A Fighting Man of Mars (Barsoom #7)

Page 9

Under a strong guard we were conducted into the interior of the building and after a brief wait were ushered into the presence of some high official. Evidently he had already been advised of the circumstances surrounding our arrival at Tjanath, for he seemed to be expecting us and was familiar with all that had transpired up to the present moment.

“What do you at Tjanath, Jaharian?” he demanded.

“I am not from Jahar,” I replied. “Look at my metal.”

“A warrior may change his metal,” he replied, gruffly.

“This man has not changed his metal,” said Tavia. “He is not from Jahar; he is from Hastor, one of the cities of Helium. I am from Jahar.”

The official looked at her in surprise. “So you admit it!” he cried.

“But first I was from Tjanath,” said the girl.

“What do you mean?” he demanded.

“As a little child I was stolen from Tjanath,” replied Tavia. “All my life since I have been a slave in the palace of Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar. Only recently I escaped in the same flier upon which we arrived at Tjanath. Near the dead city of Xanator I landed and was captured by the green men of Torquas. This warrior, who is Hadron of Hastor, rescued me from them. Together we came to Tjanath, expecting a friendly reception.”

“Who are your people in Tjanath?” demanded the official.

“I do not know,” replied Tavia; “I was very young. I remember practically nothing about my life in Tjanath.”

“What is your name?”

“Tavia.”

The man’s interest in her story, which had seemed wholly perfunctory, seemed suddenly altered and galvanized.

“You know nothing about your parents or your family?” he demanded.

“Nothing,” replied Tavia.

He turned to the padwar who was in charge of our escort. “Hold them here until I return,” he said, and, rising from his desk, he left the apartment.

“He seemed to recognize your name,” I said to Tavia.

“How could he?” she asked.

“Possibly he knew your family,” I suggested; “at least his manner suggested that we are going to be given some consideration.”

“I hope so,” she said.

“I feel that our troubles are about over, Tavia,” I assured her; “and for your sake I shall be very happy.”

“And you, I suppose,” she said, “will endeavor to enlist aid in continuing your search for Sanoma Tora?”

“Naturally,” I replied. “Could anything less be expected of me?”

“No,” she admitted in a very low voice.

Notwithstanding the fact that something in the demeanor of the official who had interrogated us had raised my hope for our future, I was still conscious of a feeling of depression as our conversation emphasized the near approach of our separation. It seemed as though I had always known Tavia, for the few days that we had been thrown together had brought us very close indeed. I knew that I should miss her sparkling wit, her ready sympathy and the quiet companionship of her silences, and then the beautiful features of Sanoma Tora were projected upon memory’s screen and, knowing where my duty lay, I cast vain regrets aside, for love, I knew, was greater than friendship and I loved Sanoma Tora.

After a considerable lapse of time the official re-entered the apartment. I searched his face to read the first tidings of good news there, but his expression was inscrutable; however, his first words, addressed to the padwar, were entirely understandable.

“Confine the woman in the East Tower,” he said, “and send the man to the pits.”

That was all. It was like a blow in the face. I looked at Tavia and saw her wide eyes upon the official. “You mean that we are to be held as prisoners?” she demanded; “I, a daughter of Tjanath, and this warrior who came here from a friendly nation seeking your aid and protection?”

“You will each have a hearing later before the Jed,” snapped the official. “I have spoken. Take them away.”

Several of the warriors seized me rather roughly by the arms. Tavia had turned away from the official and was looking at me. “Good-bye, Hadron of Hastor!” she said. “It is my fault that you are here. May my ancestors forgive me!”

“Do not reproach yourself, Tavia,” I begged her, “for who might have foreseen such a stupid reception?”

We were taken from the apartment by different doorways and there we turned, each for a last look at the other, and in Tavia’s eyes there were tears, and in my heart.

The pits of Tjanath, to which I was immediately conducted, are gloomy, but they are not enveloped in impenetrable darkness as are the pits beneath most Barsoomian cities. Into the dungeon dim light filtered through the iron grating from the corridors, where ancient radium bulbs glowed faintly. Yet it was light and I gave thanks for that, for I have always believed that I should go mad imprisoned in utter darkness.

I was heavily fettered and unnecessarily so, it seemed to me, as they chained me to a massive iron ring set deep in the masonry wall of my dungeon, and then, leaving me, locked also the ponderous iron grating before the doorway.

As the footfalls of the warriors diminished to nothingness in the distance I heard the faint sound of something moving nearby me in my dungeon. What could it be? I strained my eyes into the gloomy darkness.

Presently, as my eyes became more accustomed to the dim light in my cell, I saw the figure of what appeared to be a man crouching against the wall near me. Again I heard a sound as he moved and this time it was accompanied by the rattle of a chain, and then I saw a face turn toward me, but I could not distinguish the features.

“Another guest to share the hospitality of Tjanath,” said a voice that came from the blurred figure beside me. It was a clear voice—the voice of a man—and there was a quality to its timbre that I liked.

“Do our hosts entertain many such as we?” I asked.

“In this cell there was but one,” he replied; “now there are two. Are you from Tjanath or elsewhere?”

“I am from Hastor, city of the Empire of Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium.”

“You are a long way from home,” he said.

“Yes,” I replied; “and you?”

“I am from Jahar,” he answered. My name is Nur An.”

“And mine is Hadron,” I said. “Why are you here?”

“I am a prisoner because I am from Jahar,” he replied. “What is your crime?”

“It is that they think I am from Jahar,” I told him.

“What made them think that? Do you wear the metal of Jahar?”

“No, I wear the metal of Helium, but I chanced to come to Tjanath in a Jaharian flier.”

He whistled. “That would be hard to explain,” he said.

“I found it so,” I admitted. “They would not believe a word of my story, nor of that of my companion.”

“You had a companion, then?” he asked. “Where is he?”

“It was a woman. She was born in Tjanath, but for long years had been a slave in Jahar. Perhaps later they will believe her story, but for the present we are in prison. I heard them order her to the East Tower, while they sent me here to the prison.”

“And here you will stay until you rot, unless you are lucky enough to be called for the games, or unlucky enough to be sentenced to The Death.”

“What is The Death?” I asked, my curiosity piqued by his emphasis of the words.

“I do not know,” he replied. “The warriors who come here often speak of it as though it was something quite horrible. Perhaps they do it to frighten me, but if that is true, then they have had very little satisfaction, for, whether or not I have been frightened, I have not let them see it.”

“Let us hope for the games, then,” I said.

“They are dull and stupid people here in Tjanath,” said my companion. “The warriors have told me that sometimes many years elapse between games in the arena, but we may hope at least, for surely it would be better to die there with a good long sword in one’s hand rather than to rot here in the darkness, or die The Death, whatever it may be.”

“You are right,” I said. “Let us beseech our ancestors that the Jed of Tjanath decrees games in the near future.”

“So you are from Hastor,” he said, musingly, after a moment’s silence. “That is a long way from Tjanath. Pressing must have been the service that brought you so far afield!”

“I was searching for Jahar,” I replied.

“Perhaps you are as well off that you found Tjanath first,” he said, “for, though I am a Jaharian, I cannot boast the hospitality of Jahar.”

“You think I would not have been accorded a cordial welcome there, then?” I asked.

“By my first ancestor, no,” he exclaimed most emphatically. “Tul Axtar would have had you in the pits before he asked your name, and the pits of Jahar are not as light nor as pleasant as these.”

“I did not intend that Tul Axtar should know that I was visiting him,” I said.

“You are a spy?” he asked.

“No,” I replied. “The daughter of the commander of the umak to which I was attached was abducted by Jaharians, and, I have reason to believe, by the orders of Tul Axtar himself. To effect her rescue was the object of my journey.”

“You tell this to a Jaharian?” he asked lightly.

“With perfect impunity,” I replied. “In the first place, I have read in your words and your tone that you are no friend to Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar, and, secondly, there is evidently little chance that you ever will return to Jahar.”

“You are right in both conjectures,” he said. “I most assuredly have no love for Tul Axtar. He is a beast, hated by all decent men. The cause of my hatred for him so closely parallels your own reason to hate Tul Axtar that we are indeed bound by a common tie.”

“How is that?” I demanded.

“All my life I have never felt aught but contempt for Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar, but this contempt was not transmuted into hatred until he stole a woman, and it was the stealing of a woman, also, that directed your venom against him.”

“A woman of your family?” I asked.

“My sweetheart, the woman I was to marry,” replied Nur An. “I am a noble. My family is of ancient lineage and great wealth. For these reasons Tul Axtar knew that he had good cause to fear me, and urged on by this fear, he confiscated my property and sentenced me to death, but I have many friends in Jahar and one of these, a common warrior of the guard, connived at my escape after I had been imprisoned in the pits.

“I made my way to Tjanath and told my story to Haj Osis, the Jed, and, laying my sword at his feet, I offered him my services, but Haj Osis is a suspicious old fool and saw in me only a spy from Jahar. He ordered me to the pits and here I have lain for a long time.”

“Jahar must be, indeed, an unhappy country,” I said, “ruled over, as she is, by such a man as Tul Axtar. Recently I have heard much of him, but as yet I have not heard him credited with a single virtue.”

“He has none,” said Nur An. “He is a cruel tyrant, rotten with corruption and vice. If any of the great powers of Barsoom could have guessed what was in his mind, Jahar would have been reduced long ago and Tul Axtar destroyed.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“For at least two hundred years Tul Axtar has fostered a magnificent dream, the conquest of all Barsoom. During all this time he has made manpower his fetish; no eggs might be destroyed, each woman being compelled to preserve all that she laid. (Note: Martians are oviparous.) An army of officials and inspectors took a record of the production of each female. Those that had the greatest number of males were rewarded; the unproductive were destroyed. When it was discovered that marriage tended to reduce the productivity of the females of Jahar, marriage among any classes beneath the nobility was proscribed by imperial edict.

“The result has been an appalling increase in population until many of the provinces of Jahar cannot support the incalculable numbers that swarm like ants in a hill. The richest agricultural land upon Barsoom could not support such numbers; every natural resource has been exhausted; millions are starving, and in large districts cannibalism is prevalent.