XV.— THE BATTLE OF JAHAR
GLANCING across my shoulder I saw that the two circling to our rear were already further away from us than he who stood facing us and realizing that the unexpectedness of our act would greatly enhance the chances of success, I gave the word.
“Now, Tavia,” I whispered, and together we leaped forward at a run straight for the naked savage facing us.
It was evident that he had not expected this and it was also evident that he was a slow witted beast, for as he saw us coming his lower jaw dropped and he just stood there, waiting to receive us; whereas if he had had any intelligence he would have fallen back to give his fellows time to attack us from the rear.
As our swords crossed I heard a savage growl from behind, such a growl as might issue from the throat of a wild beast. From the corner of my eye I saw Tavia glance back and then before I could realize what she intended, she sprang forward and ran her sword through the body of the man in front of me as he lunged at me with his own weapon, and now, wheeling together, we faced the other two who were running rapidly toward us and I can assure you that it was with a feeling of infinite relief that I realized that the odds were no longer so greatly against us.
As the two engaged us, I was handicapped at first by the necessity of constantly keeping an eye upon Tavia, but not for long.
In an instant I realized that a master hand was wielding that blade. Its point wove in and out past the clumsy guard of the savage and I knew, and I guessed he must have sensed, that his life lay in the hollow of the little hand that gripped the hilt. Then I turned my attention to my own antagonist.
These were not the best swordsmen that I have ever met, but they were far from being poor swordsmen. Their defense, however, far excelled their offense and this, I think, was due to two things, natural cowardice and the fact that they usually hunted in packs, which far outnumbered the quarry. Thus a good defense only was required, since the death blow might always be struck from behind by a companion of the one who engaged the quarry from in front.
Never before had I seen a woman fight and I should have thought that I should have been chagrined to have one fighting at my side, but instead I felt a strange thrill that was partly pride and partly something else that I could not analyze.
At first, I think, the fellow facing Tavia did not realize that she was a woman, but he must have soon as the scant harness of Barsoom hides little and certainly did not hide the rounded contours of Tavia’s girlish body. Perhaps, therefore, it was surprise that was his undoing, or possibly when he discovered her sex he became overconfident, but at any rate Tavia slipped her point into his heart just an instant before I finished my man.
I cannot say that we were greatly elated over our victory. Each of us felt compassion for the poor creatures who had been reduced to their horrid state by the tyranny of cruel Tul Axtar, but it had been their lives or ours and we were glad it had not been ours.
As a matter of precaution I took a quick look about us as the last of our antagonists fell and I was glad that I had, for I immediately discerned three creatures crouching at the top of a low hill not far distant.
“We are not done yet, Tavia,” I said. “Look!” and pointed in the direction of the three.
“Perhaps they do not care to share the fate of their fellows,” she said. “They are not approaching.”
“They can have peace if they want it as far as I am concerned,” I said. “Come, let us go on. If they follow us, then will be time enough to consider them.”
As we walked on toward the north we glanced back occasionally and presently we saw the three rise and come down the hill toward the bodies of their slain fellows, and as they did so we saw that they were women and that they were unarmed.
When they realized that we were departing and had no intention of attacking them, they broke into a run and, uttering loud, uncanny shrieks, raced madly toward the corpses.
“How pathetic,” said Tavia sadly. “Even these poor degraded creatures possess human emotions. They, too, can feel sorrow at the loss of loved ones.”
“Yes,” I said. “Poor things, I am sorry for them.”
Fearing that in the frenzy of their grief they might attempt to avenge their fallen mates, we kept a close eye upon them or we might not have witnessed the horrid sequel of the fray. I wish that we had not.
When the three women reached the corpses they fell upon them, but not with weeping and lamentation—they fell upon them to devour them.
Sickened, we turned away and walked rapidly toward the north until long after darkness had descended.
We felt that there was little danger of attack at night since there were no savage beasts in a country where there was nothing to support them and also that it was reasonable to assume that the hunting men would be abroad by day rather than by night, since at night they would be far less able to find quarry or follow it.
I suggested to Tavia that we rest for a short time and then push on for the balance of the night, find a place of concealment early in the day and remain there until night had fallen again, as I was sure that if we followed this plan we would make better time and suffer less exhaustion by traveling through the cool hours of darkness and at the same time would greatly minimize the danger of discovery and attack by whatever hostile people lay between us and Gathol.
Tavia agreed with me and so we rested for a short time, taking turns at sleeping and watching.
Later we pushed on and I am sure that we covered a great distance before dawn, though the high hills to the north of us still looked as far away as they had upon the previous day.
We now set about searching for some comfortable place of concealment where we might spend the daylight hours. Neither of us was suffering to any extent from either hunger or thirst, as the ancients would have done under like circumstances, for with the gradual diminution of water and vegetable matter upon Mars during countless ages all her creatures have by a slow process of evolution been enabled to go for long periods without either food or drink and we have also learned so to control our minds that we do not think of food or drink until we are able to procure it, which doubtless greatly assists us in controlling the cravings of our appetite.
After considerable search we found a deep and narrow ravine which seemed a most favorable place in which to hide, but, scarcely had we entered it, when I chanced to see two eyes looking down upon us from the summit of one of the ridges that flanked it. As I looked, the head in which the eyes were set was withdrawn below the summit.
“That puts an end to this place,” I said to Tavia, telling her what I had seen. “We must move on and look for a new sanctuary.”
As we emerged from the ravine at its upper end I glanced back, and again I saw the creature looking at us and once again he tried to hide himself from us. As we moved on I kept glancing back and occasionally I would see him—one of the hunting men of U-Gor. He was stalking us as the wild beast stalks its prey. The very thought of it filled me with disgust. Had he been a fighting man stalking us merely to kill, I should not have felt as I did, but the thought that he was stealthily trailing us because he desired to devour us was repellent—it was horrifying.
Hour after hour the thing kept upon our trail; doubtless he feared to attack because we outnumbered him, or perhaps he thought we might become separated, or lie down to sleep or do one of the number of things that travelers might do that would give him the opportunity he sought, but after awhile he must have given up hope. He no longer sought to conceal himself from us and once, as he mounted a low hill, he stood there silhouetted against the sky and throwing his head back, he gave voice to a shrill, uncanny cry that made the short hairs upon my neck stand erect. It was the hunting cry of the wild beast calling the pack to the kill.
I could feel Tavia shudder and press more closely to me and I put my arm about her in a gesture of protection, and thus we walked on in silence for a long time.
Twice again the creature voiced his uncanny cry until at last it was answered ahead of us and to the right.
Again we were forced to fight, but this time only two, and when we pushed on again it was with a feeling of depression that I could not shake off—depression for the utter hopelessness of our situation.
At the summit of a higher hill than we had before crossed, I halted. Some tall weeds grew there. “Let us lie down here, Tavia,” I said. “From here we can watch; let us be the watchers for a while. Sleep, and when night comes we shall move on.”
She looked tired and that worried me, but I think she was suffering more from the nervous strain of the eternal stalking than from physical fatigue. I know that it affected me and how much more might it affect a young girl than a trained fighting man. She lay very close to me, as though she felt safer thus and was soon asleep, while I watched.
From this high vantage point I could see a considerable area of country about us and it was not long before I detected figures of men prowling about like hunting banths and often it was apparent that one was stalking another. There were at least a half dozen such visible to me at one time. I saw one overtake his prey and leap upon it from behind. They were at too great a distance from me for me to discern accurately the details of the encounter, but I judged that the stalker ran his sword through the back of his quarry and then, like a hunting banth, he fell upon his kill and devoured it. I do not know that he finished it, but he was still eating when darkness fell.
Tavia had had a long sleep and when she awoke she reproached me for having permitted her to sleep so long and insisted that I must sleep.
From necessity I have learned to do with little sleep when conditions are such that I cannot spare the time, though I always make up for it later, and I have also learned to limit my sleep to any length of time that I choose, so that now I awoke promptly when my allotted time had elapsed and again we set out toward far Gathol.
Again this night, as upon the preceding one, we moved unmolested through the horrid land of U-Gor and when morning dawned we saw the high hills rising close before us.
“Perhaps these hills mark the northern limits of U-Gor,” I suggested.
“I think they do,” replied Tavia.
“They are only a short distance away now,” I said; “let us keep on until we have passed them. I cannot leave this accursed land behind me too soon.”
“Nor I,” said Tavia. “I sicken at the thought of what I have seen.”
We had crossed a narrow valley and were entering the hills when we heard the hateful hunting cry behind us. Turning, I saw a single man moving across the valley toward us. He knew that I had seen him, but he kept steadily on, occasionally stopping to voice his weird scream. He heard an answer come from the east and then another and another from different directions. We hastened onward, climbing the low foothills that led upward toward the summit far above, and as we looked back we saw the hunting men converging upon us from all sides. We had never seen so many of them at one time before.
“Perhaps if we get well up into the mountains we can elude them,” I said.
Tavia shook her head. “At least we have made a good fight, Hadron,” she said.
I saw that she was discouraged; nor could I wonder; yet a moment later she looked up at me and smiled brightly. “We still live, Hadron of Hastor!” she exclaimed.
“We still live and we have our swords,” I reminded her.
As we climbed they pressed upward behind us and presently I saw others coming through the hills from the right and from the left. We were turned from the low saddle over which I had hoped to cross the summit of the range, for hunting men had entered it from above and were coming down toward us. Directly ahead of us now loomed a high peak, the highest in the range as far as I could see, and only there, up its steep side, were there no hunting men to bar our way.
As we climbed, the sides of the mountain grew steeper until the ascent was not only most arduous, but sometimes difficult and dangerous; yet there was no alternative and we pressed onward toward the summit, while behind us came the hunting men of U-Gor. They were not rushing us and from that I felt confident that they knew that they had us cornered. I was looking for a place in which we might make a stand, but I found none and at last we reached the summit, a circular, level space perhaps a hundred feet in diameter.
As our pursuers were yet some little distance below us, I walked quickly around the outside of the table-like top of the peak. The entire northern face dropped sheer from the summit for a couple of hundred feet, definitely blocking our retreat. At every other point the hunting men were ascending. Our situation appeared hopeless; it was hopeless, and yet I refused to admit defeat.
The summit of the mountain was strewn with loose rock. I hurled a rock down at the nearest cannibal. It struck him upon the head and sent him hurtling down the mountain side, carrying a couple of his fellows with him. Then Tavia followed my example and together we bombarded them, but more often we scored misses than hits and there were so many of them and they were so fierce and so hungry that we did not even stem their advance. So numerous were they now that they reminded me of insects, crawling up there from below —huge, grotesque insects that would soon fall upon us and devour us.
As they came nearer they gave voice to a new cry that I had not heard before. It was a cry that differed from the hunting call, but was equally as terrible.
“Their war-cry,” said Tavia.
On and on with relentless persistency the throng swarmed upward toward us. We drew our swords; it was our last stand. Tavia pressed closer to me and for the first time I thought I felt her tremble.
“Do not let them take me,” she said. “It is not death that I fear.”
I knew what she meant and I took her in my arms. “I cannot do it, Tavia,” I said. “I cannot.”
“You must,” she replied in a firm voice. “If you care for me even as a friend, you cannot let these beasts take me alive.”
I know that I choked then so that I could not reply, but I knew that she was right and I drew my dagger.
“Good-bye, Hadron—my Hadron!”
Her breast was bared to receive my dagger, her face was upturned toward mine. It was still a brave face with no fear upon it, and oh how beautiful it was.
Impulsively, guided by a power I could not control, I bent and crushed my lips to hers. With half closed eyes she pressed her own lips upward more tightly against mine.
“Oh, Issus!” she breathed as she took them away, and then, “They come! Strike now, Hadron, and strike deep!”
The creatures were almost at the summit. I swung my hand upward that I might bury the slim dagger deeply in that perfect breast. To my surprise my knuckles struck something hard above me. I glanced upward. There was nothing there; yet something impelled me to feel again, to solve that uncanny mystery even in that instant of high tragedy.