Llana of Gathol (Barsoom #10)

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“My Jeddak,” commenced Pan Dan Chee, “while I was beset by six green warriors, this man, who says he is known as John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom, came of his own volition to fight at my side. From whence he came I do not know. I only know that at one moment I was fighting alone, a hopeless fight, and that at the next there fought at my side the greatest swordsman Horz has ever seen. He did not have to come; he could have left at any time, but he remained; and because he remained I am alive and the last of the six green warriors lies dead by the ancient waterfront. He would have escaped had not John Carter leaped to the back of a great thoat and pursued him.

“Then this man could have escaped, but he came back. He fought for a soldier of Horz. He trusted the men of Horz. Are we to repay him with death?”

Pan Dan Chee ceased speaking, and Ho Ran Kim turned his blue eyes upon me. “John Carter,” he said, “what you have done commands the respect and sympathy of every man of Horz. It wins the thanks of their Jeddak, but—” He hesitated. “Perhaps if I tell you something of our history, you will understand why I must condemn you to death.” He paused for a moment, as though in thought.

At the same time I was doing a little thinking on my own account. The casual manner in which Ho Ran Kim had sentenced me to death had rather taken my breath away. He seemed so friendly that it didn’t seem possible that he was in earnest, but a glance at the glint in those blue eyes assured me that he was not being facetious.

“I am sure,” I said, “that the history of Horz must be most interesting; but right now I am most interested in learning why I should have to die for befriending a fighting man of Horz.”

“That I shall explain,” he said.

“It is going to take a great deal of explaining, your majesty,” I assured him.

He paid no attention to that, but continued. “The inhabitants of Horz are, as far as we know, the sole remaining remnant of the once dominant race of Barsoom, the Orovars. A million years ago our ships ranged the five great oceans, which we ruled. The city of Horz was not only the capital of a great empire, it was the seat of learning and culture of the most glorious race of human beings a world has ever known. Our empire spread from pole to pole. There were other races on Barsoom, but they were few in numbers and negligible in importance. We looked upon them as inferior creatures. The Orovars owned Barsoom, which was divided among a score of powerful jeddaks. They were a happy, prosperous, contented people, the various nations seldom warring upon one another. Horz had enjoyed a thousand years of peace.

“They had reached the ultimate pinnacle of civilization and perfection when the first shadow of impending fate darkened their horizon—the seas began to recede, the atmosphere to grow more tenuous. What science had long predicted was coming to pass—a world was dying.

“For ages our cities followed the receding waters. Straits and bays, canals and lakes dried up. Prosperous seaports became deserted inland cities. Famine came. Hungry hordes made war upon the more fortunate. The growing hordes of wild green men overran what had once been fertile farm land, preying upon all.

“The atmosphere became so tenuous that it was difficult to breathe. Scientists were working upon an atmosphere plant, but before it was completed and in successful operation all but a few of the inhabitants of Barsoom had died. Only the hardiest survived—the green men, the red men, and a few Orovars; then life became merely a battle for the survival of the fittest.

“The green men hunted us as we had hunted beasts of prey. They gave us no rest, they showed us no mercy. We were few; they were many. Horz became our last city of refuge, and our only hope of survival lay in preventing the outside world from knowing that we existed; therefore, for ages we have slain every stranger who came to Horz and saw an Orovar, that no man might go away and betray our presence to our enemies.

“Now you will understand that no matter how deeply we must regret the necessity, it is obvious that we cannot let you live.”

“I can understand,” I said, “that you might feel it necessary to destroy an enemy; but I see no reason for destroying a friend. However, that is for you to decide.”

“It is already decided, my friend,” said the Jeddak. “You must die.”

“Just a moment, O Jeddak!” exclaimed Pan Dan Chee. “Before you pass final judgment, consider this alternative. If he remains here in Horz, he cannot carry word to our enemies. We owe him a debt of gratitude. Permit him then to live, but always within the walls of the citadel.”

There were nods of approval from the others present, and I saw by his quickly darting eyes that Ho Ran Kim had noticed them. He cleared his throat. “Perhaps that is something that should be given thought,” he said. “I shall reserve judgment until the morrow. I do so largely because of my love for you, Pan Dan Chee; inasmuch as, because it was due to your importunities that this man is here, you must suffer whatever fate is ordained for him.”

Pan Dan Chee was certainly surprised, nor could he hide the fact; but he took the blow like a man. “I shall consider it an honor,” he said, “to share any fate that may be meted to John Carter, Warlord of Barsoom.”

“Well said, Pan Dan Chee!” exclaimed the Jeddak. “My admiration for you increases as does the bitterness of my sorrow when I contemplate the almost inescapable conviction that on the morrow you die.”

Pan Dan Chee bowed. “I thank your majesty for your deep concern,” he said. “The remembrance of it will glorify last my hours.”

The Jeddak turned his eyes upon Lan Sohn Wen and held them on him for what seemed a full minute. I would have laid ten to one that Ho Ran Kim was about to cause himself further untold grief by condemning Lan Sohn Wen to death. I think Lan Sohn Wen thought the same thing. He looked worried.

“Lan Sohn Wen,” said Ho Ran Kim, “you will conduct these two to the pits and leave them there for the night. See that they have good food and every possible comfort, for they are my honored guests.”

“But the pits, your majesty!” exclaimed Lan Sohn Wen. “They have never been used within the memory of man. I do not even know that I can find the entrance to them.”

“That is so,” said Ho Ran Kim, thoughtfully. “Even if you found them they might prove very dirty and uncomfortable. Perhaps it would be kinder to destroy John Carter and Pan Dan Chee at once.”

“Wait, majesty,” said Pan Dan Chee. “I know where lies the entrance to the pits. I have been in them. They can easily be made most comfortable. I would not think of altering your plans or causing you immediately the deep grief of sorrowing over the untimely passing of John Carter and myself. Come, Lan Sohn Wen! I will lead the way to the pits of Horz!”

 

CHAPTER V

It was a good thing for me that Pan Dan Chee was a fast talker. Before Ho Ran Kim could formulate any objections we were out of the audience chamber and on our way to the pits of Horz, and I can tell you that I was glad to be out of sight of that kindly and considerate tyrant. There was no telling when some new humanitarian urge might influence him to order our heads lopped off instanter.

The entrance to the pits of Horz was in a small, windowless building near the rear wall of the citadel. It was closed by massive gates that creaked on corroded hinges as two of the warriors who had accompanied us pushed them open.

“It is dark in there,” said Pan Dan Chee. “We’ll break our necks without a light.”

Lan Sohn Wen, being a good fellow, sent one of his men for some torches; and when he returned, Pan Dan Chee and I entered the gloomy cavern.

We had taken but a few steps toward the head of a rock hewn ramp that ran downward into Stygian darkness, when Lan Sohn Wen cried, “Wait! Where is the key to these gates?”

“The keeper of the keys of some great jeddak who lived thousands of years ago may have known,” replied Pan Dan Chee, “but I don’t.”

“But how am I going to lock you in?” demanded Lan Sohn Wen.

“The Jeddak didn’t tell you to lock us in,” said Pan Dan Chee. “He said to take us to the pits and leave us there for the night. I distinctly recall his very words.”

Lan Sohn Wen was in a quandary, but at last he hit upon an avenue of escape.

“Come,” he said, “I shall take you back to the Jeddak and explain that there are no keys; then it will be up to him.”

“And you know what he will do!” said Pan Dan Chee.

“What?” asked Lan Sohn Wen.

“He will order us destroyed at once. Come, Lan Sohn Wen, do not condemn us to immediate death. Post a guard here at the gates, with orders to kill us if we try to escape.”

Lan Sohn Wen considered this for a moment, and finally nodded his head in acquiescence. “That is an excellent plan,” he said, and then he detailed two warriors to stand guard; and arranged for their relief, after which he wished us good night and departed with his warriors.

I have never seen such courteous and considerate people as the Orovars; it might almost be a pleasure to have one’s throat slit by one of them, he would be so polite about it. They are the absolute opposites of their hereditary enemies, the green men; for these are endowed with neither courtesy, consideration, nor kindness. They are cold, cruel, abysmal brutes to whom love is unknown and whose creed is hate. Nevertheless, the pits of Horz was not a pleasant place. The dust of ages lay upon the ramp down which we walked. From its end a corridor stretched away beyond the limits of our torchlight. It was a wide corridor, with doors opening from it on either side. These, I presumed, were the dungeons where ancient jeddaks had confined their enemies. I asked Pan Dan Chee.

“Probably,” he said, “though our jeddaks have never used them.”

“Have they never had enemies?” I asked.

“Certainly, but they have considered it cruel to imprison men in dark holes like this; so they have always destroyed them immediately they were suspected of being enemies.”

“Then why are the pits here?” I demanded.

“Oh, they were built when the city was built, perhaps a million years ago, perhaps more. It just chanced that the citadel was built around the entrance.”

I glanced into one of the dungeons. A mouldering skeleton lay upon the floor, the rusted irons that had secured it to the wall lying among its bones. In the next dungeon were three skeletons and two magnificently carved, metal bound chests. As Pan Dan Chee raised the lid of one of them I could scarce repress a gasp of astonishment and admiration. The chest was filled with magnificent gems in settings of elaborate beauty, specimens of forgotten arts, the handicraft of master craftsmen who had lived a million years ago. I think that nothing that I had ever seen before had so impressed me. And it was depressing, for these jewels had been worn by lovely women and brave men who had disappeared into an oblivion so complete that not even a memory of them remained.

My reverie was interrupted by the sound of shuffling feet behind me. I wheeled; and, instinctively, my hand flew to where the hilt of a sword should have been but was not. Facing me, and ready to spring upon me, was the largest ulsio I had ever seen.

These Martian rats are fierce and unlovely things. They are many legged and hairless, their hide resembling that of a new-born mouse in repulsiveness. Their eyes are small and close set and almost hidden in deep, fleshy apertures. Their most ferocious and repulsive features, however, are their jaws, the entire bony structure of which protrudes several inches beyond the flesh, revealing five sharp, spadelike teeth in each jaw, the whole suggesting the appearance of a rotting face from which much of the flesh has sloughed away. Ordinarily they are about the size of an Airedale terrier, but the thing that leaped for me in the pits of Horz that day was as large as a small puma and ten times as ferocious.

As the creature leaped for my throat, I struck it a heavy blow on the side of its head and knocked it to one side; but it was up at once and at me again; then Pan Dan Chee came into the scene. They had not disarmed him, and with short-sword he set upon the ulsio.

It was quite a battle. That ulsio was the most ferocious and most determined beast I had ever seen, and it gave Pan Dan Chee the fight of his life. He had knocked off two of its six legs, an ear, and most of its teeth before the ferocity of its repeated attacks abated at all. It was almost cut to ribbons, yet it always forced the fighting. I could only stand and look on, which is not such a part in a fight as I like to take. At last, however, it was over; the ulsio was dead, and Pan Dan Chee looked at me and smiled.

He was looking around for something upon which he might wipe the blood from his blade. “Perhaps there is something in this other chest,” I suggested; and, walking to it, I lifted the lid.

The chest was about seven feet long, two and a half wide and two deep. In it lay the body of a man. His elaborate harness was encrusted with jewels. He wore a helmet entirely covered with diamonds, one of the few helmets I had ever seen upon Mars. The scabbards of his long-sword, his shortsword, and his dagger were similarly emblazoned.

He had been a very handsome man, and he was still a handsome corpse. So perfectly was he preserved that, in so far as appearances went, he might still have been alive but for the thin layer of dust overlying his features. When I blew this away he looked quite as alive as you or I.

“You bury your dead here?” I asked Pan Dan Chee, but he shook his head.

“No,” he replied. “This chap may have been here a million years.”

“Nonsense!” I exclaimed. “He would have dried up and blown away thousands of years ago.”

“I don’t know about that,” said Pan Dan Chee. “There were lots of things that those old fellows knew that are lost arts today. Embalming, I know, was one of them. There is the legend of Lee Um Lo, the most famous embalmer of all time. It recounts that his work was so perfect that not even the corpse, himself, knew that he was dead; and upon several occasions they arose and walked out during the funeral services. The end of Lee Um Lo came when the wife of a great jeddak failed to realize that she was dead, and walked right in on the jeddak and his new wife. The next day Lee Um Lo lost his head.”

“It is a good story,” I said, laughing; “but I hope this chap realizes that he is dead; because I am about to disarm him. Little could he have dreamed a million years ago that one day he was going to rearm The Warlord of Barsoom.”

Pan Dan Chee helped me raise the corpse and remove its harness; and we were both rather startled by the soft, pliable texture of the flesh and its normal warmth.