proportion to its size and to the nature of such insects with which I was familiar that it had a most appalling effect upon my nerves. Instantly the scream was answered by an unearthly chorus of similar cries all about us and immediately a swarm of these horrid insects came racing toward us upon their gossamer threads. Evidently this was the only position which they assumed in moving about and their webs the only means to that end, for their twelve legs grew upward from their backs, giving them a most uncanny appearance.

Fearing that the creatures might be poisonous, Nur An and I retreated hastily to the mouth of the cavern, and as the spiders could not go beyond the ends of their threads, we were soon quite safe from them and now the luscious fruit looked more tempting than ever, since it seemed to be denied to us.

“The road down the river is well guarded,” said Nur An with a rueful smile, “which might indicate a most desirable goal.”

“At present that fruit is the most desirable thing in the world to me,” I replied, “and I am going to try to discover some means of obtaining it.”

Moving to the right, away from the river, I sought for an entrance into the forest that would be free from the threads of the spiders and presently I came to a point where there was a well-defined trail about four or five feet wide, apparently cut by man from the vegetation. Across the mouth of it, however, were strung thousands of gossamer strands. To touch them, we knew, would be the signal for myriads of the angry spiders to swarm upon us. While our greatest fear was, of course, that the insects might be poisonous, their cruelly fanged mouths also suggested that, poisonous or not, they might in their great numbers constitute a real menace.

“Do you notice,” I said to Nur An, “that these threads seem stretched across the entrance to the pathway only. Beyond them I cannot detect any, though of course they are so tenuous that they might defy one’s vision even at a short distance.”

“I do not see any spiders here,” said Nur An. “Perhaps we can cut our way through with impunity at this point.”

“We shall experiment,” I said, drawing my long sword.

Advancing, I cut a few strands, when immediately there swarmed out of the trees and bushes upon either side great companies of the insects, each racing along its own individual strand. Where the strands were intact the creatures crossed and recrossed the trail, staring at us with their venomous, beady eyes, their powerful, gleaming fangs bared threateningly toward us.

The cut strands floated in the air until borne down by the weight of the approaching spiders who followed to the severed ends but no further. Here they either hung glaring at us or else clambered up and down excitedly, but not one of them ever ventured from his strand.

As I watched them, their antics suggested a plan. “They are helpless when their web is severed,” I said to Nur An. “Therefore if we cut all their webs they cannot reach us.” Whereupon, advancing, I swung my long sword above my head and cut downward through the remaining strands. Instantly the creatures set up their infernal screaming. Several of them, torn from their webs by the blow of my sword, lay upon the ground upon their bellies, their feet sticking straight up into the air. They seemed utterly helpless, and though they screamed loudly and frantically waved their legs, they were clearly unable to move; nor could those hanging, at either side of the trail reach us. With my sword I destroyed those that lay in the path and then, followed by Nur An, I entered the forest. Ahead of us I could see no webs; the way seemed clear, but before we advanced further into the forest I turned about to have a last look at the discomfited insects to see what they might be about. They had stopped screaming now and were slowly returning into the foliage, evidently to their lairs, and as they seemed to offer no further menace we continued upon our way. The trees and bushes along the pathway were innocent of fruit or berries, though just beyond reach we saw them growing in profusion, behind a barrier of those gossamer webs that we had so quickly learned to avoid.

“This trail appears to have been made by man,” said Nur An.

“Whoever made it, or when,” I said, “there is no doubt but that some creature still uses it. The absence of fruit along it would alone be ample proof of that.”

We moved cautiously along the winding trail, not knowing at what moment we might be confronted by some new menace in the form of man or beast. Presently we saw ahead of us what appeared to be an opening in the forest and a moment later we emerged into a clearing. Looming in front of us at a distance of perhaps less than a haad was a towering pile of masonry. It was a gloomy pile, apparently built of black volcanic rock. For some thirty feet above the ground there was a blank wall, pierced by but a single opening—a small doorway almost directly in front of us. This part of the structure appeared to be a well, beyond it rose buildings of weird and grotesque outlines and dominating all was a lofty tower, from the summit of which a wisp of smoke curled upward into the quiet air.

From this new vantage point we had a better view of the valley than had at first been accorded us, and now, more marked than ever, were the indications that it was the crater of some gigantic and long extinct volcano. Between us and the buildings, which suggested a small walled city, the clearing contained a few scattered trees, but most of the ground was given over to cultivation, being traversed by irrigation ditches of an archaic type which has been abandoned upon the surface for many ages, having been superseded by a system of subirrigation when the diminishing water supply necessitated the adoption of conservation measures.

Satisfied that no further information could be gained by remaining where we were, I started boldly into the clearing toward the city. “Where are you going?” asked Nur An.

“I am going to find out who dwells in that gloomy place,” I replied. “Here are fields and gardens, so they must have food and that, after all, is the only favor that I shall ask of them.”

Nur An shook his head. “The very sight of the place depresses me,” he said. But he came with me as I knew he would, for Nur An is a splendid companion upon whose loyalty one may always depend.

We had traversed about two-thirds of the distance across the clearing toward the city before we saw any signs of life and then a few figures appeared at the top of the wall above the entrance. They carried long, thin scarfs, which they seemed to be waving in greeting to us and when we had come yet closer I saw that they were young women. They leaned over the parapet and smiled and beckoned to us.

As we came within speaking distance below the wall, I halted. “What city is this,” I asked, “and who is jed here?”

“Enter, warriors,” cried one of the girls, “and we will lead you to the jed.” She was very pretty and she was smiling sweetly, as were her companions.

“This is not such a depressing place as you thought,” I said in a low voice to Nur An.

“I was mistaken,” said Nur An. “They seem to be a kindly, hospitable people. Shall we enter?”

“Come,” called another of the girls; “behind these gloomy walls lie food and wine and love.”

Food! I would have entered a far more forbidding place than this for food.

As Nur An and I strode toward the small door, it slowly withdrew to one side. Beyond, across a black paved avenue, rose buildings of black volcanic rock. The avenue seemed deserted as we stepped within. We beard the faint click of a lock as the door slid into place behind us and I had a sudden foreboding of ill that made my right hand seek the hilt of my long sword.

 

VIII. — THE SPIDER OF GHASTA

FOR a moment we stood undecided in the middle of the empty avenue, looking about us, and then our attention was attracted to a narrow stairway running up the inside of the wall, upon the summit of which the girls had appeared and welcomed us.

Down the stairway the girls were coming. There were six of them. Their beautiful faces were radiant with happy smiles of welcome that instantly dispelled the gloom of the dark surroundings as the rising sun dissipates night’s darkness and replaces her shadows with light and warmth and happiness.

Beautifully wrought harness, enriched by many a sparkling jewel, accentuated the loveliness of faultless figures. As they approached a vision of Tavia sprang to my mind. Beautiful as these girls unquestionably were, how much more beautiful was Tavia!

I recall distinctly, even now, that in that very instant with all that was transpiring to distract my attention, I was suddenly struck by wonder that it should have been Tavia’s face and figure that I saw rather than those of Sanoma Tora. You may believe that I brought myself up with a round turn and thereafter it was a vision of Sanoma Tora that I saw, and that, too, without any disloyalty to my friendship for Tavia—that blessed friendship which I looked upon as one of my proudest and most valuable possessions.

As the girls reached the pavement they came eagerly toward us. “Welcome, warriors,” cried one, “to happy Ghasta. After your long journey you must be hungry. Come with us and you shall be fed, but first the great jed will wish to greet you and welcome you to our city, for visitors to Ghasta are few.”

As they led us along the avenue I could not but note the deserted appearance of the city. There was no sign of life about any of the buildings that we passed nor did we see another human being until we had come to an open plaza, in the center of which rose a mighty building surmounted by the lofty tower that we had seen when we first emerged from the forest. Here we saw a number of people, both men and women—sad, dejected looking people, who moved with bent shoulders and downcast eyes. There was no animation in their step and their whole demeanor seemed that of utter hopelessness. What a contrast they presented to the gay and happy girls who so joyously conducted us toward the main entrance of what I assumed to be the palace of the jed. Here, burly warriors were on guard—fat, oily looking fellows, whose appearance was not at all to my liking. As we approached them an officer emerged from the interior of the building. If possible, he was even fatter and more greasy looking than his men, but he smiled and bowed as he welcomed us.