John Carter of Mars (Barsoom #11)

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“I command you to answer me, on pain of death.”

I laughed at the creature. “You intend to kill me anyway; so your threat finds me indifferent.”

Horur kept his temper much better than had Gorgum, but I could see that he was annoyed. “You could preserve your life if you were more co-operative,” he said. “Great Bandolian asks but little of you. Tell us where your accomplices intended going and promise to aid Great Bandolian in his conquest of Helium, and your life will be spared.”

“No,” I said.

“Wait,” urged Horur. “Bandolian will go even further. Following our conquest of Helium, he will permit you and your mate to return to that country and he will give you a high office in the new government he intends to establish there. If you refuse, you shall be destroyed; your mate will be hunted down and, I promise you, she will be found. Her fate will be infinitely worse than death. You had better think it over.”

“I do not need to think over such a proposition. I can give you a final answer on both counts—my irrevocable answer. It is— never!”

If Horur had had a lip, he would doubtless have bitten it. He looked at me for a long minute, then he said, “Fool!” after which he turned to Gorgum. “Have it placed with those who are being held for the next class;” then he left the room.

I was now taken to a building located at some distance from those in which I had previously been incarcerated, and placed in a large cell with some twenty other prisoners, all of whom were Savators.

“What have we here?” demanded one of my fellow prisoners after my escort had left and locked the door. “A man with a red skin! He is no Savator. What are you, fellow?” I did not like the looks of him, nor his tone of voice. I was not seeking trouble with those with whom I was to be imprisoned and with whom I was probably destined to die; so I walked away from the fellow and sat down on a bench in another part of the chamber, which was quite large. But the fool followed me and stood in front of me in a truculent attitude.

“I asked you what you were,” he said, threateningly; “and when Pho Lar asks you a question, see that you answer it—and quickly. I am top man here.” He looked around at the others. “That’s right, isn’t it?” he demanded of them.

There were some sullen, affirmative grunts. I could see at once that the fellow was unpopular. He appeared a man of considerable muscular development; and his reception of me, a newcomer among them, testified to the fact that he was a bully. It was evident that be had the other prisoners cowed.

“You seem to be looking for trouble, Lo Phar,” I said; “but I am not. I am already in enough trouble.”

“My name is Pho Lar, fellow,” he barked.

“What difference does it make? You would stink by any name.” The other prisoners immediately took interested notice. Some of them grinned.

“I see that I shall have to put you in your place,” said Pho Lar, advancing toward me angrily.

“I do not want any trouble with you,” I said. “It is bad enough to be imprisoned, without quarreling with fellow prisoners.”

“You are evidently a coward,” said Pho Lar; “so, if you will get down on your knees and ask my pardon, I shall not harm you.”

I had to laugh at that, which made the fellow furious; yet he hesitated to attack me. I realized then that he was a typical bully, yellow at heart. However, to save his face, he would probably attack me if he could not bluff me. “Don’t make me angry,” he said. “When I am angry I do not know my own strength. I might kill you.”

“I wonder if this would make you angry,” I said, and slapped him across the cheek with my open palm. I slapped him so hard that he nearly fell down. I could have slapped him harder. This staggered him more than physically. The blood rushed to his blue face until it turned purple. He was in a spot. He had started something; and if he were to hold his self-appointed position as top man, as he had described himself, he would have to finish it. The other prisoners had now all arisen and formed a half circle about us. They looked alternately at Pho Lar and at me in eager anticipation.

Pho Lar had to do something about that slap in the face. He rushed at me and struck out clumsily. As I warded off his blows, I realized that he was a very powerful man; but he lacked science, and I was sure that he lacked guts. I determined to teach him a lesson that he would not soon forget. I could have landed a blow in the first few seconds of our encounter that would have put him to sleep, but I preferred to play with him.

I countered merely with another slap in the face. He came back with a haymaker that I ducked; then I slapped him again a little harder this time.

“Good work!” exclaimed one of the prisoners.

“Go to it, red man!” cried another.

“Kill him!” shouted a third.

Pho Lar tried to clinch; but I caught one of his wrists, wheeled around, bent over, and threw him over my shoulder.

He lit heavily on the lava flooring. He lay there for a moment, and as he scrambled to his feet I put a headlock on him and threw him again. This time he did not get up; so I picked him up and hit him on the chin. He went down for a long count. I was through with him, and went and sat down.

The prisoners gathered around me. I could see that they were pleased with the outcome of the fight. “Pho Lar’s had this coming to him for a long time,” said one.

“He sure got it at last!”

“Who are you, anyway?”

“My name is John Carter. I am from Garobus.”

“I have heard of you,” said one. “I think we all have. The Morgors are furious at you because you tricked them so easily. I suppose they have sent you here to die with us. My name is Han Du.” He held out a hand to me. It was the first time that I had seen this friendly gesture since leaving the earth. The Martians place a hand upon your shoulder. I took his hand.

“I am glad to know you, Han Du,” I said. “If there are many more here like Pho Lar, I shall probably need a friend.”

“There are no more like him,” said Han Du, “and he is finished.”

“You intimated that you are all doomed to die,” I said. “Do you know when or how?”

“When the next class graduates, we shall be pitted against twice our number of Morgors. It will be soon, now.”

 

8.IN THE ARENA

Pho Lar was unconscious for a long time. For a while, I thought that I might have killed him; but finally he opened his eyes and looked about. Then he sat up, felt of his head, and rubbed his jaw. When his eyes found me, he dropped them to the floor. Slowly and painfully he got to his feet and started for the far side of the room. Four or five of the prisoners immediately surrounded him.

“Who’s top man now?” demanded one of them and slapped him. Two more struck him. They were pushing him around and buffeting him when I walked among them and pushed them away.

“Leave him alone,” I said. “He has had enough punishment for a while. When he has recovered, if one of you wishes to take him on, that will be all right; but you can’t gang up on him.”

The biggest of them turned and faced me. “What have you go to say about it?” he demanded.

“This,” I replied and knocked him down.

He sat up and looked at me. “I was just asking,” he said, and grinned a sickly grin; then everybody laughed and the tension was over. Alter this, we go along famously—all of us, even Pho Lar; and I found them all rather decent men. Long imprisonment and the knowledge that they were facing death had frayed their nerves; but what had followed my advent had cleared the air, much as a violent electrical storm does. After that there was a lot of laughing and talking.

I inquired if any of them were from Zan Dar’s country Zanor; but none of them was. Several of them knew where it was, and one scratched a rough map of part of Jupiter on the wall of our cell to show me where Zanor was located. “But much good it will do you to know,” he said.

“One never can tell,” I replied.

They had told me what I was to expect at the graduating exercises, and I gave the subject considerable thought. I did not purpose attending a Morgor commencement in the role of a willing sacrifice.

“How many of you men are expert swordsmen?” I asked.

About hail of them claimed to be, but it is a failing of fighting men to boast of their prowess. Not of all fighting men, but of many, usually those with the least to boast of. I wished that I had some means of determining which were really good. “Of course we can’t get hold of any swords,” I said, “but if we had some sticks about the length of swords, we could soon find out who were the best swordsmen among us.”

“What good would that do us?” asked one.

“We could give those Morgors a run for their money,” I said, “and make them pay for their own graduation.”

“The slave who brings our food is from my country,” said Han Du. “I think he might smuggle a couple of sticks in to us. He is a good fellow. I’ll ask him when he comes.”

Pho Lar had said nothing about his swordsmanship; so, as he had proved himself a great boaster, I felt that he was not a swordsman at all. I was sorry, as he was by far the most powerful of all the Savator prisoners; and he was tall, too. With a little skill, he should have proved a most formidable swordsman. Han Du never boasted about anything; but he said that in his country, the men were much given to sword play; so I was counting on him.

Finally, Han Du’s compatriot smuggled in a couple of wooden rods about the length of a long sword; and I went to work to ascertain how my fellow prisoners stacked up as swordsmen. Most of them were good; a few were excellent; Han Du was magnificent; and, much to everyone’s surprise, Pho Lar was superb. He gave me one of the most strenuous workouts I have ever had before I could touch him. It must have taken me nearly an hour to disarm him. He was one of the greatest swordsmen I had ever faced.

Since our altercation upon my induction to their company, Pho Lar had kept much to himself. He seldom spoke, and I thought he might be brooding and planning on revenge. I had to find out just where he stood, as I could not take any chances on treachery or even half-hearted co-operation. I took Pho Lar aside after the passage with the wooden sticks. I put my cards squarely on the table. “My plan,” I said, “requires as many good swordsmen as I can get. You are one of the finest I have ever met, but you may think that you have reason to dislike me and therefore be unwilling to give me your full support. I cannot use any man who will not follow me and obey me even to death. How about it?”

“I will follow wherever you lead,” he said. “Here is my hand on it, if you will take my hand in friendship.”

“I am glad to do it.”

As we grasped hands, he said, “If I had known a man like you years ago, I should not have been the fool that I have been. You may count on me to my last drop of blood, and before you and I die we shall have shown the Morgors something that they will never forget. They think that they are great swordsmen, but after they have seen you in action they will have their doubts. I can scarcely wait for the time.”

I was impressed by Pho Lar’s protestations. I felt that he was sincere, but I could not disabuse my mind of my first impression of him that he was at heart an arrant coward. But perhaps, facing death, he would fight as a cornered rat fights. If he did, and didn’t lose his head, he would wreak havoc on the Morgors.

There were twenty of us in that cell. No longer did time drag heavily. It passed quickly in practice with our two wooden rods. Han Du, Pho Lar, and I, acting as instructors, taught the others what tricks of swordsmanship we knew until we were twenty excellent swordsmen. Several were outstanding.

We discussed several plans of action. We knew that, if custom prevailed, we should be pitted against forty young Morgor cadets striving to win to the warrior caste. We decided to fight in pairs, each of our ten best swordsmen being paired with one of the ten less proficient; but this pairing was to follow an initial charge by the first ten, with our team mates close behind us. We hoped thus to eliminate many of the Morgors in the first few moments of the encounter, thus greatly reducing the odds against us. Perhaps we of the first ten overestimated our prowess. Only time would tell.

There was some nervousness among the prisoners, due, I think, to the uncertainty as to when we should be called upon to face those unequal odds. Each knew that some of us would die. If any survived, we had only rumor to substantiate our hope that they would be set free; and no man there trusted the Morgors. Every footfall in the corridor brought silence to the cell, with every eye fixed upon the door.

At long last our anxiety was relieved: a full company of warriors came to escort us to the field where we were to fight. I glanced quickly around at the prisoners’ faces. Many were smiling and there were sighs of relief. I felt greatly encouraged.

We were taken to a rectangular field with tiers of seats on each of its four sides. The stands were crowded. Thousands of eye’s stared from the hollow sockets of grinning skulls. It might have been a field day in Hell. There was no sound. There were no bands. There were no flying flags, no color. We were given swords and herded together at one end of the field. An official gave us our instructions.

“When the cadets come on the field at the far end, you will advance and engage them.” That was all.

“And what of those of us who survived?” I asked.

“None of you will survive, creature,” he replied.

“We understand that those who survived would be given their freedom,” I insisted.

“None of you will survive,” he repeated.