A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 25

For several minutes Tul Axtar examined Sanoma Tora with appraising eyes. He came closer to her and there was that in his attitude which I did not like, and when he laid a hand upon her shoulder, I could scarce retrain myself.

“I was not wrong,” he said. “You are gorgeous. How long have you been here?”

She shuddered, but did not reply.

“You are from Helium?”

No answer.

“The ships of Helium are on their way to Jahar.” He laughed. “My scouts bring word that they will soon be here. They will meet with a warm welcome from the great fleet of Tul Axtar.” He turned to his courtiers. “Go!” he said, “and let none return until I summon her.”

They bowed and retired, closing the door after them, and then Tul Axtar laid his hand again upon the bare flesh of Sanoma Tora’s shoulder.

“Come!” he said. “I shall not war with all of Helium—with you I shall love—by my first ancestor, but you are worthy the love of a jeddak.”

He drew her toward him. My blood boiled—so hot was my anger that it boiled over and without thought of the consequences I let the cloak fall from me.

 

XIV. — THE CANNIBALS OF U-GOR

AS I dropped the cloak of invisibility aside I drew my long sword and as it slithered from its sheath, Tul Axtar beard and faced me. His craven blood rushed to his heart and left his face pale at the sight of me. A scream was in his throat when my point touched him in warning.

“Silence!” I hissed.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Silence!”

Even in the instant my plans were formed. I made him turn with his back toward me and then I disarmed him, after which I bound him securely and gagged him.

“Where can I hide him, Sanoma Tora?” I asked.

“There is a little closet here,” she said, pointing toward a small door in one side of the room, and then she crossed to it and opened it, while I dragged Tul Axtar behind her and cast him into the closet—none too gently I can assure you.

As I closed the closet door I turned to find Sanoma Tora white and trembling. “I am afraid,” she said. “If they come back and find him thus, they will kill me.”

“His courtiers will not return until he summons them,” I reminded her. “You heard him tell them that such were his wishes—his command.”

She nodded.

“Here is his dagger,” I told her. “If worse comes to worst you can hold them off by threatening to kill Tul Axtar,” but the girl seemed terrified, she trembled in every limb and I feared that she might fail if put to the test. How I wished that Tavia were here. I knew that she would not fail, and, in the name of my first ancestor, how much depended upon success!

“I shall return soon,” I said, as I groped about the floor for the robe of invisibility. “Leave that large window open and when I return, be ready.”

As I replaced the cloak about me I saw that she was trembling so that she could not reply; in fact, she was even having difficulty in holding the dagger, which I expected momentarily to see drop from her nerveless fingers, but there was naught that I could do but hasten to the Jhama and try to return before it was too late.

I gained the summit of the tower without incident. Above me twinkled the brilliant stars of a Barsoomian night, while just above the palace roof hung the gorgeous planet, Jasoom (Earth).

The Jhama, of course, was invisible, but so great was my confidence in Tavia that when I stretched a hand upward I knew that I should feel the keel of the craft and sure enough I did. Three times I rapped gently upon the forward Hatch, which was the signal that we had determined upon before I had entered the palace. Instantly the hatch was raised and a moment later I had clambered aboard.

“Where is Sanoma Tora?” asked Tavia.

“No questions now,” I replied. “We must work quickly. Be ready to take over the controls the moment that I leave them.”

In silence she took her place at my side, her soft shoulder touching my arm, and in silence I dropped the Jhama to the level of the windows in the women’s quarters. In a general way I knew the location of Sanoma Tora’s apartment, and as I moved slowly along I kept the periscope pointed toward the windows and presently I saw the figure of Sanoma Tora upon the ground glass before me. I brought the Jhama close to the sill, her upper deck just below it.

“Hold her here, Tavia,” I said. Then I raised the upper hatch a few inches and called to the girl within the room.

At the sound of my voice she trembled so that she almost dropped the dagger, although she must have known that I was coming and had been awaiting me.

“Darken your room,” I whispered to her. I saw her stagger across to a button that was set in the wall and an instant later the room was enveloped in darkness. Then I raised the hatch and stepped to the sill. I did not wish to be bothered with the enveloping folds of the mantle of invisibility and so I had folded it up and tucked it into my harness, where I could have it instantly ready for use in the event of an emergency. I found Sanoma Tora in the darkness and so weak with terror was she that I had to lift her in my arms and carry her to the window, where with Phao’s help I managed to draw her through the open hatch into the interior. Then I returned to the closet where Tul Axtar lay bound and gagged. I stopped and cut the bonds which held his ankles.

“Do precisely as I tell you, Tul Axtar,” I said, “or my steel will have its way yet and find your heart. It thirsts for your blood, Tul Axtar, and I have difficulty in restraining it, but if you do not fail me perhaps I shall be able to save you yet. I can use you, Tul Axtar, and upon your usefulness to me depends your life, for dead you are no value to me.”

I made him rise and walk to the window and there I assisted him to the sill. He was terror-stricken when I tried to make him step out into space, as he thought, but when I stepped to the deck of the Jhama ahead of him and he saw me apparently floating there in the air, he took a little heart and I finally succeeded in getting him aboard.

Following him I closed the hatch and lighted a single dim light within the hull. Tavia turned and looked at me for orders.

“Hold her where she is, Tavia,” I said.

There was a tiny desk in the cabin of the Jhama where the officer of the ship was supposed to keep his log and attend to any other records or reports that it might be necessary to make. Here were writing materials, and as I got them out of the drawer in which they were kept, I called Phao to my side.

“You are of Jahar.” I said. “You can write in the language of your country?”

“Of course,” she said.

“Then write what I dictate,” I instructed her.

She prepared to do my bidding.

“If a single ship of Helium is destroyed,” I dictated, “Tul Axtar dies. Now sign it Hadron of Hastor, Padwar of Helium.”

Tavia and Phao looked at me and then at the prisoner, their eyes wide in astonishment, for in the dim light of the ship’s interior they had not recognized the prisoner.

“Tul Axtar of Jahar.” breathed Tavia incredulously. “Tan Hadron of Hastor, you have saved Helium and Barsoom tonight.”

I could not but note how quickly her mind functioned, with what celerity she had seen the possibilities that lay in the possession of the person of Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar.

I took the note that Phao had written, and, returning quickly to Sanoma Tora’s room, I laid it upon her dressing table. A moment later I was again in the cabin of the Jhama and we were rising swiftly above the roofs of Jahar.

Morning found us beyond the uttermost line of Jaharian ships, beneath which we had passed, guided by their lights—evidence to me that the fleet was poorly officered, for no trained man, expecting an enemy in force, would show lights aboard his ships at night.

We were speeding now in the direction of far Helium, following the course that I hoped would permit us to intercept the fleet of the Warlord in the event that it was already bound for Jahar as Tul Axtar had announced.

Sanoma Tora had slightly recovered her poise and control of her nerves. Tavia’s sweet solicitude for her welfare touched me deeply. She had soothed and quieted her as she might have soothed and quieted a younger sister, though she herself was younger than Sanoma Tora, but with the return of confidence Sanoma Tora’s old haughtiness was returning and it seemed to me that she showed too little gratitude to Tavia for her kindliness, but I realized that that was Sanoma Tora’s way, that it was born in her and that doubtless deep in her heart she was fully appreciative and grateful. However that may be, I cannot but admit that I wished at the time that she would show it by some slight word or deed. We were flying smoothly, slightly above the normal altitude of battleships. The destination control compass was holding the Jhama to her course, and after all that I had passed through, I felt the need of sleep. Phao, at my suggestion, had rested earlier in the night, and as all that was needed was a lookout to keep a careful watch for ships, I entrusted this duty to Phao, and Tavia and I rolled up in our sleeping silks and furs and were soon asleep.

Tavia and I were about mid-ship, Phao was forward at the controls, constantly swinging the periscope to and fro searching the sky for ships. When I retired Sanoma Tora was standing at one of the starboard ports looking out into the night, while Tul Axtar lay down in the stern of the ship. I had long since removed the gag from his mouth, but he seemed too utterly cowed even to address us and lay there in morose silence, or perhaps he was asleep, I do not know.

I was thoroughly fatigued and must have slept like a log from the moment that I laid down until I was suddenly awakened by the impact of a body upon me. As I struggled to free myself, I discovered to my chagrin that my hands had been deftly bound while I slept, a feat that had been rendered simple by the fact that it is my habit to sleep with my hands together in front of my face.

A man’s knee was upon my chest, pressing me heavily against the deck and one of his hands clutched me by the throat. In the dim light of the cabin I saw that it was Tul Axtar and that his other hand held a dagger.

“Silence!” he whispered. “If you would live, make no sound,” and then to make assurance doubly sure he gagged me and bound my ankles. Then he crossed quickly to Tavia. and bound her, and as he did so my eyes moved quickly about the interior of the cabin in search of aid. On the floor, near the controls, I saw Phao lying bound and gagged as was I. Sanoma Tora crouched against the wall, apparently overcome by terror. She was neither bound nor gagged. Why had she not warned me? Why had she not come to my help? If it had been Tavia who remained unbound instead of Sanoma Tora, how different would have been the outcome of Tul Axtar’s bid for liberty and revenge.

How had it all happened? I was sure that I had bound Tul Axtar so securely that he could not possibly have freed himself, and yet I must have been mistaken and I cursed myself for the carelessness that had upset all my plans and that might easily eventually spell the doom of Helium.

Having disposed of Phao, Tavia and me, Tul Axtar moved quickly to the controls, ignoring Sanoma Tora as he passed by her. In view of the marked terror that she displayed, I could readily understand why he did not consider her any menace to his plans—she was as harmless to him free as bound.

Putting the ship about he turned back toward Jahar and though he did not understand the mechanism of the destination control compass and could not cut it out, this made no difference as long as he remained at the controls, the only effect that the compass might have being to return the ship to its former course should the controls be again abandoned while the ship was in motion.

Presently he turned toward me. “I should destroy you, Hadron of Hastor,” he said, “had I not given the word of a jeddak that I would not.”

Vaguely I had wondered to whom he had given his word that he would not kill me, but other and more important thoughts were racing through my mind, crowding all else into the background. Uppermost among them, of course, were plans for regaining control of the Jhama and, secondarily, apprehension as to the fate of Tavia, Sanoma Tora and Phao.

“Give thanks for the magnanimity of Tul Axtar,” he continued, “who exacts no penalty for the affront you have put upon him. Instead you are to be set free. I shall land you.” He laughed. “Free! I shall land you in the province of U-Gor!”

There was something nasty in the tone of his voice which made his promise sound more like a threat. I had never heard of U-Gor, but I assumed that it was some remote province from which it would be difficult or impossible for me to make my way either to Jahar or Helium. Of one thing I was confident—that Tul Axtar would not set me free any place that I might become a menace to him.

For hours the Jhama moved on in silence. Tul Axtar had not had the decency or the humanity to remove our gags. He was engrossed with the business of the controls, and Sanoma Tora, crouching against the side of the cabin, never spoke; nor once in all that time did her eyes turn toward me. What thoughts were passing in that beautiful head? Was she trying to find some plan by which she might turn the tables upon Tul Axtar, or was she merely crushed by the hopeless outlook—the prospect of being returned to the slavery of Jahar? I did not know; I could not guess; she was an enigma to me.