Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8)

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Zanda joined us now; and as she saw Thuria looming ahead, she voiced a little exclamation of thrilled excitement. “We are very close,” she said.

I nodded. “It will not be long now before we know our fate,” I said. “Are you afraid?”

“Not while you are with me,” she answered simply.

Presently I realized that we had changed our course. Thuria seemed directly beneath us now instead of straight ahead. We were within the sphere of her influence, and were being dragged through space at her own tremendous velocity.

Now we were spiraling downward; the brain was functioning perfectly.

“I don’t like the idea of landing on a strange world at night,” said Jat Or.

“I am not so enthusiastic about it myself,” I agreed. “I think we had better wait until morning.”

I then directed the brain to drop to within about two hundred haads of the surface of the satellite and cruise slowly in the direction of the coming dawn.

“And now, suppose we eat while we are waiting for daylight,” I suggested.

“Is there food on board, master?” inquired Zanda.

“Yes,” I replied, “you will find it in the storeroom abaft the cabin.”

“I will prepare it, master, and serve you in the cabin,” she said.

As she left the control room, Jat Or’s eyes followed her. “She does not seem like a slave,” he said, “and yet she addresses you as though she were your slave.”

“I have told her that she is not,” I said, “but she insists upon maintaining that attitude. She was a prisoner in the house of Fal Sivas, and she was assigned to me there to be my slave. She really is the daughter of a lesser noble—a well-bred, intelligent, cultured girl.”

“And very beautiful,” said Jat Or. “I think she loves you, my prince.”

“Perhaps she thinks it is love,” I said, “but it is only gratitude. If she knew who I were, even her gratitude would be turned to hate. She has sworn to kill John Carter.”

“But why?” demanded Jat Or.

“Because he conquered Zodanga; because all her sorrows resulted from the fall of the city. Her father was killed; and, in grief, her mother took the last long journey upon the bosom of Iss; so you see she has good reason to hate John Carter, or at least she thinks she has.”

Presently Zanda called us, and we went into the cabin where she had a meal spread upon a folding table.

She stood to wait upon us, but I insisted that she sit with us and eat.

“It is not seemly,” she said, “that a slave should sit with her master.”

“Again I tell you that you are not my slave, Zanda,” I said. “If you insist upon retaining this ridiculous attitude, I shall have to give you away. Perhaps I shall give you to Jat Or. How would you like that?”

She looked up at the handsome young padwar seated opposite her. “Perhaps he would make a good master,” she said, “but I shall be slave to no one but Vandor.”

“But how could you help it if I gave you to him?” I asked. “What would you do about it?”

“I would kill either Jat Or or myself,” she replied.

I laughed and stroked her hand. “I would not give you away if I could,” I said.

“If you could?” she demanded. “Why can’t you?”

“Because I cannot give away a free woman. I told you once that you were free, and now I tell you again in the presence of a witness. You know the customs of Barsoom, Zanda. You are free now, whether you wish to be or not.”

“I do not wish to be free,” she said; “but if it is your will, Vandor, so be it.” She was silent for a moment, and then she looked up at me. “If I am not your slave,” she asked, “what am I?”

“Just at present, you are a fellow adventurer,” I replied, “an equal, to share in the joys and sorrows of whatever may lie before us.”

“I am afraid that I shall be more of a hindrance than a help,” she said, “but of course I can cook for you and minister to you. At least I can do those things which are a woman’s province.”

“Then you will be more of a help than a hindrance,” I told her. “And to make sure that we shall not lose you, I shall detail Jat Or to be your protector. He shall be responsible for your safety.”

I could see that this pleased Jat Or, but I could not tell about Zanda. I thought she looked a little hurt; but she flashed a quick sweet smile at the young padwar, as though she were afraid he might have guessed her disappointment and did not wish to hurt him.

As we cruised low over Thuria, I saw forests below us and meandering lines of a lighter color that I took to be brooks or rivers; and in the distance there were mountains. It seemed a most beautiful and intriguing world.

I could not be sure about the water because it was generally believed on Barsoom that her satellites were practically without moisture. However, I have known scientists to be mistaken.

I was becoming impatient. It seemed that daylight would never arrive, but at last the first rosy flush of dawn crept up behind the mountain tops ahead of us; and slowly the details of this strange world took form below us, as the scene in a photographic print takes magic form beneath the developer.

We were looking down upon a forested valley, beyond which low foothills, carpeted with lush vegetation, ran back to higher mountains in the distance.

The colors were similar to those upon Barsoom—the scarlet grasses, the gorgeous, strange-hued trees; but as far as our vision reached, we saw no living thing.

“There must be life there,” said Zanda, when Jat Or commented upon this fact.

“In all that wealth of beauty, there must be living eyes to see and to admire.”

“Are we going to land?” asked Jat Or.

“We came here to find Gar Nal’s ship,” I replied, “and we must search for that first.”

“It will be like looking for a tiny bead among the moss of a dead sea bottom,” said Jat Or.

I nodded. “I am afraid so,” I said, “but we have come for that purpose and that purpose alone.”

“Look!” exclaimed Zanda. “What is that—there, ahead?”

 

XVI. — INVISIBLE FOES

Looking down in the direction that Zanda had indicated, I saw what appeared to be a large building on the bank of a river. The structure nestled in a clearing in the forest, and where the rising sun touched its towers they sent back scintillant rays of many-hued light.

One section of the building faced upon what appeared to be a walled court, and it was an object lying in this court which aroused our interest and excitement to a far greater extent than the building itself.

“What do you think it is, Zanda?” I asked, for it was she who had discovered it.

“I think that it is Gar Nal’s ship,” replied the girl.

“What makes you think that?” asked Jat Or.

“Because it is so much like this one,” she replied. “Both Gar Nal and Fal Sivas stole ideas from one another whenever they could, and I should be surprised indeed if their ships did not closely resemble one another.”

“I am sure that you are right, Zanda,” I said. “It is not reasonable to assume that the inhabitants of Thuria have, by some miraculous coincidence, constructed a ship so similar to that of Fal Sivas’s; and the possibility is equally remote that a third Barsoomian ship has landed on the satellite.”

I directed the brain to spiral downward, and presently we were flying at an altitude that gave us a clear view of the details of the building and the surrounding terrain.

The more closely we approached the ship in the courtyard the more certain we became that it was Gar Nal’s; but nowhere did we see any sign of Gar Nal, Ur Jan, or Dejah Thoris; nor, indeed, was there any sign of life about the building or its grounds. The place might have been the abode of the dead.

“I am going to ground the ship beside Gar Nal’s,” I said. “Look to your weapons, Jat Or.”

“They are ready, my—Vandor,” he replied.

“I do not know how many fighting men are aboard that ship,” I continued. “There may be only Gar Nal and Ur Jan, or there may be more. If the fight goes our way, we must not kill them all until we are positive that the princess is with them.

“They left Barsoom at least a full day ahead of us; and while it is only a remote possibility, still they may have made some disposition of their prisoner already. Therefore, we must leave at least one of them alive to direct us to her.”

We were descending slowly. Every eye was on the alert. Zanda had stepped from the control room a moment before, and now she returned with the harness and weapons of a Martian warrior strapped to her slender form.

“Why those?” I asked.

“You may need an extra sword hand,” she replied. “You do not know against how many foemen you will be pitted.”

“Wear them, if you like,” I said, “but remain in the ship where you will be safe. Jat Or and I will take care of the fighting.”

“I shall go with you and fight with you,” said Zanda, quietly but emphatically.

I shook my head. “No,” I said; “you must do as I say and remain on this ship.”

She looked me steadily in the eye. “Against my will, you insisted upon making me a free woman,” she reminded me. “Now I shall act as a free woman and not as a slave. I shall do as I please.”

I had to smile at that. “Very well,” I said; “but if you come with us, you will have to take your chances like any other fighting man. Jat Or and I may be too busy with our own antagonists to be able to protect you.”

“I can take care of myself,” said Zanda, simply.

“Please stay on board,” pleaded Jat Or solicitously; but Zanda only shook her head.

Our ship had settled quietly to the ground beside that of Gar Nal. I caused the door in the port side to be opened and the ladder lowered. Still there was no sign of life either on the other craft or elsewhere about the castle. A deathly silence hung like a heavy mantle over the entire scene.

Just a moment I stood in the doorway looking about; and then I descended to the ground, followed by Jat Or and Zanda.

Before us loomed the castle, a strange weird building of unearthly architecture, a building of many towers of various types, some of them standing alone and some engaged in groups.

Partially verifying Fal Sivas’s theory of the tremendous mineral wealth of the satellite, the walls of the structure before us were constructed of blocks of precious stones so arranged that their gorgeous hues blended and harmonized into a mass of color that defies description.

At the moment, however, I gave but cursory attention to the beauties of the pile, turning my attention instead to Gar Nal’s ship. A door in its side, similar to that in our ship, was open; and a ladder depended to the ground.

I knew that in ascending that ladder, a man would be at great disadvantage if attacked from above; but there was no alternative. I must discover if there were anyone on board.

I asked Zanda to stand at a little distance, so that she could see into the interior of the ship and warn me if an enemy exhibited himself. Then I mounted quickly.

As the ship was already resting on the ground, I had only to ascend a few rungs of the ladder before my eyes were above the level of the cabin floor. A quick glance showed me that no one was in sight, and a moment later I stood inside the cabin of Gar Nal’s ship.

The interior arrangement was slightly different from that of Fal Sivas’s, nor was the cabin as richly furnished.

From the cabin, I stepped into the control room. No one was there. Then I searched the after part of the ship. The entire craft was deserted.

Returning to the ground, I reported my findings to Jat Or and Zanda.

“It is strange,” remarked Jat Or, “that no one has challenged us or paid any attention to our presence. Can it be possible that the whole castle is deserted?”

“There is something eerie about the place,” said Zanda, in low, tense tones.

“Even the silence seems fraught with suppressed sound. I see no one, I hear no one, and yet I feel—I know not what.”

“It is mysterious,” I agreed. “The deserted appearance of the castle is belied by the well-kept grounds. If there is no one here now, it has not been deserted long.”

“I have a feeling that it is not deserted now,” said Jat Or. “I seem to feel presences all around us. I could swear that eyes were on us—many eyes, watching our every move.”