A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 30

He stood looking at me for a moment and I could see in his eyes and the expression of his face the reflection of a dawning idea. His countenance lightened. He looked almost hopeful. “I will come,” he said; “but first let me get one thing to take with me. It is in yonder cabinet.”

“Hasten,” I said.

He went quickly to the cabinet, which was a tall affair reaching from the floor almost to the ceiling, and when he opened the door it hid him from our view.

As I waited I could hear the crash of weapons upon levels below and the screams and shrieks and curses of men and I judged that the palace guard was holding the mob, temporarily at least. Finally I became impatient. “Hasten, Tul Axtar,” I called, but there was no reply. Again I called him, with the same result, and then I crossed the room to the cabinet, but Tul Axtar was not behind the door.

The cabinet contained many drawers of different sizes, but there was not one large enough to conceal a man, nor any through which he could have passed to another apartment. Hastily I searched the room, but Tul Axtar was nowhere to be found and then I chanced to glance at Sanoma Tora. She was evidently trying to attract my attention, but she was so terrified that she could not speak. With trembling fingers she was pointing toward the window. I looked in that direction, but I could see nothing.

“What is it? What are you trying to say, Sanoma Tora?” I demanded as I rushed to her side.

“Gone!” she managed to say. “Gone!”

“Who is gone?” I demanded.

“Tul Axtar.”

“Where? What do you mean?” I insisted.

“The hatch of the Jhama—I saw it open and close.”

“But it cannot be possible. We have been standing here looking—” and then a thought struck me that left me almost dazed. I turned to Sanoma Tora. “The cloak of invisibility?” I whispered.

She nodded.

Almost in a single bound I crossed the room to the window and was feeling for the deck of the Jhama. It was not there. The ship had gone. Tul Axtar had taken it and Tavia was with him.

I turned back and crossed the room to Sanoma Tora. “Accursed woman!” I cried. “Your selfishness, your vanity, your treachery has jeopardized the safety of one whose footprints you are not fit to touch.” I wanted to close my fingers upon that perfect throat, I yearned to see the agony of death upon that beautiful face; but only turned away, my hands dropping at my sides, for I am a man—a noble of Helium—and the women of Helium are sacred, even such as Sanoma Tora.

From below came the sounds of renewed fighting. If the mob broke through I knew that we should all be lost, There was but one hope for even temporary safety and that was the slender tower above the women’s quarters.

“Follow me,” I said curtly. As we entered the main corridor I caught a glimpse of the interior of the great hall where Tul Axtar had held court. It was filled with terrified women. Well they knew what the fate of the women of a Jeddak would be at the hands of an infuriated mob. My heart went out to them, but I could not save them. Lucky, indeed, should I be if I were able to save these two.

Crossing the corridor we ascended the spiral ramp to the storeroom, where, after entering, I took the precaution to bolt the door, then I ascended the ladder toward the trap door at the summit of the tower, the two women following me. As I raised the trap and looked about me I could have cried aloud with joy, for circling low above the roof of the palace was the cruiser flying the flag of truce. I apprehended no danger of discovery by Jaharian warriors since I knew that they were all well occupied below—those who were not fleeing for their lives—and so I sprang to the summit of the tower and hailed the cruiser in a voice that they might well hear above the howling of the mob. An answering hail came from the deck of the craft and a moment later she dropped to the level of the tower roof. With the help of the crew I assisted Phao and Sanoma Tora aboard.

The officer in command of the cruiser stepped to my side. “Our mission here is fruitless,” he said. “Word has just been brought me that the palace has fallen before the onslaught of a mob of infuriated citizens. The nobles have commandeered every craft upon which they could lay hands and have fled. There is no one with whom we can negotiate a peace. No one knows what has become of Tul Axtar.”

“I know,” I told him, and then I narrated what had happened in the apartment of the Jeddara.

“We must pursue him,” he said. “We must overtake him and carry him back to the Warlord.”

“Where shall we look?” I asked. “The Jhama may lie within a dozen sofads of us and even so we could not see her. I shall search for him; never fear, and some day I shall find him, but it is useless now to try to find the Jhama. Let us return to the flagship of the Warlord.”

I do not know that John Carter fully realized the loss that I had sustained, but I suspect that he did for he offered me all the resources of Helium in my search for Tavia.

I thanked him, but asked only for a fast ship; one in which I might devote the remainder of my life in what I truly believed would prove a futile search for Tavia, for how could I know where in all wide Barsoom Tul Axtar would elect to hide. Doubtless there were known to him many remote spots in his own empire where he could live in safety for the balance of his allotted time on Barsoom. To such a place he would go and because of the Jhama no man would see him pass; there would be no clue by which to follow him and he would take Tavia with him and she would be his slave. I shuddered and my nails sank into my palms at the thought.

The Warlord ordered one of the newest and swiftest fliers of Helium to be brought alongside the flagship. It was a trim craft of the semi-cabin type that would easily accommodate four or five in comfort. From his own stores he had provisions and water transferred to it and he added wine from Ptarth and jars of the famous honey of Dusar.

Sanoma Tora and Phao had been sent at once to a cabin by the Warlord, for the deck of a man-of-war on duty is no place for women. I was about to depart when a messenger came saying that Sanoma Tora wished to see me.

“I do not wish to see her,” I replied.

“Her companion also begged that you would come,” replied the messenger.

That was different. I had almost forgotten Phao, but if she wished to see me I would go, and so I went at once to the cabin where the two girls were. As I entered Sanoma Tora came forward and threw herself upon her knees before me.

“Have pity on me, Hadron of Hastor,” she cried. “I have been wicked, but it was my vanity and not my heart that sinned. Do not go away. Come back to Helium and I will devote my life to your happiness. Tor Hatan, my father, is rich. The mate of his only child may live forever in luxury.”

I am afraid that my lips curled to the sneer that was in my heart. What a petty soul was hers! Even in her humiliation and her penitence she could see no beauty and no happiness greater than wealth and power. She thought that she was changed, but I knew that Sanoma Tora never could change.

“Forgive me, Tan Hadron,” she cried. “Come back to me, for I love you. Now I know that I love you.”

“Your love has come too late, Sanoma Tora,” I said.

“You love another?” she asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“The Jeddara of some of the strange countries you have been through?” she asked.

“A slave girl,” I replied.

Her eyes went wide in incredulity. She could not conceive that one might choose a slave girl to the daughter of Tor Hatan. “Impossible,” she said.

“It is true, though,” I assured her; “a little slave girl is more desirable to Tan Hadron of Hastor than is Sanoma Tora, the daughter of Tor Hatan,” and with that I turned my back upon her and faced Phao. “Good-bye, dear friend,” I said. “Doubtless we shall never meet again, but I shall see to it that you have a good home in Hastor. I shall speak to the Warlord before I leave and have him send you directly to my mother.”

She laid her hand upon my shoulder. “Let me go with you, Tan Hadron,” she said. “for perhaps while you are searching for Tavia you will pass near Jhama.”

I understood instantly what she meant, and I reproached myself for having even temporarily forgotten Nur An. “You shall come with me, Phao,” I said, “and my first duty shall be to return to Jhama. and rescue Nur An from poor old Phor Tak.”

Without another glance at Sanoma Tora I led Phao from the cabin, and after a few parting words with the Warlord we boarded my new ship and with friendly farewells in our ears, headed west toward Jhama.

Being no longer protected by the invisibility compound of Phor Tak, or the disintegrating ray resisting paint of Jahar, we were forced to keep a sharp lookout for enemy ships, of which I had but little fear if we sighted them in time for I knew that I could outdistance any of them.

I set the destination control compass upon Jhama and opened the throttle wide; the swift Barsoomian night had fallen; the only sound was the rush of thin air along our sides which drowned out the quiet purring of our motor.

For the first time since I had found her again on the quarters of the Jeddara at Jahar, I had an opportunity to talk with Phao and the first thing I asked her was for an explanation of the abandonment of the Jhama after Tul Axtar had grounded Tavia and me in U-Gor.

“It was an accident,” she said, “that threw Tul Axtar into a great fit of rage. We were headed for Jahar when he sighted one of his own ships, which took us aboard as soon as they discovered the identity of the jeddak. It was night and in the confusion of boarding the Jaharian warship Tul Axtar momentarily forgot the Jhama which must have drifted away from the larger craft the moment that we left her. They cruised about searching for her for awhile, but at last they had to give it up and the ship proceeded toward Jahar.”

The miracle of the presence of the Jhama at the top of the peak, where we had so providentially found it in time to escape from the hunting men of U-Gor, was now no longer a miracle. The prevailing winds in this part of Barsoom are from the northwest at this time of year. The Jhama had merely drifted with the wind and chanced to lodge upon the highest peak of the range.

Phao also told me why Tul Axtar had originally abducted Sanoma Tora from Helium. He had had his secret agents at Helium for some time previous and they had reported to him that the best way to lure the fleet of Helium to Jahar was to abduct a woman of some noble family. He had instructed them to select a beautiful one, and so they had decided upon the daughter of Tor Hatan.

“But how did they expect to lure the fleet of Helium to Jahar if they left no clue as to the identity of the abductors of Sanoma Tora?” I asked.

“They left no clue at the time because Tul Axtar was not ready to receive the attack of Helium,” explained Phao; “but he had already sent his agents word to drop a hint as to the whereabouts of Sanoma Tora when John Carter learned through other sources the identity of her abductors.”

“So it all worked out the way Tul Axtar had planned,” I said, “except the finish.”

We passed the hours with brief snatches of conversation and long silences, each occupied with his own thoughts—Phao’s doubtless a mixture of hope and fear, but there was little room for hope in mine. The only pleasant prospects that lay before me lay in rescuing Nur An and reuniting him and Phao. After that I would take them to any country to which they wished to go and then return to the vicinity of Jahar and prosecute my hopeless search.

“I heard what you said to Sanoma Tora in the cabin of the flagship,” said Phao after a long silence, “and I was glad.”

I said a number of things,” I reminded her; “to which do you refer?”

“You said that you loved Tavia,” she replied.

“I said nothing of the kind,” I rejoined rather shortly, for I almost loathed that word.

“But you did,” she insisted. “You said that you loved a little slave girl and I know that you love Tavia. I have seen it in your eyes.”

“You have seen nothing of the kind. Because you are in love, you think that everyone must be.”

She laughed. “You love her and she loves you.”

“We are only friends—very good friends,” I insisted, “and furthermore I know that Tavia does not love me.”

“How do you know?”

“Let us not speak of it any more,” I said, but though I did not speak of it, I thought about it. I recalled that I had told Sanoma Tora that I loved a little slave girl and I knew that I had had Tavia in my mind at the time, but I thought that I had said it more to wound Sanoma Tora than for any other purpose. I tried to analyze my own feelings, but at last I gave it up as a foolish thing to do. Of course, I did not love Tavia; I loved no one; love was not for me—Sanoma Tora had killed it within my breast, and I was equally sure that Tavia did not love me; if she had, she would have shown it and I was quite sure that she had never demonstrated any other feeling for me than the finest of comradeship. We were just what she had said we were—comrades in arms and nothing else.

It was still dark when I saw the gleaming white palace of Phor Tak shining softly in the moonlight far below us. Late as it was, there were lights in some of the rooms. I had hoped that all would he asleep, for my plans depended upon my ability to enter the palace secretly. I knew that Phor Tak never kept any watch at night, feeling that none was needed in such an isolated spot.

Silently I dropped the flier until it rested upon the roof of the building where Nur An and I had first landed, for I knew that there I would find a passage to the palace below.

“Wait here at the controls, Phao,” I whispered. “Nur An and I may have to come away in a hurry and you must be ready.”

She nodded her head understandingly, and a moment later I had slipped quietly to the roof and was approaching the opening that led down into the interior.