The pits! Inwardly I shuddered. I much preferred the tower for I have always possessed an inherent horror of the pits. Perhaps these would be utterly dark and doubtless overrun by rats and lizards.
The ramp ended in a gorgeously decorated apartment in which was assembled about the same company of men and women that had partaken of the banquet with us earlier in the day. Here, too, was Ghron upon a throne. This time he did not smile as we entered the room. He did not seem to realize our presence. He was sitting, leaning forward, his eyes fixed upon something at the far end of the room over which hung a deadly silence that was suddenly shattered by a piercing scream of anguish. The scream was but a prelude to a series of similar cries of agony.
I looked quickly in the direction from which the screams came, the direction in which Ghron’s gaze was fastened. I saw a naked woman chained to a grill before a hot fire. Evidently they had just placed her there as I had entered the room and it was her first shrill scream of agony that had attracted my attention.
The grill was mounted upon wheels so that it could be removed to any distance from the fire that the torturer chose, or completely turned about presenting the other side of the victim to the blaze.
As my eyes wandered back to the audience I saw that most of the girls sat there glaring straight ahead, their eyes fixed with horror upon the horrid scene. I do not believe that they enjoyed it; I know that they did not. They were equally the unwilling victims of the cruel vagaries of Ghron’s diseased mind, but like the poor creature upon the grill they were helpless.
Next to the torture itself, the most diabolical conceit of the mind that had directed it was the utter silence enjoined upon all spectators against the background of which the shrieks and moans of the tortured victim evidently achieved their highest effectiveness upon the crazed mind of the jed.
The spectacle was sickening. I turned my eyes away. Presently one of the warriors who had fetched us touched me on the arm and motioned me to follow him.
He led us from this apartment to another and there we witnessed a scene infinitely more terrible than the grilling of the human victim. I cannot describe it; it tortures my memory even to think of it. Long before we reached that hideous apartment we heard the screams and curses of its inmates. In utter silence, our guard ushered us within. It was the chamber of horrors in which the Jed of Ghasta was creating abnormal deformities for his cruel dance of the cripples.
Still in silence, we were led from this horrid place and now our guide conducted us upward to a luxuriously furnished apartment. Upon divans lay two of the beautiful girls who had welcomed us to Ghasta.
For the first time since we had left our room in the tower one of our escort broke the silence. “They will explain,” he said, pointing to the girls. “Do not try to escape. There is only one exit from this room. We will be waiting outside. He then removed our manacles and with his companion left the apartment, closing the door after them.”
One of the occupants of the room was the same girl who had sat at my right during the banquet. I had found her most gracious and intelligent and to her I now turned.
“What is the meaning of this?” I demanded. “Why are we made prisoners? Why have we been brought here?”
She beckoned me to come to the divan on which she reclined and as I approached she motioned to me to sit down beside her.
“What you have seen tonight,” she said, “represents the three fates that lie in store for you. Ghron has taken a fancy to you and he is giving you your choice.”
I do not yet quite understand,” I said.
“You saw the victim before the grill?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Would you care to suffer that fate?”
“You saw the unhappy ones being bent and broken for the dance of the cripples,” she pursued.
“I did,” I answered.
“And now you see this luxurious room—and me. Which would you choose?”
“I cannot believe,” I replied, “that the final alternative is without conditions, which might make it appear less attractive than it now seems, for otherwise there could be no possible question as to which I would chose.”
“You are right,” she said. “There are conditions.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“You will become an officer in the palace of the jed and as such you will conduct tortures similar to those you have witnessed in the pits of the palace. You will be guided by whatever whim may possess your master.”
I drew myself to my full height. “I choose the fire,” I said.
“I knew that you would,” she said sadly, “and yet I hoped that you might not.”
“It is not because of you,” I said quickly. “It is the other conditions which no man of honor could accept.”
I know,” she said, “and had you accepted them I must eventually have despised you as I despise the others.”
“You are unhappy here?” I asked.
“Of course,” she said. “Who but a maniac could be happy in this horrid place? There are, perhaps, six hundred people in the city and there is not one who knows happiness. A hundred of us form the court of the jed; the others are slaves. As a matter of fact, we are all slaves, subject to every mad whim or caprice of the maniac who is our master.”
“And there is no escape?” I asked.
“I shall escape,” I said.
“The fire,” I replied.
She shuddered. “I do not know why I should care so much,” she said, “unless it is that I liked you from the first. Even while I was helping to lure you into the city for the human spider of Ghasta, I wished that I might warn you not to enter, but I was afraid, just as I am afraid to die. I wish that I had your courage to escape through the fire.”
I turned to Nur An, who had been listening to our conversation. “You have reached your decision?” I asked.
“Certainly,” he said. “There could be but one decision for a man of honor.”
“Good!” I exclaimed, and then I turned to the girl. “You will notify, Ghron of our decision?” I asked.
“Wait,” she said; “ask for time in which to consider it. I know that it will make no difference in the end, but yet—Oh, even yet there is a germ of hope within me that even utter hopelessness cannot destroy.”
“You are right,” I said. “There is always hope. Let him think that you have half persuaded us to accept the life of luxury and ease that he has offered as an alternative to death or torture, and that if you are given a little more time you may succeed. In the meantime we may be able to work out some plan of escape.”
“Never,” she said.
IX— PHOR TAK OF JHAMA
BACK in our quarters in the chimney tower, Nur An and I discussed every mad plan of escape that entered our brains. For some reason our fetters had not been replaced, which gave us at least as much freedom of action as our apartment afforded and you may rest assured that we took full advantage of it, examining minutely every square inch of the floor and the walls as far up as we could reach, but our combined efforts failed to reveal any means for raising the partition which closed the only avenue of escape from our prison, with the exception of the window which, while heavily barred and some two hundred feet above the ground, was by no means, therefore, eliminated from our plans.
The heavy vertical bars which protected the window withstood our combined efforts when we sought to bend them, though Nur An is a powerful man, while I have always been lauded for my unusual muscular development. The bars were set a little too close together to permit our bodies to pass through, but the removal of one of them would leave an opening of ample size; yet to what purpose? Perhaps the same answer was in Nur An’s mind that was in mine —that when hope was gone and the sole alternative remaining was the fire within the grill, we might at least cheat Ghron could we but hurl ourselves from this high window to the ground far below.
But whatever end each of us may have had in view, he kept it to himself and when I started digging at the mortar at the bottom of one of the bars with the prong of a buckle from my harness, Nur An asked no questions but set to work similarly upon the mortar at the top of the same bar. We worked in silence and with little fear of discovery, as no one had entered our prison since we had been incarcerated there. Once a day the partition was raised a few inches and food slipped in to us beneath it, but we did not see the person who brought it, nor did anyone communicate with us from the time that the guards had taken us to the palace that first night up to the moment that we had finally succeeded in loosening the bar so that it could by easily removed from its seat.
I shall never forget with what impatience we awaited the coming of night, that we might remove the bar and investigate the surrounding surface of the tower, for it had occurred to me that it might offer a means of descent to the ground below, or rather to the roof of the building which it surmounted, from where we might hope to make our way to the summit of the city wall undetected. Already, in view of this possibility, I had planned to tear strips from the fabric covering our walls wherewith to make a rope down which we might lower ourselves to the ground beyond the city wall.
As night approached I commenced to realize how high I had built my hopes upon this idea. It already seemed as good as accomplished, especially when I had utilized the possibilities of the rope to its fullest extent, which included making one of sufficient length to reach from our window to the bottom of the tower. Thus every obstacle was overcome. It was then, just at dusk, that I explained my plan to Nur An.
“Fine,” he exclaimed. “Let us start at once making our rope. We know how strong this fabric is and that a slender strand of it will support our weight. There is enough upon one wall to make all the rope we need.”
Success seemed almost assured as we started to remove the fabric from one of the larger walls, but here we met with our first obstacle. The fabric was fastened at the top and at the bottom with large headed nails, set close together, which withstood our every effort to tear it loose. Thin and light in weight, this remarkable fabric appeared absolutely indestructible and we were almost exhausted by our efforts when we were finally forced to admit defeat.
The quick Barsoomian night had fallen and we might now, with comparative safety, remove the bar from the window and reconnoiter for the first time beyond the restricted limits of our cell, but hope was now low within our breasts and it was with little anticipation of encouragement that I drew myself to the sill and projected my head and shoulders through the aperture.
Below me lay the somber, gloomy city, its blackness relieved by but a few dim lights, most of which shone faintly from the palace windows. I passed my palm over the surface of the tower that lay within arm’s reach, and again my heart sank within me. Smooth, almost glass-like volcanic rock, beautifully cut and laid, offered not the slightest handhold—indeed an insect might have found it difficult to have clung to its polished surface.
“It is quite hopeless,” I said as I drew my head back into the room. “The tower is as smooth as a woman’s breast.”
“What is above?” asked Nur An.
Again I leaned out, this time looking upward. Just above me were the eaves of the tower—our cell was at the highest level of the structure. Something impelled me to investigate in that direction—an insane urge, perhaps, born of despair.
“Hold my ankles, Nu An,” I said, “and in the name of your first ancestor, hold tightly!”
Clinging to two of the remaining bars I raised myself to a standing position upon the window ledge, while Nur An clung to my ankles. I could just reach the top of the eaves with my extended fingers. Lowering myself again to the sill, I whispered to Nur An. “I am going to attempt to reach the roof of the tower,” I exclaimed.
“Why?” he asked.
I laughed. “I do not know,” I admitted, “but something within my inner consciousness seems insistently to urge me on.”
“If you fall,” he said, “you will have escaped the fire—and I will follow you. Good luck, my friend from Hastor!”
Once again I raised myself to a standing position upon the sill and reached upward until my fingers bent above the edge of the lofty roof. Slowly I drew myself upward; below me, two hundred feet, lay the palace roof and death. I am very strong—only a very strong man could have hoped to succeed, for I had at best but a precarious bold upon the flat roof above me, but, at last, I succeeded in getting an elbow over and then I drew my body slowly over the edge until, at last, I lay panting upon the basalt flagging that topped the slender tower.
Resting a few moments, I arose to my feet. Mad, passionate Thuria raced across the cloudless sky; Cluros, her cold spouse, swung his aloof circle in splendid isolation; below me lay the valley of Hohr like some enchanted fairyland of ancient lore; above me frowned the beetling cliff that hemmed in this madman’s world.