Llana of Gathol (Barsoom #10)

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Ptang laughed. “I hope he doesn’t need it,” he said; “but don’t be over-confident, for he is rated the best swordsman among the First Born; and there are supposed to be no better swordsmen in all Barsoom.”

Before the day arrived that I was to fight Nolat, Xaxak and Ptang grew more and more nervous; as did all of Xaxak’s warriors, who seemed to feel a personal interest in me—that is, with the exception of Ban-tor, whose enmity I had aroused by disarming him.

Ban-tor had placed a number of wagers against me; and he kept bragging about this, insisting that I was no match for Nolat and that I should be killed in short order.

I slept in a small room by myself on old, discarded furs, as befitted a slave.

My room connected with that occupied by Ptang; and had only one door, which opened into Ptang’s room. It was on the second floor of the palace and overlooked the lower end of the garden.

The night before the encounter I was awakened by a noise in my room, and as I opened my eyes I saw a man leap out of the window with a sword in his hand; but, as neither of Mars’ two moons was in the sky, it was not light enough for me to be sure that I could recognize him; yet there was something very familiar about him.

The next morning I told Ptang about my nocturnal visitor. Neither of us, however, could imagine why anyone would want to enter my room in stealth, as I had nothing to steal.

“It might have been an assassin who wanted to stop the fight,” suggested Ptang.

“I doubt that,” I said; “for he had plenty of opportunity to kill me, as I didn’t awaken until he was leaping through the window.”

“You missed nothing?” asked Ptang.

“I had nothing to miss,” I replied, “except my harness and weapons, and I am wearing them now.”

Ptang finally suggested that the fellow may have thought that a female slave slept in the room; and when he found out his error, took his departure; and with that we dropped the matter from our minds.

We went to the stadium about the fourth zode, and we went in style— in fact it was a regular pageant. There were Xaxak and his wife, with her female slaves, and Xaxak’s officers and warriors. We were all mounted on gaily caparisoned thoats; pennants waved above us, and mounted trumpeters preceded us. Nastor was there with the same sort of retinue. We all paraded around the arena to the accompaniment of “Kaors!” and growls—the kaors were applause and the growls were boos. I received a great many more growls than kaors, for after all I was a slave pitted against a prince, a man of their own blood.

There were some wrestling and boxing matches and a number of duels for first blood only, but what the people were waiting for was the duel to the death.

People are very much alike everywhere. On Earth, they go to boxing matches hoping for blood and a knockout; they go to the wrestling matches hoping to see someone thrown out of the ring and crippled; and when they go to automobile races they hope to see somebody killed. They will not admit these things, but without the element of danger and the risk of death these sports wouldn’t draw a hatful of people.

At last the moment came for me to enter the arena, and I did so before a most distinguished audience. Doxus, Jeddak of the First Born, was there with his Jeddara. The loges and boxes were crowded with the nobility of Kamtol. It was a gorgeous spectacle; the harnesses of the men and women were resplendent with precious metals and jewels, and from every vantage point flew pennants and banners.

Nolat was escorted to the jeddak’s box and presented; then to the box of Xaxak, where he bowed; and last of all to the box of Nastor, for whom he was fighting a stranger to the death.

I, being a slave, was not presented to the jeddak; but I was taken before Nastor; so that he could identify me as the individual against whom he had placed his wagers. It was, of course, a mere formality; but in accordance with the rules of the Games.

I had caught only a brief glimpse of Nastor’s entourage as we had paraded around the arena; as they had been behind us; but now I got a good look at them, as I stood in the arena before Nastor, and I saw Llana of Gathol sitting there beside the dator. Now, indeed, would I kill Nastor’s man!

Llana of Gathol gasped and started to speak to me; but I shook my head, for I was afraid she would call me by name, which might, here among the First Born, have been the equivalent of a death sentence. It was always a surprise to me that none of these men recognized me; for my white skin and gray eyes make me a marked man, and if any of them had been in the Valley Dor when I was there they must have remembered me. I was to learn later why none of these Black Pirates of Barsoom knew me.

“Why did you do that, slave?” demanded Nastor.

“Do what?” I asked.

“Shake your head,” he replied.

“Perhaps I am nervous,” I said.

“And well you may be, slave, for you are about to die,” he snapped, nastily.

I was taken then to a point in the arena opposite the jeddak’s box. Ptang was with me, as a sort of a second, I suppose. They let us stand there alone for several minutes, presumably to shake my nerves; then Nolat approached, accompanied by another noble dator. There was a fifth man; possibly he might have been called a referee; although he didn’t have much to do besides giving the signal for the duel to commence.

Nolat was a large, powerful man; and built like a fighter. He was a very handsome man, but with a haughty, supercilious expression. Ptang had told me that we were supposed to salute each other with our swords before we engaged; and as soon as I got in position, I saluted; but Nolat merely sneered and said, “Come, slave! You are about to die.”

“You made a mistake, Nolat,” I said, as we engaged.

“What do you mean?” he demanded, lunging at me.

“You should have saluted your better,” I said, parrying his lunge. “Now it will go harder with you—unless you would like to stop and salute me as you should have at first.”

“Insolent calot!” he growled, and thrust viciously at me.

For reply, I cut a gash in his left cheek. “I told you you should have saluted,”

I mocked.

Nolat became furious, then, and came at me with the evident intention of ending the encounter immediately. I sliced him along the other cheek, then; and a moment later I carved a bloody cross upon his left breast, a difficult maneuver requiring exceptional agility and skill, since his right side was always presented to me; or always should have been had he been quick enough to follow my foot work.

That audience was as silent as a tomb, except for the kaors from Xaxak’s contingent. Nolat was bleeding profusely, and he had slowed down considerably.

Suddenly somebody shouted, “Death!” Then other voices took it up. They wanted the kill; and as it was quite evident that Nolat couldn’t kill me, I assumed that they wished me to kill him. Instead, I disarmed him, sending his blade flying halfway across the arena. The referee ran after it; at last I had given him something to do.

I turned to Nolat’s second. “I offer the man his life,” I said in a tone of voice loud enough to have been heard in any part of the stadium.

Immediately there were shots of “Kaor!” and “Death!” The “Deaths” were in the majority.

“He offers you your life, Nolat,” said the second.

“But the wagers must be paid precisely as though I had killed you,” I said.

“It is to the death,” said Nolat. “I shall fight.”

Well, he was a brave man; and because of that I hated to kill him.

His sword was returned to him by now, and we fell to it again. This time Nolat did not smile nor sneer, and he had no nasty remarks to make to me. He was in deadly earnest, fighting for his life like a cornered rat. He was an excellent swordsman; but I do not think that he was the best swordsman among the First Born; for I had seen many of them fight before, and I could have named a dozen who could have killed him offhand.

I could have killed him myself any time that I had wished to, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It seemed a shame to kill such a good swordsman and such a brave man; so I pricked him a few times and disarmed him again. I did the same thing three more times; and then, while the referee was running after Nolat’s sword again, I stepped to the jeddak’s loge and saluted.

“What are you doing here, slave?” demanded an officer of the jeddak’s guard.

“I come to ask for the life of Nolat,” I replied. “He is a good swordsman and a brave man—and I am not a murderer; and it would be murder to kill him now.”

“It is a strange request,” said Doxus; “the duel was to the death; it must go on.”

“I am a stranger here,” I said, “but where I come from if a contestant can show fraud or chicanery he is awarded the decision without having to finish the contest.”

“Do you mean to imply that there has been fraud or chicanery on the part of either the Dator Nastor or the Dator Nolat?” demanded Doxus.

“I mean to say that a man entered my room last night while I slept, took my sword, and left a shorter one in the scabbard. This sword is several inches shorter than Nolat’s; I noticed it when we first engaged. It is not my sword, as Xaxak and Ptang can testify if they will examine it.”

Doxus summoned Xaxak and Ptang and asked them if they could identify the sword.

Xaxak said that he could only identify it as coming from his armory; that he did not know the sword that had been issued to me, but that Ptang did; then Doxus turned to Ptang.

“Is this the sword that was issued to the slave, Dotar Sojat?” he demanded.

“No; it is not,” replied Ptang.

“Do you recognize it?”

“I do.”

“To whom did it belong?”

“It is the sword of a warrior named Ban-tor,” replied Ptang.

 

CHAPTER IX

There was nothing for Doxus to do but award the contest to me; and he also ordered that all bets be paid, just as though I had killed Nolat. That didn’t set very well with Nastor, nor did the fact that Doxus made him pay over to Xaxak one hundred thousand tanpi in the jeddak’s presence; then he sent for Ban-tor.

Doxus was furious; for the First Born hold their honor as fighting men very high, and the thing that had been done was a blot upon the escutcheons of them all.

“Is this the man who entered your room last night?” he asked me.

“It was dark; and I only saw his back; there was something familiar about the fellow, but I couldn’t identify him positively.”

“Did you lay any wagers on this contest?” he asked Ban-tor.

“A few little ones, Jeddak,” replied the man.

“On whom?”

“On Nolat.”

Doxus turned to one of his officers, “Summon all those with whom Ban-tor wagered on this contest.”

A slave was sent around the arena, shouting out the summons; and soon there were fifty warriors gathered before Doxus’ loge. Ban-tor appeared most unhappy; as, from each of the fifty, Doxus gleaned the information that Ban-tor had wagered large sums with each, in some instances giving extremely big odds.

“You thought that you were betting on a sure thing, didn’t you?” demanded Doxus.

“I thought that Nolat would win,” replied Ban-tor; “there is no better swordsman in Kamtol.”

“And you were sure that he would win against an antagonist with a shorter sword. You are a disgrace; you have dishonored the First Born. For punishment you will fight now with Dotar Sojat;” then he turned to me. “You may kill him; and before you engage him, I, myself, will see that your sword is as long as his; although it would be only fair were he to be compelled to fight with the shorter sword he gave to you.”

“I shall not kill him,” I replied, “but I shall put a mark upon him that he will carry through life to remind all men that he is a knave.”

As we started to take our places before the loge of the jeddak, I heard bets being offered with odds as high as a hundred to one that I would win, and later I learned that even a thousand to one was offered without any takers; then, as we faced one another, I heard Nastor shout, “I will lay no wager, but I’ll give Ban-tor fifty thousand tanpi if he kills the slave.” It appeared that the noble dator was wroth at me.

Ban-tor was no mean antagonist; for he was not only a good swordsman, but he was fighting for his life and fifty thousand tanpi. He didn’t try any rushing tactics this time; but fought carefully, mostly on the defensive, waiting for me to make one little false move that would give him an opening; but I do not make false moves. It was he who made the false move; he thrust, following a feint, thinking to find me off balance.

I am never off balance. My blade moved twice with the swiftness of light, leaving an X cut deep in the center of Ban-tor’s forehead; then I disarmed him.

Without even glancing at him again, I walked to Doxus’ loge. “I am satisfied,” I said. “To bear the scar of that cross through life is punishment enough. To me, it would be worse than death.”