“If it is not too late,” I said; “and the only chance of saving any of them lies in my reaching Helium in time to bring a fleet to Gathol before Hin Abtol succeeds in reducing it, and then on to Pankor, if we do not find these three among Hin Abtol’s prisoners at Gathol.”
“Perhaps we had better fly direct to Helium,” suggested Llana. “A fleet from Helium could accomplish something, while we two, alone, might accomplish no more than getting ourselves captured again by the Panars—and it would go hard with you, John Carter, if Hin Abtol ever got his hands on you again, after what you did in Pankor today.” She laughed. “I shall never forget what you did to Rab-zov, ‘the strongest man in Pankor.'”
“Neither will Rab-zov,” I said.
“Nor Hin Abtol. And the hole you made in the glass dome covering the city, when you drove the flier right through it! I’ll wager they all had chills before they got that patched up. No, Hin Abtol will never forget you.”
“But he never knew who I really was,” I reminded Llana; “with my disguise removed, I was no longer a red man; and he might never guess that he had once had John Carter in his power.”
“The results would be the same as far as you are concerned,” said Llana; “I think it would be death in either event.”
Before we had come far from Pankor I decided that our wisest course would be to proceed directly to Helium and enlist the aid of Tardos Mors, the jeddak. While I hold the titles of Jeddak of Jeddaks and Warlord of Barsoom, conferred upon me by the jeddaks of five nations, I have always considered them largely honorary, and have never presumed to exercise the authority implicit in them, except in times of war when even the great Jeddak of Helium has graciously served under me.
Having reached the decision to fly to Helium rather than Gathol, I turned toward the southeast. Before us lay a journey half the distance around the planet, and we were absolutely without water or provisions. Soon the towers and stately ruins of Horz were visible, reminding us both of the circumstances under which we had met Pan Dan Chee, and I thought that Llana looked down a little sadly on that long dead city from which her lost lover had been self-exiled because of us. It was here that she had escaped from Hin Abtol, and it was here that Hin Abtol had stolen this very flier of mine that I had found and recovered in his Polar capital. Yes, Horz held many memories for both of us; and I was glad when it lay behind us, this dead monument to a dead past.
Far ahead lay Dusar where water and provisions might be obtained, but the friendliness of Dusar was open to question. It had not been so many years since Carthoris, the Prince of Helium, had almost been done to death there by Astok, son of Nutus, the jeddak of Dusar; and there had been no intercourse between Helium and Dusar since that time. Beyond Dusar was no friendly city all the way to Helium.
I decided to give Dusar a wide berth, and in doing so we flew over country. with which I was entirely unfamiliar. It was a hilly country; and in the long, deep valley I saw one of those rarest of all sights on Mars, a splendid forest. Now, to me a forest means fruits and nuts and, perhaps, game animals; and we were hungry. There would doubtless be mantilia plants too, the sap of which would quench our thirst; and so I decided to land. My best judgment told me that it was a risky thing to do, and subsequent events proved that my judgment was wholly correct.
I landed on level ground close to the forest, and telling Llana to remain aboard the flier ready to take off at a moment’s notice, I went in search of food. The forest consisted principally of skeel, sorapus, and sompus trees. The first two are hardwood trees bearing large, delicious nuts, while the sompus trees were loaded with a citrus-like fruit with a thin red rind. The pulp of this fruit, called somp, is not unlike grapefruit, though much sweeter. It is considered a great delicacy among Barsoomians, and is cultivated along many of the canals. I had never seen any, however, as large as these, growing wild; nor had I ever seen trees on Mars of the size of many of those growing in this hidden forest.
I had gathered as much of the fruit and as many nuts as I could carry, when I heard Llana calling me. There was a note of excitement and urgency in her voice, and I dropped all that I had gathered and ran in the direction of the flier.
Just before I came out of the forest I heard her scream; and as I emerged, the flier rose from the ground. I ran toward it as fast as I can run, and that is extremely fast under the conditions of lesser gravity which prevail on Mars. I took forty or fifty feet in a leap, and then I sprang fully thirty feet into the air in an effort to seize the rail of the flier. One hand touched the gunwale; but my fingers didn’t quite close over the rail, and I slipped back and fell to the ground. However, I had had a glimpse of the deck of the flier, and what I saw there filled me with astonishment and, for some reason, imparted that strange sensation to my scalp as though each separate hair were standing erect—Llana lay on the deck absolutely alone, and there was no one at the controls!
“A noble endeavor,” said a voice behind me; “you can certainly jump.”
I wheeled about, my hand flying to the hilt of my sword. There was no one there!
I looked toward the forest; there was no sign of living thing about me. From behind me came a laugh—a taunting, provocative laugh. Again I wheeled. As far as I could see there was only the peaceful Martian landscape. Above me, the flier circled and disappeared beyond the forest—flown with no human hand at the controls by some sinister force which I could not fathom.
“Well,” said a voice, again behind me, “we might as well be on our way. You realize, I presume, that you are our prisoner.”
“I realize nothing of the sort,” I retorted. “If you want to take me, come and get me—come out in the open like men; if you are men.”
“Resistance will be futile,” said the voice; “there are twenty of us and only one of you.”
“Who are you?” I demanded.
“Oh, pardon me,” said the voice, “I should have introduced myself. I am Pnoxus, son of Ptantus, jeddak of Invak; and whom have I had the honor of capturing?”
“You haven’t had the honor of capturing me yet,” I said. I didn’t like that voice—it was too oily and polite.
“You are most uncooperative,” said the voice named Pnoxus. “I should hate to have to adopt unpleasant methods with you.” The voice was not so sweet now; there was just a faint ring of steel in it.
“I don’t know where you’re hiding,” I said; “but if you’ll come out, all twenty of you, I’ll give you a taste of steel. I have had enough of this foolishness.”
“And I’ve had enough,” snapped the voice. Somehow it sounded like a bear trap to me—all the oily sweetness had gone out of it. “Take him, men!”
I looked quickly around for the men, but I was still alone—just I and a voice were there. At least that is what I thought until hands seized my ankles and jerked my feet from beneath me. I fell flat on my face, and what felt like half a dozen heavy men leaped on my back and half a dozen hands ripped my sword from my grasp and more hands relieved me of my other weapons. Then unseen hands tied my own behind my back and others fastened a rope around my neck, and the voice said, “Get up!”
I got up. “If you come without resistance,” said the voice named Pnoxus, “it will be much easier for you and for my men. Some of them are quite short tempered, and if you make it difficult for them you may not get to Invak alive.”
“I will come,” I said, “but where? For the rest, I can wait.”
“You will be led,” said Pnoxus, “and see that you follow where you’re led. You’ve already given me enough trouble.”
“You won’t know what trouble is until I can see you,” I retorted.
“Don’t threaten; you have already stored up enough trouble for yourself.”
“What became of the girl who was with me?” I demanded.
“I took a fancy to her,” said Pnoxus, “and had one of my men, who can fly a ship, take her on to Invak.”
I cannot tell you what an eerie experience it was being led through that forest by men that I could not see and being talked to by a voice that had no body; but when I realized that I was probably being taken to the place that Llana of Gathol had been taken, I was content, nay, anxious, to follow docilely where I was led.
I could see the rope leading from my neck out in front of me; it fell away in a gentle curve as a rule and then gradually vanished, vignette-like; sometimes it straightened out suddenly, and then I would feel a jerk at the back of my neck; but by following that ghostly rope-end as it wound among the trees of the forest and watching the bight carefully, so as to anticipate a forthcoming jerk by the straightening of the curve, I learned to avoid trouble.
In front of me and behind I continually heard voices berating other voices:
“Sense where you’re going, you blundering idiot,” or, “Stop stepping on my heels, you fool,” or “Who do you think you’re bumping into, son-of-a-calot!” The voices seemed to be constantly getting in one another’s way. Serious as I felt my situation might be, I could not help but be amused.
Presently I felt an arm brush against mine, or at least it felt like an arm, the warm flesh of a bare arm; it would touch me for an instant only to be taken away immediately, and then it would touch me again in a measured cadence, as might the arms of two men walking out of step side by side; and then a voice spoke close beside me, and I knew that a voice was walking with me.
“We are coming to a bad place,” said the voice; “you had better take my arm.”
I groped out with my right hand and found an arm that I could not see. I grasped what felt like an upper arm, and as I did so my right hand disappeared! Now, my right arm ended at the wrist, or at least it appeared to do so; but I could feel my fingers clutching that arm that I could not see. It was a most eerie sensation. I do not like situations that I cannot understand.
Almost immediately we came to an open place in the forest, where no trees grew.
The ground was covered with tiny hummocks, and when I stepped on it it sank down a few inches. It was like walking on coil springs covered with turf.
“I’ll guide you,” said the voice at my side. “If you should get off the trail here alone you’d be swallowed up. The worst that can happen to you now would be to get one leg in it, for I can pull you out before it gets a good hold on you.”
“Thank you,” I said; “it is very decent of you.”
“Think nothing of it,” replied the voice. “I feel sorry for you; I am always sorry for strangers whom Fate misguides into the forest of Invak. We have another name for it which, I think, better describes it—The Forest of Lost Men.”
“It is really so bad to fall into the hands of your people?” I asked.
“I am afraid that it is,” replied the voice; “there is no escape.”
I had heard that one before; so it didn’t impress me greatly. The lesser peoples of Barsoom are great braggarts; they always have the best swordsmen, the finest cities, the most outstanding culture; and once you fall into their hands, you are always doomed to death or a life of slavery—you can never escape them.
“May I ask you a question?” I inquired.
“Certainly,” said the voice.
“Are you always only a voice?”
A hand, I suppose it was his right hand, seized my arm and squeezed it with powerful, though invisible, fingers; and whatever it was that walked beside me chuckled. “Does that feel like only a voice?” it asked.
“A stentorian voice,” I said. “You seem to have the physical attributes of a flesh and blood man; have you a name?”
“Most assuredly; it is Kandus; and yours?” he asked politely.
“Dotar Sojat,” I told him, falling back upon my well-worn pseudonym.
We had now successfully crossed the bog, or whatever it was; and I removed my hand from Kandus’s arm. Immediately I was wholly visible again, but Kandus remained only a voice. Again I walked alone, I and a rope sticking out in front of me and apparently defying the law of gravity. Even the fact that I surmised that the other end of it was fastened to a voice did not serve to make it seem right; it was a most indecent way for a rope to behave.
“‘Dotar Sojat,'” repeated Kandus; “it sounds more like a green man’s name.”
“You are familiar with the green men?” I asked.
“Oh, yes; there is a horde which occasionally frequents the dead sea bottoms beyond the forest; but they have learned to give us a wide berth. Notwithstanding their great size and strength, we have a distinct advantage over them. As a matter of fact, I believe that they are very much afraid of us.”
“I can well imagine so; it is not easy to fight voices; there is nothing one may get one’s sword into.”
Kandus laughed. “I suppose you would like to get your sword into me,” he said.
“Absolutely not,” I said; “you have been very decent to me, but I don’t like that voice which calls itself Pnoxus. I wouldn’t mind crossing swords with it.”
“Not so loud,” cautioned Kandus. “You must remember that he is the jeddak’s son. We all have to be very nice to Pnoxus—no matter what we may privately think of him.”
I judged from that that Pnoxus was not popular. It is really amazing how quickly one may judge a person by his voice; this had never been so forcibly impressed upon me before. Now, I had disliked the Pnoxus voice from the first, even when it was soft and oily, perhaps because of that; but I had liked the voice named Kandus—it was the voice of a man’s man, open and without guile; a good voice.
“Where are you from, Dotar Sojat?” asked, Kandus.