“It has been more than a minute, Kor-an,” I said.
He did not reply; he was breathing heavily, and I could tell from his eyes that he was afraid. His companions sat in silence, watching every move.
Finally, after I had cut his body from forehead to toe, I stepped back, lowering my point. “Have you had enough, Kor-an?” I asked, “or do you want me to kill you?”
“I chose to fight to the death,” he said, courageously; “it is your right to kill me—and I know that you can. I know that you could have killed me any time from the moment we crossed swords.”
“I have no wish to kill a brave man,” I said.
“Call the whole thing off,” said one of the others; “you are up against the greatest swordsman anyone ever saw, Kor-an.”
“No,” said Kor-an, “I should be disgraced, if I stopped before I killed him or he killed me. Come!” He raised his point.
I dropped my sword to the ground and faced him. “You now have your chance to kill me,” I told him.
“But that would be murder,” he said; “I am no assassin.”
“Neither am I, Kor-an; and if I ran you through, even while you carried your sword, I should be as much a murderer as you, were you to kill me now; for even with a sword in your hand you are as much unarmed against me as I am now against you.”
“The man is right,” spoke up one of the Gatholians. “Sheathe your sword, Kor-an; no one will hold it against you.”
Kor-an looked at the others, and they all urged him to quit. He rammed his sword into its scabbard and mounted his thoat. “Get up behind me,” he said to me. I mounted and they were off at a gallop.
After about half an hour they entered another grove of sorapus, and presently came to a cluster of the rude huts used by the warrior-herdsmen of Gathol. Here was the remainder of the troop to which my captors belonged. These herdsmen are the warriors of Gathol, being divided into regular military units. This one was a utan of a hundred men commanded by a dwar, with two padwars, or lieutenants under him. They remain on this duty for one month, which is equivalent to about seventy days of Earth time; then they are relieved and return to Gathol city.
Gan Hor, the dwar, was sitting in front of one of the shelters playing jetan with a padwar when I was taken before him by Kor-an. He looked us both up and down for a full minute. “In the name of Issus!” he exclaimed, “what have you two been doing—playing with a herd of banths or a tribe of white apes? And who is this? He is neither red nor black.”
“A prisoner,” said Kor-an; then he explained quite honestly why we were in the condition we were.
Gan Hor scowled. “I’ll take this matter up with you later, Kor-an,” he said; then he turned to me.
“I am the father of Tara of Helium,” I said, “the princess of your jed.”
Gan Hor leaped to his feet, and Kor-an staggered as though he had been struck; I thought he was going to fall.
“John Carter!” exclaimed Gan Hor. “The white skin, the gray eyes, the swordsmanship of which Kor-an has told me. I have never seen John Carter, but you could be no other;” then he wheeled upon Kor-an. “And you dragged the Prince of Helium, Warlord of Barsoom for half a mile at the ends of your ropes!” He was almost screaming. “For that, you die!”
“No,” I said. “Kor-an and I have settled that between us; he is to be punished no further.”
These warrior-herdsmen of Gathol live much like our own desert nomads, moving from place to place as the requirements of pasturage and the presence of water dictate. There is no surface water in Gathol other than the moisture in the salt marsh that encircles the city; but in certain places water may be found by sinking wells, and in these spots they make their camps, as here in the sorapus grove to which I had been brought.
Gan Hor had water brought for me; and while I was washing away the black pigment, the dirt, and the blood, I told him that Llana of Gathol and two companions were not far from the spot where Kor-an had captured me; and he sent one of his padwars with a number of warriors and three extra thoats to bring them in.
“And now,” I said, “tell me what is happening to Gathol. The fact that we were attacked last night, coupled with the ring of camp fires encircling the city, suggests that Gathol is besieged by an enemy.”
“You are right,” replied Gan Hor; “Gathol is surrounded by the troops of Hin Abtol who styles himself Jeddak of Jeddaks of the North. He came here some time ago in an ancient and obsolete flier, but as he came in peace he was treated as an honored guest by Gahan. They say that he proved himself an egotistical braggart and an insufferable boor, and ended by demanding that Gahan give him Llana as a wife—he already had seven, he boasted.
“Of course, Gahan told him that Llana of Gathol would choose her own mate; and when Llana refused his proposition, he threatened to come back and take her by force. Then he went away, and the next day our Princess started out for Helium on a ship with twenty-five members of her personal guard. She never reached Helium, nor has she been seen or heard of since, until you just told me that she is alive and has returned to Gathol.
“But we soon heard from Hin Abtol. He came back with a large fleet of the most ancient and obsolete fliers that I have ever seen; some of his ships must be over a hundred years old. Hin Abtol came back, and he demanded the surrender of Gathol.
“His ships were crammed with warriors, thousands of whom leaped overboard and descended upon the city with equilibrimotors. There was fighting in the avenues and upon the roofs of buildings all of one day, but we eventually destroyed or made prisoners of all of them; so, finding that he could not take the city by storm, Hin Abtol laid siege to it.
“He has sent all but a few of his ships away, and we believe that they have returned to the frozen north for reinforcements. We who were on herd duty at the beginning of the investment are unable to return to the city, but we are continually harassing the warriors of Hin Abtol who are encamped upon the plain.”
“So they are using equilibrimotors,” I said; “it seems strange that any peoples from the frozen north should have these. They were absolutely unknown in Okar when I was there.”
The equilibrimotor is an ingenious device for individual flying. It consists of a broad belt, not unlike the life belt used aboard passenger ships on Earth; the belt is filled with the eighth Barsoomian ray, or ray of propulsion, to a sufficient degree to equalize the pull of gravity and thus to maintain a person in equilibrium between that force and the opposite force exerted by the eighth ray. Attached to the back of the belt is a small radium motor, the controls for which are on the front of the belt; while rigidly attached to and projecting from the upper rim of the belt is a strong, light wing with small hand levers for quickly altering its position. I could understand that they might prove very effective for landing troops in an enemy city by night.
I had listened to Gan Hor with feelings of the deepest concern, for I knew that Gathol was not a powerful country and that a long and persistent siege must assuredly reduce it unless outside help came. Gathol depends for its food supplies upon the plains which comprise practically all of its territory. The far northwest corner of the country is cut by one of Barsoom’s famous canals; and here the grains, and vegetables, and fruits which supply the city are raised; while upon her plains graze the herds that supply her with meat. And enemy surrounding the city would cut off all these supplies; and while Gahan doubtless had reserves stored in the city, they could not last indefinitely.
In discussing this with Gan Hor, I remarked that if I could get hold of a flier I’d return to Helium and bring a fleet of her mighty war ships and transports with guns and men enough to wipe Hin Abtol and his Panars off the face of Barsoom.
“Well,” said Gan Hor, “your flier is here; it came with Hin Abtol’s fleet. One of my men recognized it and your insigne upon it the moment he saw it; and we have all been wondering how Hin Abtol acquired it; but then, he has ships from a score of different nations, and has not bothered to remove their insignia.”
“He found it in a courtyard in the deserted city of Horz,” I explained; “and when he was attacked by green men, he made off in it with a couple of his warriors, leaving the others to be killed.”
Just then the padwar who had gone to fetch Llana, Pan Dan Chee, and Jad-han returned with his detachment—and three riderless thoats!
“They were not there,” he said; “though we searched everywhere, we could not find them; but there was blood on the ground where they had been.”
So Llana of Gathol was lost to me again! That she had been captured by Hin Abtol’s warriors, there seemed little doubt. I asked Gan Hor for a thoat, that I might ride out and examine the spot at which the party had been taken; and he not only acceded to my request, but accompanied me with a detachment of his warriors.
There had evidently been a fight at the place that I had left them; the vegetation was trampled, and there was blood upon it; but so resilient is this mosslike carpeting of the dead sea bottoms of Mars, that, except for the blood, the last traces of the encounter were fast disappearing; and there was no indication of the direction taken by Llana’s captors.
“How far are their lines from here?” I asked Gan Hor.
“About nine haads,” he replied—that is not quite three Earth miles.
“We might as well return to your camp,” I said; “we haven’t a sufficiently strong force to accomplish anything now. I shall return after dark.”
“We can make a little raid on one of their encampments tonight,” suggested Gan Hor.
“I shall go alone,” I told him; “I have a plan.
“But it won’t be safe,” he objected. “I have a hundred men with whom I am constantly harassing them; we should be glad to ride with you.”
“I am going only for information, Gan Hor; I can get that better alone.”
We returned to camp, and with the help of one of Gan Hor’s warriors I applied to my face and body the red pigment that I always carry with me for use when I find it necessary to disguise myself as a native born red man—a copper colored ointment such as had first been given me by the Ptor brothers of Zodanga many years ago.
After dark I set out on thoatback, accompanied by Gan Hor and a couple of his warriors; as I had accepted his offer of transportation to a point much nearer the Panar lines. Fortunately the heavens were temporarily moonless, and we came quite close to the enemy’s first fires before I dismounted and bid my new friends goodby.
“Good luck!” said Gan Hor; “and you’ll need it.”
Kor-an was one of the warriors who had accompanied us. “I’d like to go with you, Prince,” he said; “thus I might atone for the thing I did.”
“If I could take anyone, I’d take you, Kor-an,” I assured him. “Anyway, you have nothing to atone for; but if you want to do something for me, promise that you will fight always for Tara of Helium and Llana of Gathol.”
“On my sword, I swear it,” he said; and then I left them and made my way cautiously toward the Panar camp.
Once again, as upon so many other occasions, I used the tactics of another race of red warriors—the Apaches of our own Southwest—worming my way upon my belly closer and closer toward the lines of the enemy. I could see the forms of warriors clustered about their fires, and I could hear their voices and their rough laughter; and, as I drew nearer, the oaths and obscenities which seem to issue most naturally from the mouths of fighting men; and when a gust of wind blew from the camp toward me, I could even smell the sweat and the leather mingling with the acrid fumes of the smoke of their fires.
A sentry paced his post between me and the fires; when he came closest to me, I flattened myself upon the ground. I heard him yawn. When he was almost on top of me, I rose up before him; and before he could voice a warning cry, I seized him by the throat. Three times I drove my dagger into his heart. I hate to kill like that; but now there was no other way, and it was not for myself that I killed him—it was for Llana of Gathol, for Tara of Helium, and for Dejah Thoris, my beloved princess.
Just as I lowered his body to the ground, a warrior at a nearby fire arose and looked out toward us. “What was that?” he asked his fellows.
“The sentry,” one of them replied; “there he is now.” I was slowly pacing the post of the departed, hoping none would come to investigate.
“I could have sworn I saw two men scuffling there,” said the first speaker.
“You are always seeing things,” said a third.
I walked the post until they had ceased to discuss the matter and had turned their attention elsewhere; then I knelt beside the dead man and removed his harness and weapons, which I immediately donned. Now I was, to outward appearances anyway, a soldier of Hin Abtol, a Panar from some glazed, hothouse city of the frozen North.
Walking to the far end of my post, I left it and entered the camp at some distance from the group which included the warrior whose suspicions I had aroused. Although I passed close to another group of warriors, no one paid any attention to me. Other individuals were wandering around from fire to fire, and so my movements attracted no notice.