A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

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“I would say that you are a liar,” I replied. “If it was so dark that you could not recognize faces, how could you decipher the insignia upon their harness?”

At this juncture another officer of the 91st Umak joined us. “We have found one who may, perhaps, shed some light upon the subject,” he said, “if he lives long enough to speak.”

Men had been searching the grounds of Tor Hatan and that portion of the city adjacent to his palace, and now several approached bearing a man, whom they laid upon the sward at our feet. His broken and mangled body was entirely naked, and as he lay there gasping feebly for breath, he was a pitiful spectacle.

A slave dispatched into the palace returned with stimulants, and when some of these had been forced between his lips, the man revived slightly.

“Who are you?” asked Tor Hatan.

“I am a warrior of the city guard,” replied the man feebly.

An officer approached Tor Hatan excitedly. “My men have just found six more bodies close to the point at which we discovered this man,” he said. “They are all naked and similarly broken and mangled.”

“Perhaps we shall get to the bottom of this yet,” said Tor Hatan, and, turning again to the poor, broken thing upon the scarlet sward, he directed him to proceed.

“We were on night patrol over the city when we saw a craft running without lights. As we approached it and turned our searchlight upon it, I caught a single, brief glimpse of it. It bore no colors or insignia to denote its origin and its design was unlike that of any ship I have ever seen. It had a long, low, enclosed cabin upon either side of which were mounted two peculiar looking guns. This was all I had time to note, except that I saw a man directing one of the guns in our direction. The padwar in command of our ship immediately gave orders to fire upon the stranger, and at the same time he hailed him. At that instant our ship dissolved in mid-air; even my harness fell from me. I remember falling, that is all,” and with these words he gasped once and died.

Tor Hatan called his people around him. “There must have been someone about the palace or the grounds who saw something of this occurrence,” he said. “I command that no matter who may be involved, whoever has any knowledge whatsoever of this affair, shall speak.”

A slave stepped forward, and as he approached Tor Hatan eyed him with haughty arrogance.

“Well,” demanded the odwar, “what have you to say? Speak!”

“You have commanded it, Tor Hatan,” said the slave; “otherwise I should not speak, for when I have told what I saw I shall have incurred the enmity of a powerful noble,” and he glanced quickly toward Sil Vagis.

“And if you speak the truth, man, you will have won the friendship of a padwar whose sword is not so mean but that it may protect you even from a powerful noble,” I said quickly, and I, too, glanced at Sil Vagis, for it was in my mind that what the fellow had to tell might be none too flattering to the soft fop who masqueraded beneath the title of a warrior.

Speak!” commanded Tor Hatan impatiently. “And see to it that thou dost not lie.”

“For fourteen years I have served faithfully in your palace, Tor Hatan,” replied the man, “ever since I was brought to Helium a prisoner of war after the fall and sack of Kobol, where I served in the body guard of the Jed of Kobol, and in all that time you have had no reason to question my truthfulness. Sanoma Tora trusted me, and had I had a sword this night she might still be with us.”

“Come! Come! cried Tor Hatan; “get to the point. What saw you?”

“The fellow saw nothing,” snapped Sil Vagis. “Why waste time upon him? He seeks but to glory in a little brief notoriety.

“Let him speak,” I exclaimed.

“I had just ascended the first ramp to the second level of the palace,” explained the slave, “on my way to the sleeping quarters of Tor Hatan to arrange his sleeping silks and furs for the night as is my custom, and, pausing for a moment to look out into the garden, I saw Sanoma Tora and Sil Vagis walking in the moonlight. Conscious that I should not thus observe them, I was about to continue on my way about my duties when I saw a flier dropping silently out of the night toward the garden. Its motors were noiseless, it showed no light. It seemed a spectral ship and of such strange design that even if for no other reason it would have arrested my attention, but there were other reasons. Unlighted ships move through the night for no good purpose, and so I paused to watch it.

“It landed silently and quickly behind Sanoma Tora and Sil Vagis; nor did they seem aware of its presence until their attention was attracted by the slight clanking of the accoutrements of one of the several warriors who sprang from its low cabin as it grounded. Then Sil Vagis wheeled about. For just an instant he stood as though petrified and then as the strange warriors leaped toward him, he turned and fled into the concealing shrubbery of the garden.”

“It is a lie,” cried Sil Vagis.

“Silence, coward!” I commanded.

“Continue, slave!” directed Tor Hatan.

“Sanoma Tora was not aware of the presence of the strange warriors until she was seized roughly from behind. It all happened so quickly that I scarce had time to realize the purpose of the sinister visitation before they laid hands upon her. When I comprehended that my mistress was the object of this night attack, I rushed hurriedly down the ramp, but ere I reached the garden they had dragged her aboard the flier. Even then, however, had I had a sword I might at least have died in the service of Sanoma Tora, for I reached the ship of mystery as the last warrior was clambering aboard. I seized him by the harness and attempted to drag him to the ground, at the same time shouting loudly to attract the palace guard, but ere I did so one of his fellows on the deck above me drew his long sword and struck viciously at my head. The blade caught me but a glancing blow which, however, sufficed to stun me for a moment, so that I relaxed my hold upon the strange warrior and fell to the sward. When I regained consciousness the ship had gone and the tardy palace guard was pouring from the guard room. I have spoken—and spoken truthfully.”

Tor Hatan’s cold gaze sought out the lowered eyes of Sil Vagis. “What have you to say to this?” he demanded.

“The fellow is in the employ of Hadron of Hastor,” shouted Sil Vagis. “He speaks nothing but lies. I attacked them when they came, but there were many and they overpowered me. This fellow was not present.”

“Let me see thy head,” I said to the slave, and when he had come and knelt before me I saw a great red welt the length of one side of his head above the ear, just such a welt as a glancing blow from the flat side of a long sword might have made. “Here,” I said to Tor Hatan, pointing to the great welt, “is the proof of a slave’s loyalty and courage. Let us see the wounds received by a noble of Helium who by his own testimony engaged in single-handed combat against great odds. Surely in such an encounter he must have received at least a single scratch.”

“Unless he is as marvelous a swordsman as the great John Carter himself,” said the dwar of the palace guard with a thinly veiled sneer.

‘It is all a plot,” cried Sil Vagis. “Do you take the word of a slave, Tor Hatan, against that of a noble of Helium?”

“I rely on the testimony of my eyes and my senses,” replied the odwar, and he turned his back upon Sil Vagis and again addressed the slave. “Didst thou recognize any of those who abducted Sanoma Tora,” he demanded, “or note their harness or their metal?”

“I got no good look at the face of any of them, but I did see the harness and the metal of him whom I tried to drag from the flier.”

“Was it the metal of Hastor?” asked Tor Hatan.

“By my first ancestor, it was not,” replied the slave emphatically; “nor was it the metal of any other city of the Empire of Helium. The design and the insignia were unknown to me, and yet there was a certain familiarity about them that tantalizes me. I feel that I have seen them before, but when and where I cannot recall. In the service of my jed I fought invaders from many lands and it may be that upon some of these I saw similar metal many years ago.”

“Are you satisfied, Tor Hatan,” I demanded, “that the aspersions cast upon me by Sil Vagis are without foundation?”

“Yes, Hadron of Hastor,” replied the odwar.

“Then with your leave, I shall depart,” I said.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“To find Sanoma Tora,” I replied.

“And if you find her,” he said, “and return her safely to me, she is yours.”

I made no other acknowledgment of his generous offer than to bow deeply, for I had it in my mind that Sanoma Tora might have something to say about that, and whether she had or not, I wished no mate who came not to me willingly.

Leaping to the deck of the flier that brought me I rose into the night and sped in the direction of the marble palace of the Warlord of Barsoom, for, even though the hour was late, I was determined to see him without an instant’s unnecessary loss of time.

 

II— BROUGHT DOWN

AS I approached the warlord’s palace I saw signs of activity unusual for that hour of the night. Fliers were arriving and departing, and when I alighted upon that portion of the roof reserved for military ships, I saw the fliers of a number of high officers of the Warlord’s staff.

Being a frequent visitor at the palace and being well known by all the officers of the Warlord’s body guard, I had no difficulty in gaining admission to the palace, and presently I was waiting in the hall, just off the small compartment in which the Warlord is accustomed to give small, private audiences, while a slave announced me to his master.

I do not know how long I waited. It could not have been a long while, yet it seemed to me a veritable eternity, because my mind was harassed by the conviction that the woman I loved was in dire danger. I was possessed by a conviction, ridiculous perhaps, but none the less real, that I alone could save her and that every instant I was delayed reduced her chances for succor before it was too late.

But at last I was invited to enter, and when I stood in the presence of the great Warlord I found him surrounded by men high in the councils of Helium.

“I assume,” said John Carter, coming directly to the point, “that what brings you here tonight, Hadron of Hastor, pertains to the matter of the abduction of the daughter of Tor Hatan. Have you any knowledge or any theory that might cast any light upon the subject?”

“No,” I replied. “I have come merely to obtain your authority to depart at once in an attempt to pick up the trail of the abductors of Sanoma Tora.”

“Where do you intend to search?” he demanded.

“I do not yet know, sir,” I replied, “but I shall find her.”

He smiled. “Such assurance is at least an asset,” he said, “and knowing as I do what prompts it, I shall grant you the permission you desire. While the abduction of a daughter of Helium is in itself of sufficient gravity to warrant the use of every resource to apprehend her abductors and return her to her home, there is also involved in this occurrence an element that may portend high danger to the empire. As you doubtless know, the mysterious ship that bore her away mounted a gun from which emanated some force that entirely disintegrated all the metal parts of the patrol flier that sought to intercept and question it. Even the weapons and the metal portions of the harness of the crew were dissipated into nothing, a fact that was easily discernible from an examination of the wreck of the patrol flier and the bodies of its crew. Wood, leather, flesh, everything of the animal and vegetable kingdom that was aboard the flier, has been found scattered about the ground where it fell, but no trace of any metallic substance remains.

“I am impressing this upon you because it suggests to my mind a possible clue to the general location of the city of these new enemies of Helium. I am convinced that this is but the first blow, since any navy armed with such guns could easily hold Helium at its mercy, and few indeed are the cities of Barsoom outside the empire that would not seize with avidity upon any instrument that would give them the sack of the Twin Cities.

“For some time now we have been deeply concerned by the increasing number of missing ships of the navy. In nearly all instances these were ships engaged in charting air currents and recording atmospheric pressures in different parts of Barsoom far from the empire, and recently it has become apparent that the vast majority of these ships which never return were those cruising in the southern part of the western hemisphere, an unhospitable portion of our planet concerning which we have unfortunately but little knowledge owing to the fact that we have developed no trade with the unfriendly people inhabiting this vast domain.

“This, Hadron of Hastor, is only a suggestion; only the vaguest of clues, but I offer it to you for what it is worth. A thousand one-man scout fliers will be dispatched between now and noon tomorrow in search of the abductors of Sanoma Tora; nor will these be all. Cruisers and battleships will take the air as well, for Helium must know what city or what nation has developed a weapon of destruction such as that used above Helium this night.

“It is my belief that the weapon is of very recent invention and that whatever power possesses it, must be bending every effort to perfect it and produce it in such quantities as to make them masters of the world. I have spoken. Go, and may fortune be with you.”

You may believe that I lost no time in setting out upon my mission now that I had authority from John Carter. Going to my quarters I hastened my preparation for departure, which consisted principally of making a careful selection of weapons and of exchanging a rather ornate harness I had been wearing for one of simpler design and of heavier and more durable leather. My fighting harness is always the best and plainest that I can procure and is made for me by a famous harness maker of Lesser Helium. My equipment of weapons was standard, consisting of a long sword, a short sword, a dagger and a pistol. I also provided myself with extra ammunition and a supply of the concentrated ration used by all Martian fighting men.