Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8)

Page 24

No longer was the great room empty, no longer the two throne chairs untenanted; instead the audience chamber was a mass of light and color and humanity.

Men, women, and children lined the wide aisle down which Umka and I were escorted toward the dais upon which stood the two throne chairs. Between solid ranks of warriors, resplendent in gorgeous trappings, our escort marched us to a little open space before the throne.

Congregated there under guard, their hands bound, were Jat Or, Zanda, Ur Jan, another whom I knew must be Gar Nal, and my beloved princess, Dejah Thoris.

“My chieftain!” she exclaimed. “Fate is a little kind in that she has permitted me to see you once again before we die.”

“We still live,” I reminded her, and she smiled as she recognized this, my long-time challenge to whatever malign fate might seem to threaten me.

Ur Jan’s expression revealed his surprise when his eyes fell upon me. “You!” he exclaimed.

“Yes, I, Ur Jan.”

“What are you doing here?”

“One of the pleasures of the trip I am to be robbed of by our captors,” I replied.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“The pleasure of killing you, Ur Jan,” I replied.

He nodded understandingly, with a wry smile.

My attention was now attracted to the man on the throne. He was demanding that we be silent.

He was a very fat man, with an arrogant expression; and I noted in him those signs of age that are so seldom apparent among the red men of Barsoom. I had also noted similar indications of age among other members of the throng that filled the audience chamber, a fact which indicated that these people did not enjoy the almost perpetual youth of the Martians.

Occupying the throne at the man’s side was a young and very beautiful woman. She was gazing at me dreamily through the heavy lashes of her half-closed lids. I could only assume that the woman’s attention was attracted to me because of the fact that my skin differed in color from that of my companions as, after leaving Zodanga, I had removed the disguising pigment.

“Splendid!” she whispered, languidly.

“What is that?” demanded the man. “What is splendid?”

She looked up with a start, as one awakened from a dream. “Oh!” she exclaimed nervously; “I said that it would be splendid if you could make them keep still; but how can you if we are invisible and inaudible to them, unless,” she shrugged, “you silence them with the sword.”

“You know, Ozara,” demurred the man, “that we are saving them for the Fire God—we may not kill them now.”

The woman shrugged. “Why kill them at all?” she asked. “They look like intelligent creatures. It might be interesting to preserve them.”

I turned to my companions. “Can any of you see or hear anything that is going on in this room?” I asked.

“Except for ourselves, I can see no one and hear no one,” said Gar Nal, and the others answered similarly.

“We are all the victims of a form of hypnosis,” I explained, “which makes it impossible for us either to see or hear our captors. By the exercise of the powers of your own minds you can free yourselves from this condition. It is not difficult. I succeeded in doing it. If the rest of you are also successful, our chances of escape will be much better, if an opportunity to escape arises.

“Believing that they are invisible to us, they will never be on their guard against us. As a matter of fact, I could, this moment, snatch a sword from the fellow at my side and kill the Jeddak and his Jeddara upon their thrones before anyone could prevent me.”

“We cannot work together,” said Gar Nal, “while half of us have it in our hearts to kill the other half.”

“Let us call a truce on our own quarrels, then,” I said, “until we have escaped from these people.”

“That is fair,” said Gar Nal.

“Do you agree?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied.

“And you, Ur Jan?” I asked.

“It suits me,” said the assassin of Zodanga.

“And you?” demanded Gar Nal, looking at Jat Or.

“Whatever the—Vandor commands, I shall do,” replied the padwar.

Ur Jan bestowed a quick glance of sudden comprehension upon me. “Ah,” he exclaimed; “so you are also Vandor. Now I understand much that I did not understand before. Did that rat of a Rapas know?”

I ignored his question. “And now,” I said, “let us raise our hands and swear to abide by this truce until we have all escaped from the Tarids and, further, that each of us will do all in his power to save the others.”

Gar Nal, Ur Jan, Jat Or, and I raised our hands to swear.

“The women, too,” said Ur Jan; and then Dejah Thoris and Zanda raised their hands, and thus we six swore to fight for one another to the death until we should be free from these enemies.

It was a strange situation, for I had been commissioned to kill Gar Nal; and Ur Jan had sworn to kill me, while I was intent upon killing him; and Zanda, who hated them both, was but awaiting the opportunity to destroy me when she should learn my identity.

“Come, come,” exclaimed the fat man on the throne, irritably, “what are they jabbering about in that strange language? We must silence them; we did not bring them here to listen to them.”

“Remove the spell from them,” suggested the girl he had called Ozara. “Let them see and hear us. There are only four men among them; they cannot harm us.”

“They shall see us and they shall hear us when they are led out to die,” replied the man, “and not before.”

“I have an idea that the light-skinned man among them can see us and hear us now,” said the girl.

“What makes you think so?” demanded the man.

“I sense it when his eyes rest upon mine,” she replied dreamily. “Then, too, when you speak, Ul Vas, his eyes travel to your face; and when I speak, they return to mine. He hears us, Ul Vas, and he sees us.”

I was indeed looking at the woman as she spoke, and now I realized that I might have difficulty in carrying on my deception; but this time, when the man she had called Ul Vas replied to her, I focused my eyes beyond the girl and did not look at him.

“It is impossible,” he said. “He can neither see nor hear us.” Then he looked down at the officer in command of the detachment that had brought us from our cells to the audience chamber. “Zamak,” he demanded, “what do you think? Can this creature either see or hear us?”

“I think not, All-highest,” replied the man. “When we went to fetch him, he asked this Masena, who was imprisoned with him, if there were anyone in the room, although twenty-five of us were all about him.”

“I thought you were wrong,” said Ul Vas to his jeddara; “you are always imagining things.”

The girl shrugged her shapely shoulders and turned away with a bored yawn, but presently her eyes came back to me; and though I tried not to meet them squarely thereafter, I was aware during all the rest of the time that I was in the audience chamber that she was watching me.

“Let us proceed,” said Ul Vas.

Thereupon an old man stepped to the front and placed himself directly before the throne. “All-highest,” he intoned in a sing-song voice, “the day is good, the occasion is good, the time has come. We bring before you, most august son of the Fire God, seven enemies of the Tarids. Through you, your father speaks, letting his people know his wishes. You have talked with the Fire God, your father. Tell us, All-highest, if these offerings look good in his eyes; make known to us his wishes, almighty one.”

Ever since we had come into the audience chamber, Ul Vas had been inspecting us carefully; and especially had his attention been centered upon Dejah Thoris and Zanda. Now he cleared his throat.

“My father, the Fire God, wishes to know who these enemies are,” he said.

“One of them,” replied the old man who had spoken before, and whom I took to be a priest, “is a Masena that your warriors captured while he was hunting outside our walls. The other six are strange creatures. We know not from whence they came. They arrived in two unheard-of contraptions that moved through the air like birds, though they had no wings. In each of these were two men and a woman.

“They alighted inside our walls; but from whence they came or why, we do not know, though doubtless it was their intention to do us harm, as is the intention of all men who come to the castle of the Tarids. As you will note, All-highest, five of these six have red skins, while the sixth had a skin only a little darker than our own. He seems to be of a different race, with his white skin, his black hair, and his grey eyes. These things we know and nothing more. We await the wishes of the Fire God from the lips of his son, Ul Vas.”

The man on the throne pursed his lips, as though in thought, while his eyes traveled again along the line of prisoners facing him, lingering long upon Dejah Thoris and Zanda. Presently, he spoke.

“My father, the Fire God, demands that the Masena and the four strange men be destroyed in his honor at this same hour, after he has encircled Ladan seven times.”

There were a few moments of expectant silence after he had ceased speaking —a silence that was finally broken by the old priest.

“And the women, All-highest?” he asked; “what are the wishes of the Fire God, your father, in relation to them?”

“The Fire God, to show his great love,” replied the jeddak, “has presented the two women to his son, Ul Vas to do with as he chooses.”



Life is sweet; and when I heard the words of doom fall from the lips of the jeddak, Ul Vas, the words that condemned five of us to die on the seventh day, I must naturally have experienced some depressing reaction; but I was not conscious of it, in view of the far greater mental perturbation induced by the knowledge that Dejah Thoris’s fate was to be worse than death.

I was glad that she was mercifully deaf to what I had heard. It could not help her to know the fate that was being reserved for her, and it could only cause her needless anguish had she heard the death sentence pronounced upon me.

All my companions, having seen nothing and heard nothing, stood like dumb cattle before the throne of their cruel judge. To them it was only an empty chair; for me it held a creature of flesh and blood—a mortal whose vitals the point of a keen blade might reach.

Again Ul Vas was speaking. “Remove them now,” he commanded. “Confine the men in the Turquoise Tower, and take the women to the Tower of Diamonds.”

I thought then to leap upon him and strangle him with my bare hands, but my better judgment told me that that would not save Dejah Thoris from the fate for which she was being reserved. It could only result in my own death, and thus would be removed her greatest, perhaps her only, hope of eventual succor; and so I went quietly, as they led me away with my fellow-prisoners, my last memory of the audience chamber being the veiled gaze of Ozara, Jeddara of the Tarids.

Umka and I were not returned to the cell in which we had previously been incarcerated; but were taken with Jat Or, Gar Nal, and Ur Jan to a large room in the Turquoise Tower.

We did not speak until the door had closed behind the escort that had been invisible to all but Umka and myself. The others seemed mystified; I could read it in the puzzled expressions upon their faces.

“What was it all about, Vandor?” demanded Jat Or. “Why did we stand there in silence in that empty chamber before those vacant thrones?”

“There was no silence,” I replied; “and the room was crowded with people. The Jeddak and his Jeddara sat upon the thrones that seemed vacant to you, and the Jeddak passed the sentence of death upon all of us—we are to die on the seventh day.”

“And the princess and Zanda, too?” he demanded.

I shook my head. “No, unfortunately, no.”

“Why do you say unfortunately?” he asked, puzzled “Because they would prefer death to what is in store for them. The Jeddak, Ul Vas, is keeping them for himself.”

Jat Or scowled. “We must do something,” he said; “we must save them.”

“I know it,” I replied; “but how?”

“You have given up hope?” he demanded. “You will go to your death calmly, knowing what is in store for them?”

“You know me better than that, Jat Or,” I said. “I am hoping that something will occur that will suggest a plan of rescue; although I see no hope at present, I am not hopeless. If no opportunity occurs before, then in the last moment, I shall at least avenge her, if I cannot save her; for I have an advantage over these people that they do not know I possess.”

“What is that?” he asked.