A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 26

How far we traveled or in what direction, I did not know. The night had long since passed and the sun was high when I became aware that Tul Axtar was bringing the ship down. Presently the purring of the motor ceased and the ship came to a stop. Leaving the controls he walked back to where I lay.

“We have arrived in U-Gor,” he said. “Here I shall set you at liberty, but first give me the strange thing that rendered you invisible in my palace.”

The cloak of invisibility! How had he learned of that? Who could have told him? There seemed but one explanation, but every fiber of my being shrank even from considering it. I had rolled it up into a small ball and tucked it into the bottom of my pocket pouch, its sheer silk permitting it to be compressed into a very small space. He took the gag from my mouth.

“When you return to your palace at Jahar,” I said, “look upon the floor beneath the window in the apartment that was occupied by Sanoma Tora. If you find it there you are welcome to it. As far as I am concerned it has served its purpose well.”

“Why did you leave it there?” he demanded.

“I was in a great hurry when I quit the palace and accidents will happen.” I will admit that my lie may not have been very clever, but neither was Tul Axtar and he was deceived by it.

Grumbling, he opened one of the keel hatches and very unceremoniously dropped me through it. Fortunately the ship lay close to the ground and I was not injured. Next he lowered Tavia to my side, and then he, himself, descended to the ground. Stooping, he cut the bonds that secured Tavia’s wrists.

“I shall keep the other,” he said. “She pleases,” and somehow I knew that he meant Phao. “This one looks like a man and I swear that she would be as easy to subdue as a she banth. I know the type. I shall leave her with you.” It was evident that he had not recognized Tavia as one of the former occupants of the women’s quarters in his palace and I was glad that he had not.

He re-entered the Jhama, but before he closed the hatch he spoke to us again. “I shall drop your weapons when we are where you cannot use them against me and you may thank the future Jeddara of Jahar for the clemency I have shown you!”

Slowly the Jhama rose. Tavia was removing the cords from her ankles and when she was free she came and fell to work upon the bonds that secured me, but I was too dazed, too crushed by the blow that had been struck me to realize any other fact than that Sanoma Tora, the woman I loved, had betrayed me, for I fully realized now what any one but a fool would have guessed before—that Tul Axtar had bribed her to set him free by the promise that be would make her Jeddara of Jahar.

Well, her ambition would be fulfilled, but at what a hideous cost. Never, if she lived for a thousand years could she look upon herself or her act with aught but contempt and loathing, unless she was far more degraded than I could possible believe. No; she would suffer, of that I was sure; but that thought gave me no pleasure. I loved her and I could not even now wish her unhappiness.

As I sat there on the ground, my head bowed in misery. I felt a soft arm steal about my shoulders and a tender voice spoke close to my ear. “My poor Hadron!”

That was all; but those few words embodied such a wealth of sympathy and understanding that, like some miraculous balm, they soothed the agony of my tortured heart.

No one but Tavia could have spoken them. I turned and taking one of her little hands in mine, I pressed it to my lips. “Loved friend,” I said. “Thanks be to all my ancestors that it was not you.”

I do not know what made me say that. The words seemed to speak themselves without my volition, and yet when they were spoken there came to me a sudden realization of the horror that I would have felt had it been Tavia who had betrayed me. I could not even contemplate it without an agony of pain. Impulsively I took her in my arms.

“Tavia,” I cried, “promise me that you will never desert me. I could not live without you.”

She put her strong, young arms about my neck and clung to me. “Never this side of death,” she whispered, and then she tore herself from me and I saw that she was weeping.

What a friend! I knew that I could never again love a woman, but what cared I for that if I could have Tavia’s friendship for life.

“We shall never part again, Tavia,” I said. “If our ancestors are kind and we are permitted to return to Helium, you shall find a home in the house of my father and a mother in my mother.”

She dried her eyes and looked at me with a strange wistful expression that I could not fathom, and then, through her tears, she smiled—that odd, quizzical little smile that I had seen before and that I did not understand any more than I understood a dozen of her moods and expressions, which made her so different from other girls and which, I think, helped to attract me toward her. Her characteristics lay not all upon the surface—there were depths and undercurrents which one might not easily fathom. Sometimes when I expected her to cry, she laughed; and when I thought she should be happy, she wept, but she never wept as I have seen other women weep— never hysterically, for Tavia never lost control of herself, but quietly as though from a full heart rather than from over-wrought nerves, and through her tears there might burst a smile at the end.

I think that Tavia was quite the most wonderful girl that I have ever known and as I had come to know her better and see more of her, I had grown to realize that despite her attempt at mannish disguise to which she still clung, she was quite the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen. Her beauty was not like that of Sanoma Tora, but as she looked up into my face now the realization came to me quite suddenly, and for what reason I do not know, that the beauty of Tavia far transcended that of Sanoma Tora because of the beauty of the soul that, shining through her eyes, transfigured her whole countenance.

Tul Axtar, true to his promise, dropped our weapons through a lower hatch of the Jhama and as we buckled them on we listened to the rapidly diminishing sound of the propellers of the departing craft. We were alone and on foot in a strange and, doubtless, an unhospitable country,

“U-Gor!” I said. “I have never heard of it. Have you, Tavia?”

“Yes,” she said. “This is one of the outlying provinces of Jahar. Once it was a rich and thriving agricultural country, but as it fell beneath the curse of Tul Axtar’s mad ambition for man power, the population grew to such enormous proportions that U-Gor could not support its people. Then cannibalism started. It began justly with the eating of the officials that Tul Axtar had sent to enforce his cruel decrees. An army was dispatched to subdue the province, but the people were so numerous that they conquered the army and ate the warriors. By this time their farms were ruined. They had no seed and they had developed a taste for human flesh. Those who wished to till the ground were set upon by bands of roving men and devoured. For a hundred years they have been feeding upon one another until now it is no longer a populace province, but a wasteland inhabited by roving bands, searching for one another that they may eat.”

I shuddered at her recital. It was obvious that we must escape this accursed place as rapidly as possible. I asked Tavia if she knew the location of U-Gor and she told me that it lay southeast of Jahar, about a thousands haads and about two thousand haads southwest of Xanator.

I saw that it would be useless to attempt to reach Helium from here. Such a journey on foot, if it could be accomplished at all, would require years. The nearest friendly city toward which we could turn was Gathol, which I estimated lay some seven thousand haads almost due north. The possibility of reaching Gathol seemed remote in the extreme, but it was our only hope and so we turned our faces toward the north and set out upon our long and seemingly hopeless journey toward the city of my mother’s birth.

The country about us was rolling, with here and there a range of low hills, while far to the north I could see the outlines of higher hills against the horizon. The land was entirely denuded of all but noxious weeds, attesting the grim battle for survival waged by its unhappy people. There were no reptiles; no insects; no birds—all had been devoured during the century of misery that had lain upon the land.

As we plodded onward through this desolate and depressing waste, we tried to keep up one another’s spirit as best we could and a hundred times I had reason to give thanks that it was Tavia who was my companion and no other.

What could I have done under like circumstances burdened with Sanoma Tora? I doubt that she could have walked a dozen haads, while Tavia swung along at my side with the lithe grace of perfect health and strength. It takes a good man to keep up with me on a march, but Tavia never lagged; nor did she show signs of fatigue more quickly than I.

“We are well matched, Tavia,” I said.

“I had thought of that—a long time ago,” she said quietly.

We continued on until almost dusk without seeing a sign of any living thing and were congratulating ourselves upon our good fortune when Tavia glanced back, as one of us often did.

She touched my arm and nodded toward the rear. “They come!” she said simply.

I looked back and saw three figures upon our trail. They were too far away for me to be able to do more than identify them as human beings. It was evident that they had seen us and they were closing the distance between us at a steady trot.

“What shall we do?” asked Tavia. “Stand and fight, or try to elude them until night falls?”

“We shall do neither,” I said. “We shall elude them now without exerting ourselves in the least.”

“How?” she asked.

“Through the inventive genius of Phor Tak, and the compound of invisibility that I filched from him.”

“Splendid!” exclaimed Tavia. “I had forgotten your cloak. With it we should have no difficulty in eluding all dangers between here and Gathol.”

I opened my pocket pouch and reached in to withdraw the cloak. It was gone! As was the vial containing the remainder of the compound. I looked at Tavia and she must have read the truth in my expression.

“You have lost it?” she asked.

“No, it has been stolen from me,” I replied.

She came again and laid her hand upon my arm in sympathy and I knew that she was thinking what I was thinking, that it could have been none other than Sanoma Tora who had stolen it. I hung my head. “And to think that I jeopardized your safety, Tavia, to save such as she.”

“Do not judge her hastily,” she said. “We cannot know how sorely she may have been tempted, or what threats were used to turn her from the path of honor. Perhaps she is not as strong as we.”

“Let us not speak of her,” I said. “It is a hideous, sensation, Tavia, to feel love turned to hatred.”

She pressed my arm. “Time heals all hurts,” she said, “and some day you will find a woman worthy of you, if such a one exists.”

I looked down at her. “If such a one exists,” I mused, but she interrupted my meditation with a question.

“Shall we fight or run, Hadron of Hastor?” she demanded.

“I should prefer to fight and die,” I replied, “but I must think of you, Tavia.”

“Then we shall remain and fight,” she said; “but Hadron, you must not die.”

There was a note of reproach in her tone that did not escape me and I was ashamed of myself for having seemed to forget the great debt that I owed her for her friendship.

“I am sorry,” I said. “Tavia, I could not wish to die while you live.”

“That is better,” she said. “How shall we fight? Shall I stand upon your right or upon your left?”

“You shall stand behind me, Tavia,” I told her. “While my hand can hold a sword, you will need no other defense.”

“A long time ago, after we first met,” she said, “you told me that we should be comrades in arms. That means that we fight together, shoulder to shoulder, or back to back. I hold you to your word, Tan Hadron of Hastor.”

I smiled, and, though I felt that I could fight better alone than with a woman at my side, I admired her courage. “Very well,” I said; “fight at my right, for thus you will be between two swords.”

The three upon our trail had approached us so closely by this time that I could discern what manner of creatures they were and I saw before me naked savages with tangled, unkempt hair, filthy bodies and degraded faces. The wild light in their eyes, their snarling lips exposing yellow fangs, their stealthy, slinking carriage gave them more the appearance of wild beasts than men.

They were armed with swords which they carried in their hands, having neither harness nor scabbard. They halted at a short distance from us, eyeing us hungrily, and doubtless they were hungry for their flabby bellies suggested that they went often empty and were then gorged when meat fell to their lot in sufficient quantities. Tonight these three had hoped to gorge themselves; I could see it in their eyes. They whispered together in low tones for a few minutes and then they separated to rush us from different points simultaneously.

“We’ll carry the battle to them, Tavia,” I whispered. “When they have taken their positions around us, I shall give the word and then I shall rush the one in front of me and try to dispatch him before the others can set upon us. Keep close beside me so that they cannot cut you off.”

“Shoulder to shoulder until the end,” she said.