A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 20

I floated above the east tower; beneath me, cuddled in her sleeping silks and furs, I could picture Tavia. How surprised she would he could she know that I hovered thus close above her.

Dropping lower I circled the tower, coming to a stop finally opposite the windows of the room in which Tavia had been confined. I maneuvered the ship to bring one of the ports opposite the window and close enough to give me a view of the interior of the room. But though I remained there for some time, I could see no one and at last I became convinced that Tavia had been removed to other quarters. I was disappointed for this must necessarily greatly complicate my plans for rescue. I had foreseen but little difficulty in transferring Tavia by night through the tower window to the flier; now I must make my plans all anew. Everything hinged, of course, upon my ability to locate Tavia. To do that it was evident that I must enter the palace. The moment that I quitted the invisibility of my flier, I should be menaced by the greatest danger at every turn, and, clothed as I was in home-made harness fashioned by the hands of the slaves of Phor Tak, I should arouse the active suspicion of the first person who laid eyes upon me.

I must enter the palace and to do it in any degree of safety I must have a disguise.

All my ports were now closed, the periscope being my only eye. I turned it slowly about as I tried to plan some method of procedure that might have within it some tiny seed of success.

As the panorama slowly unfolded itself upon the ground glass before me there appeared the main palace hangar and the single warrior upon watch. Here my periscope came to rest, for here was an entrance to the palace and here a disguise.

Slowly maneuvering my ship in the direction of the hangar, I brought it down upon the roof of that structure. I should have been glad to moor it, but here there were no means at hand. I must depend upon its own weight and hope that no high wind would rise.

Realizing that the instant that I emerged from the interior of the flier I should be entirely visible, I waited, watching through my periscope until the warrior upon the roof just below me turned his back; then I emerged quickly from the ship through one of the upper batches and dropped to the roof upon the side closest to the warrior. I was about four feet from the edge of the roof and he was standing almost below me, his back toward me. Should he turn he would discover me instantly and would give an alarm before I could be upon him. My only hope of success, therefore, was to silence him before he realized that he was menaced.

I have learned from the experiences of John Carter that first thoughts are often inspirations, while sober afterthought may lead to failure, or so delay action as to nullify all its effect.

Therefore, in this instance, I acted upon inspiration. I did not hesitate. I stepped quickly to the edge of the roof and hurled myself straight at the broad shoulders of the sentry. In my hand was a slim dagger.

The end came quickly. I think the poor fellow never knew what happened to him. Dragging his body to the interior of the hangar I stripped the harness from it, at the same time, though almost mechanically, I noted the ships within the hangar. With the exception of one, a patrol boat, they all bore the personal insignia of the Jed of Tjanath. They were the king’s ships —an ornate cruiser heavily armed, two smaller pleasure crafts, a two-man scout flier and a one-man scout flier. They were not much, of course, by comparison with the ships of Helium, but I was quite sure that they were absolutely the best that Tjanath could afford. However, having my own ship, I was not particularly concerned with these other than that I am always interested in ships of all descriptions.

Not far from where I stood was the entrance to a ramp leading down into the palace. Realizing that only through boldness might I succeed, I walked directly to the ramp and entered it. As I rounded the first turn I was appalled to see that the ramp passed directly through a guard room. Upon the floor fully a score of warriors were stretched upon their sleeping silks and furs.

I did not dare to pause; I must keep on. Perhaps I could pass them without arousing their curiosity. I had had but a brief glimpse of the room before I entered it and in that glimpse I had seen only men apparently wrapped in sleep and an instant later, as I emerged into the room itself, I saw that it contained only those whom I had first seen. No one within it was awake, but I heard voices in an adjoining room. Hurrying quickly across the apartment I entered the ramp upon the opposite side.

I think my heart had stood still as I strode silently across that room among those sleeping men, for had a single one of them awakened he would have inevitably known that I was no fellow member of the guard.

Further down within the palace itself I should be in less danger, for so great is the number of retainers in the palace of a jed that no one may know them all by sight, so that strange and unfamiliar faces are almost as customary as they are upon the avenues of a city.

My plan was to try to reach the tower room in which Tavia had been confined, for I was positive that, from my position in the flier, I could not see the entire interior and it was just possible that Tavia was there.

Owing to the construction of my ship I had been unable to attract her attention without raising a hatch and taking the chance of revealing my presence, which would have, I felt, jeopardized Tavia’s chances for escape far too greatly to warrant my doing so.

Perhaps I should have waited until night; perhaps I was overanxious and in my zeal I might be running far greater risks than were necessary. I thought of these things now and perhaps I upbraided myself, but I had gone too far now to retreat. I was properly in for it, whatever might follow.

As I followed the ramp down to different levels I tried to discover some familiar landmark that might lead me to the east tower, and as I emerged into a corridor at one of the levels I saw almost directly in front of me a door which I instantly recognized—it was the door to the office of Yo Seno, the keeper of the keys.

“Good!” I thought. “Fate certainly has led me here.”

Crossing to the door I opened it and stepped quickly within the room, closing the door behind me. Yo Seno was sitting at his desk. He was alone. He did not look up. He was one of those arrogant men—a small man with a little authority—who liked to impress his importance upon all inferiors. Therefore, doubtless, it was his way to ignore his visitors for a moment or two. This time he made a mistake. After quietly locking the door behind me I crossed to the door at the opposite end of the room and bolted it, too.

It was then that, doubtless compelled by curiosity, Yo Seno looked up. At first he did not recognize me. “What do you want?” he demanded gruffly.

“You, Yo Seno,” I said.

He looked at me steadily for a moment with growing astonishment, then with his eyes wide he leaped to his feet. “You?” he screamed. “By Issus, no! You are dead!”

“I have returned from the grave, Yo Seno. I have come back to haunt you,” I said.

“What do you want?” he demanded. “Stand aside! You are under arrest.”

“Where is Tavia?” I asked.

“How do I know?” he demanded.

“You are the keeper of the keys, Yo Seno. Who should know better than you where the prisoners are?”

“Well, what if I do know? I shall not tell,” he said.

“You shall tell, Yo Seno, or you shall die.” I warned him.

He had walked from behind his desk and was standing not far from me when. without warning and with far greater celerity than I gave him credit for possessing, he snatched his long sword from its scabbard and was upon me.

I was forced to jump backward quickly to avoid his first cut, but when he swung the second time my own sword was out and I was on my guard. Yo Seno proved himself no mean antagonist. He was clever with the sword and he knew that he was fighting for his life. I wondered at first why he did not call for help and then I came to the conclusion that it was because there were no warriors in the adjoining room, as there had been upon my previous visit to Yo Seno’s quarters. We fought in silence, only the din of metal upon metal reflecting the deadliness of the combat.

I was in a hurry to be done with him and I was pressing him closely when he resorted to a trick which came near to proving my undoing. I had backed him up against his desk and thought that I had him where he could not escape. I could not see his left hand behind him; nor the heavy vase for which it was groping, but an instant later I saw the thing flying straight at my head and I also saw the opening which Yo Seno made in the instant that he cast the missile, for so occupied was he with his aim that he let his point drop. Stooping beneath the vase I sprang into close quarters, driving my sword through the heart of Yo Seno.

As I wiped the blood from my blade upon the hair of my victim I could not repress a feeling of elation that it had been my hand that had cut down the seducer of Phao and in some measure avenged the honor of my friend, Nur An.

Now, however, was no time for meditation. I heard footsteps approaching in the corridor without and hastily seizing the harness of the corpse, I dragged it toward the panel which hid the entrance to the secret corridor that led to the room in the east tower—that familiar corridor where I had passed happy moments alone with Tavia.

With more haste than reverence, I dumped the corpse of Yo Seno into the dark interior and then, closing the panel after me, I groped my way through the darkness toward the tower room, my heart high with the hope that I might find Tavia still there.

As I approached the panel at the tower end of the corridor I could feel my heart beating rapidly—a sensation to which I was unaccustomed and which I could not explain. I was positive that I was in excellent physical condition, and, while it is not at all unusual that surprise or imminent danger causes the heart of some men to palpitate, even though they may be endowed with exceptional courage, yet, for my part, I had never experienced such a sensation and I must admit that I was deeply mystified.

The anticipation of seeing Tavia again soon caused me to forget the unpleasant sensation and as I stopped behind the panel my whole mind was occupied with pleasurable consideration of what I hoped awaited me beyond—the longed for reunion with this best of friends.

I was upon the point of springing the catch and opening the panel when my attention was attracted by voices from the room beyond. I heard a man’s voice and that of a woman, but I could understand no words. Cautiously, I opened the panel sufficiently to permit me to view the interior of the apartment.

The scene that met my gaze sent the hot fighting blood surging through my frame. In the center of the room a young warrior in rich trappings had Tavia in his grasp and was dragging her across the room toward the doorway. Tavia struggled, striking at him.

“Don’t be a fool,” snarled the man. “Haj Osis has given you to me. You will lead a better life as my slave than most free women live.”

“I prefer prison or death,” replied Tavia.

Phao was standing helplessly at one side, her eyes filled with compassion for Tavia. It was obvious that she could do nothing to defend her friend, for the trappings of the warrior proclaimed him of high rank, but just what that rank was I did not discern at the time for I was not interested. In a bound I was in the center of the room and seizing the warrior roughly by the shoulder, I hurled him backward so heavily that he fell sprawling to the floor. I heard gasps of astonishment from both Phao and Tavia and my name breathed in the soft accents of the latter.

As I drew my sword the warrior scrambled to his feet, but did not draw. “Fool! Idiot! Knave!” he shrieked. “Do you not realize what you have done? Do you not know who I am?”

“In a moment it will be ‘who you were’,” I told him in a low voice. “On guard!”

“No,” he cried, backing away. “You wear the harness and the metal of a warrior of the guard. You cannot dare draw your sword against the son of Haj Osis. Back, fellow, I am Prince Haj Alt.”

“I could pray to Issus that you might be Haj Osis himself,” I replied, “but at least there will be some recompense in the knowledge that I have destroyed his spawn. On guard, you fool, unless you wish to die like a sorak.”

He was still backing away and now he looked about him with every evidence of terror written upon his weak countenance. He espied the panel door that I had inadvertently left open and before I could prevent he had darted through and closed it behind him. I leaped in pursuit, but the lock had clicked and I did not know where to find the mechanism to release it.

“Quick, Phao!” I cried. “You know the secret of the panel. Open it for me. We must not permit this fellow to escape or he will sound the alarm and we shall all be lost.”

Phao ran quickly to my side and placed her thumb upon a button cleverly hidden in the ornate carving of the wood paneling that covered the wall. I waited in breathless expectancy, but the panel did not open. Phao pushed frantically again and again, and then she turned to me with a gesture of helplessness and defeat.

“He has tampered with the lock upon the other side,” she said. “He is a clever rogue and he would have thought of that.”

“We must follow,” I said, and raising my long sword I struck the panel a heavy blow that would have shattered much thicker planking, but I only made a scratch upon it, tearing away a little piece scarce thicker than a fingernail, but the scar that I had made revealed the harrowing truth— the panel was constructed of forandus, the hardest and the lightest metal known to Barsoomians. I turned away. “It is useless,” I said “to attempt to pierce forandus with cold steel.”

Tavia had crossed to us and was standing in silence, looking up into my face. Her eyes were bathed with unshed tears and I saw her lips tremble. “Hadron!” she breathed. “You have come back from the dead. Oh, why did you come, for this time they will make no mistake.”

“You know why I came, Tavia,” I told her.

“Tell me,” she said, very soft and low.

“For friendship, Tavia,” I replied; “for the best friend that a man ever had.”

At first she seemed surprised and then an odd little smile curved her lips. “I would rather have the friendship of Hadron of Hastor,” she said, “than any other gift the world might give me.”