A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 7

“Perhaps,” I said; “but if my plan succeeds it will be well worth the risk, but if you are very much afraid I will abandon it.”

“No,” she said, “it is not for me to choose or direct. You have been generous enough to help me and I may only follow where you lead, but if I knew your plan perhaps I might follow more intelligently.”

“Certainly,” I said; “it is very simple. There are thoats. We shall take one of them and ride away. It will be much easier than walking and our chances for escape will be considerably greater, at the same time we shall leave the courtyard gates open, hoping that the other thoats will follow us out, leaving their masters unable to pursue us.”

“It is a mad plan,” said the girl, “but is a brave one. If we are discovered, there will be fighting and I am unarmed. Give me your short sword, warrior, that we may at least make the best account of ourselves that is possible.”

I unsnapped the scabbard of my short sword from my harness and attached it to hers at her left hip, and, as I touched her body in doing so, I could not but note that there was no sign of trembling such as there would have been had she been affected by fright or excitement. She seemed perfectly cool and collected and her tone of voice was almost reassuring to me. That she was not Sanoma Tora I had known when she had first spoken in the darkness of the room in which I had stumbled upon her, and while I had been keenly disappointed I was still determined to do the best that I could to assist in the escape of the stranger, although I was confident that her presence might greatly delay and embarrass me while it subjected me to far greater danger than would have fallen to the lot of a warrior traveling alone. It was, therefore reassuring to find that my unwelcome companion would not prove entirely helpless.

“I trust you will not have to use it,” I said as I finished hooking my short sword to her harness.

“You will find,” she said, “that if necessity arises I can use it.”

“Good,” I said. “Now follow me and keep close to me.”

A careful survey of the courtyard from the window of the chamber overlooking it revealed about twenty huge thoats, but no green warriors, evidence that they felt perfectly secure against enemies.

The thoats were congregated in the far end of the courtyard; a few of them had lain down for the night, but the balance were moving restlessly about as is their habit. Across the courtyard from us and at the same end stood a pair of massive gates. As far as I could determine they barred the only opening into the courtyard large enough to admit a thoat and I assumed that beyond them lay an alley leading to one of the avenues nearby.

To reach the gates unobserved by the thoats, was the first step in my plan and the better to do this I decided to seek an apartment near the gate, on either side of which I saw windows similar to that from which we were looking. Therefore, motioning my companion to follow me, I returned to the corridor and again groping through the darkness we made our way along it. In the third apartment which I explored I found a window letting into the courtyard close beside the gate. And in the wall which ran at right angles to that in which the window was set I found a doorway that opened into a large vaulted corridor upon the opposite side of the gate. This discovery greatly encouraged me since it harmonized perfectly with the plan I had in mind, at the same time reducing the risk which my companion must run in the attempted adventure of escape.

“Remain here,” I said to her, placing her just behind the gate. “If my plan is successful I shall ride into this corridor upon one of the thoats and as I do so you must be ready to seize my hand and mount behind me. If I am discovered and fail I shall cry out ‘For Helium!’ and that must be your signal to escape as best you may.”

She laid her hand upon my arm. “Let me go into the courtyard with you,” she begged. “Two swords are better than one.”

“No,” I said. “Alone I have a better chance of handling the thoats than if their attention is distracted by another.”

“Very well,” she said, and with that I left her, and re-entering the chamber, went directly to the window. For a moment I reconnoitered the interior of the courtyard and finding conditions unchanged, I slipped stealthily through the window and edged slowly toward the gate. Cautiously I examined the latch and discovering it easy to manipulate, I was soon silently pushing one of the gates back upon its hinges. When it was opened sufficiently wide to permit the passage of a thoat, I turned my attention to the beasts within the enclosure. Practically untamed, these savage creatures are as wild as their uncaptured fellows of the remote sea bottoms, and, being controlled solely by telepathic means, they are amenable only to the suggestion of the more powerful minds of their masters and even so it requires considerable skill to dominate them.

I had learned the method from Tar Tarkas himself and had come to feel considerable proficiency so that I approached this crucial test of my power with the confidence that was absolutely requisite to success.

Placing myself close beside the gate, I concentrated every faculty of my mind to the direction of my will, telepathically, upon the brain of the thoat I had selected for my purpose, the selection being determined solely by the fact that he stood nearest to me. The effect of my effort was immediately apparent. The creature, which had been searching for the occasional tufts of moss that grew between the stone flags of the courtyard, raised his head and looked about him. At once he became restless, but he gave forth no sound since I was willing him to silence. Presently his eyes moved in my direction and halted upon me. Then, slowly, I drew him toward me. It was slow work, for he evidently sensed that I was not his master, but on he came. Once, when he was quite near me, he stopped and snorted angrily. He must have caught my scent then and realized that I was not even of the same race as that to which he was accustomed. Then it was that I exerted to their fullest extent every power of my mind. He stood there shaking his ugly head to and fro, his snarling lips baring his great fangs. Beyond him I could see that the other thoats, had been attracted by his actions. They were looking toward us and moving about restlessly, always drawing closer. Should they discover me and start to squeal, which is the first and always ready sign of their easily aroused anger, I knew that I should have their riders upon me in no time, since because of his nervous and irritable nature the thoat is the watchdog as well as the beast of burden of the green Barsoomians.

For a moment the beast I had selected hesitated before me as though undecided whether to retreat or to charge, but he did neither; instead he came slowly up to me and as I backed through the gate into the vaulted corridor beyond, he followed me. This was better than I had expected for it permitted me to compel him to lie down, so that the girl and I were able to mount with ease.

Before us lay a long vaulted corridor at the far end of which I could discern a moonlit archway, through which we presently passed onto a broad avenue.

To the left lay the bills, and, turning this way, I urged the fleet animal along the ancient deserted thoroughfare between rows of stately ruins toward the west and—what?

Where the avenue turned to wind upward into the hills, I glanced back; nor could I refrain a feeling of exultation as I saw strung out behind us in the moonlight a file of great thoats, which I was confident would well know what to do with their new found liberty.

“Your captors will not pursue us far,” I said to the girl, indicating the thoats with a nod of my head.

“Our ancestors are with us tonight,” she said. “Let us pray that they may never desert us.”

Now, for the first time, I had a fairly good look at my companion, for both Cluros and Thuria were in the heavens and it was quite light. If I revealed my surprise it is not to be wondered at for, in the darkness, having only my companion’s voice for a guide, I had been perfectly confident that I had given aid to a female, but now as I looked at that short hair and boyish face I did not know what to think; nor did the harness that my companion wore aid me in justifying my first conclusion, since it was quite evidently the harness of a man.

“I thought you were a girl,” I blurted out.

A fine mouth spread into a smile that revealed strong, white teeth. “I am,” she said.

“But your hair—your harness—even your figure belies your claim.”

She laughed gayly. That, I was to find later, was one of her chiefest charms—that she could laugh so easily, yet never to wound.

“My voice betrayed me,” she said. “It is too bad.”

“Why is it too bad?” I asked.

“Because you would have felt better with a fighting man as a companion, whereas now you feel that you have only a burden.”

“A light one,” I replied, recalling how easily I had lifted her to the thoat’s back. “But tell me who you are and why you are masquerading as a boy.”

“I am a slave girl,” she said; “just a slave girl who has run away from her master. Perhaps that will make a difference,” she added a little sadly. “Perhaps you will be sorry that you have defended just a slave girl.”

“No,” I said, “that makes no difference. I myself, am only a poor padwar, not rich enough to afford a slave. Perhaps you are the one to be sorry that you were not rescued by a rich man.”

She laughed. “I ran away from the richest man in the world,” she said. “At least I guess he must have been the richest man in the world, for who could be richer than Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar?”

“You belong to Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar?” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” she said. I was stolen when I was very young from a city called Tjanath and ever since I have lived in the palace of Tul Axtar. He has many women—thousands of them. Sometimes they live all their lives in his palace and never see him. I have seen him,” she shuddered; “he is terrible. I was not unhappy there for I had never known my mother; she died when I was young, and my father was only a memory. You see I was very, very young, indeed, when the emissaries of Tul Axtar stole me from my home in Tjanath. I made friends with everyone about the palace of Tul Axtar. They all liked me, the slaves and the warriors and the chiefs, and because I was always boyish it amused them to train me in the use of arms and even to navigate the smaller fliers; but then came a day when my happiness was ended forever —Tul Axtar saw me. He saw me and he sent for me. I pretended that I was ill and did not go, and when night came I went to the quarters of a soldier whom I knew to be on guard and stole harness and I cut off my long hair and painted my face that I might look more like a man, and then I went to the hangars on the palace roof and by a ruse deceived the guards there and stole a one-man flier.

“I thought,” she continued, “that if they searched for me at all they would search in the direction of Tjanath and so I flew in the opposite direction, toward the northeast, intending to make a great circle to the north, turning back toward Tjanath. After I passed over Xanator I discovered a large grove of mantalia growing out upon the dead sea bottom and I immediately descended to obtain some of the milk from these plants, as I had left the palace so hurriedly that I had no opportunity to supply myself with provisions. The mantalia grove was an unusually large one and as the plants grew to a height of from eight to twelve sofads, the grove offered excellent protection from observation. I had no difficulty in finding a landing place well within its confines. In order to prevent detection from above, I ran my plane in among the concealing foliage of two over-arching mantalias and then set about obtaining a supply of milk.

“As near objects never appear as attractive as those more distant, I wandered some little distance from my flier before I found the plants that seemed to offer a sufficiently copious supply of rich milk.

“A band of green warriors had also entered the grove to procure milk, and, as I was tapping the tree I had selected, one of them discovered me and a moment later I was captured. From their questions I became assured that they had not seen me enter the grove and that they knew nothing of the presence of my flier. They must have been in a portion of the grove very thickly overhung by foliage while I was approaching from above by making my landing; but be that as it may, they were ignorant of the presence of my flier and I determined to keep them in ignorance of it.

“When they had obtained as much milk as they required they returned to Xanator, bringing me with them. The rest you know.”

“This is Xanator?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied.

“And what is your name?” I asked.

“Tavia,” she replied. “And what is yours?”

“Tan Hadron of Hastor,” I replied.

“It is a nice name,” she said. There was a certain boyish frankness about the way she said it that convinced me that she would have been just as quick to tell me had she not liked my name. There was no suggestion of brainless flattery in her tone and I was to learn, as I became better acquainted with her, that honesty and candor were two of her marked characteristics, but at the moment I was giving such matters little thought since my mind was occupied with a portion of her narrative that had suggested to me an easy and swift method of escape from our predicament.

“Do you believe,” I asked, “that you can find the mantalia grove where you hid your flier?”

“I am positive of it,” she replied.

“Will the craft carry two?” I asked.

“It is a one-man flier,” she replied, “but it will carry both of us, though both its speed and altitude will be reduced.”

She told me that the grove lay to the southeast of Xanator and accordingly I turned the thoat’s head toward the east. After we had passed well beyond the limits of the city we moved in a southerly direction down out of the hills onto the dead sea bottom.

Thuria was winging her swift flight through the heavens, casting strange and ever moving shadows upon the ocher moss that covered the ground, while far above cold Cluros took his slow and stately way. The light of the two moons clearly illuminated the landscape and I was sure that keen eyes could easily have detected us from the ruins of Xanator, although the swiftly moving shadows cast by Thuria were helpful to us since the shadows of every shrub and stunted tree produced a riot of movement upon the surface of the sea bottom in which our own moving shadow was less conspicuous, but the hope that I entertained most fondly was that all of the thoats, had followed our beast from the courtyard and that the green Martian warriors were left dismounted, in which event no pursuit could overtake us.

The great beast that was carrying us moved swiftly and silently so that it was not long before we saw in the distance the shadowy foliage of the mantalia grove and shortly afterward we entered its gloomy confines. It was not without considerable difficulty, however, that we located Tavia’s flier, and mighty glad was I, too, when we found it in good condition for we had seen more than a single shadowy form slinking through the forest and I knew that the fierce animals of the barren hills and the great white apes of the ruined cities were equally fond of the milk of the mantalia and that we should be fortunate, indeed, if we escaped an encounter.