Synthetic Men of Mars (Barsoom #9)

Chapter XXI. Duel to the Death

It soon appeared that a personal combat was a matter of considerable importance to the Goolians. The chief and his advisors held a lengthy discussion relative to the selection of an antagonist for me. The qualities of a number of warriors were discussed, and even their ancestors as far back as the fifth and sixth generation were appraised and compared. It might have been a momentous matter of state, so serious were they. The conference was often interrupted by suggestions and comments from other members of the tribe; but at last they selected a husky young buck, who, impressed by the importance now attached to him, launched into a long and windy speech in which he enumerated his many virtues and those of his ancestors while belittling me and bragging about the short work he would make of me. He finally concluded his harangue by selecting swords as the weapons we were to use; and then Anatok asked me if I had anything to say, for it seemed that this speech-making was a part of the ceremony preceding the duel.

“I have only a question to ask,” I replied.

“And what is that?” demanded Anatok.

“What will be my reward if I defeat your warrior?” I asked.

Anatok appeared momentarily confused. “Now that is an outcome that had not occurred to me,” he said; “but of course, after all, it is unimportant, as you will not win.”

“But it might happen,” I insisted, “and if it does, what is to be my reward? Will you grant freedom to my companion and myself?”

Anatok laughed. “Certainly,” he said. “I can safely promise you anything you ask for; for when the fight is over you will have lost, and you will be dead.”

“Very good,” I replied; “but don’t forget your promise.”

“Is that all you have to say?” demanded Anatok. “Aren’t you going to tell us how good you are, and how many men you have killed, and what a wonderful fighter you are? Or aren’t you any good?”

“That is something that only the sword may decide,” I replied. “My antagonist has done a great deal of boasting, and he might continue to do so indefinitely without drawing any blood or harming me in any way. He has not even frightened me, for I have heard men boast before; and those who boasted the loudest usually have the least to boast about.”

“It is evident,” said Anatok, “that you know nothing about the warriors of Gooli. We are the bravest people in the world and our warriors are the greatest swordsmen. It is because of these attributes that we are the most powerful nation in the world, which is evidenced by the fact that we have built this magnificent city and protected it for generations, and that we have been able during all this time to safeguard our vast treasures.”

I looked around at the mean little village of grass huts and wondered where Anatok’s vast treasures might be hidden, and of what they consisted. Perhaps it was a vast store of rare gems and precious metals.

“I see no evidence of great wealth or of any treasure,” I said. “Perhaps you are only boasting again.”

At this, Anatok flew into a rage. “You dare doubt me, you hideous savage?” he cried. “What do you know of wealth or treasures? Your eyes have probably never rested upon anything that compares with the riches of Gooli.”

“Show him the treasure before he dies,” cried a warrior. “Then he will understand why we have to be such a brave and warlike people in order to protect and hold it.”

“That is not a bad idea,” said Anatok. “Let him learn by his own eyes that we of Gooli do not boast about our wealth, just as he will learn by experience that we do not boast about our bravery and swordsmanship. Come, fellow, you shall see the treasures.”

He led the way into his palace, and I followed with a score of warriors pressing about me. The interior of the grass hut was bare, except for a litter of dead grass and leaves around the walls which evidently served for beds, some weapons, a few crude cooking utensils, and a large chest that stood in the exact center of the building. To this chest, Anatok conducted me; and, with a grand flourish, raised the lid and exhibited the contents to me as much as to say, “Now there is nothing more in the world for you to see; you have seen everything.”

“Here,” he said, “are the riches of Gooli.”

The chest was about three-quarters filled with marine shells. Anatok and the others watched me closely to note my reaction.

“Where is the treasure?” I asked. “These are nothing but shells.”

Anatok trembled with suppressed rage. “You poor, ignorant savage,” he cried. “I might have known that you could not appreciate the true value and beauty of the treasure of Gooli. Come, on with the fight; the sooner you are destroyed, the better off the world will be. We Goolians cannot abide ignorance and stupidity; we, who are the most intelligent and wisest people in the world.”

“Come on,” I said. “The quicker we get it over the better.”

It appeared that the preparation for the duel was quite a ceremonious affair. A procession was formed with Anatok and his counselors at the head. Then, following my antagonist, was a guard of honor consisting of about ten warriors.

Behind these, I trailed; and would have been alone but for the fact that I took Janai with me, nor did they raise any objections to this. The rest of the tribe, including warriors, women and children, followed behind us. It was a remarkable procession in that it was all procession and no audience. We marched around the palace once and then down the main street and out of the village. The villagers formed a circle, in the center of which were I, my antagonist and his guard of honor. At a word from Anatok I drew my sword; so did my antagonist and the ten warriors with him. Then we advanced toward one another.

I turned to Anatok. “What are those other warriors doing there?” I asked.

“They are Zuki’s assistants,” he replied.

“Am I supposed to fight all of them?” I demanded.

“Oh, no,” replied Anatok. “You will only fight Zuki, and his assistants will only help him if he gets in trouble.”

In reality then, I was to fight eleven men.

“Fight, coward!” cried Anatok. “We want to see a good fight.”

I turned again toward Zuki and his helpers. They were coming toward me very, very slowly; and they were making faces at me as though in an effort to frighten me. The whole thing struck me as so ridiculous that I could not refrain from laughing; yet I knew that it was serious, for the odds of eleven to one were heavily against me, even though the eleven might be inferior swordsmen.

My face was in itself extremely hideous, and suddenly I twisted it into a horrible grimace and with a wild shout leaped toward them. The reaction was amazing. Zuki was the first to turn and flee, colliding with his fellows, who, in their turn, attempted to escape my onslaught. I did not pursue them; and when they saw that I had not, they stopped and faced me again.

“Is this an example of the vaunted courage of the Goolis?” I asked Anatok.

“You have just witnessed a fine piece of strategy,” replied Anatok; “but you are too ignorant to appreciate it.”

Once again they came toward me, but still very slowly; and this time they voiced a kind of war whoop while they were making their faces.

I was just about to rush them again when a woman screamed and pointed down the valley. With the others, I turned to see what had attracted her attention, and discovered half a dozen savages such as those which had attacked our boat while Gan Had, Tun Gan, and I had been pursuing Sytor and Janai. At sight of them, a great wail rose from the villagers. The women and children and all but a handful of warriors ran for the woods; and I couldn’t tell whether those who remained did so because they were paralyzed with fright and unable to run, or because of a sudden access of courage. Zuki, my late antagonist, was not among them. He and Anatok were racing nip and tuck for the woods in advance of all the others.

“Who are they?” I asked a warrior standing near me.

“The man-eaters,” he replied. “After their last raid, we were chosen to be the sacrifice when they should come again.”

“What do you mean,” I asked, “‘the sacrifice?'”

“Yes, it is a sacrifice,” he replied. “If we do not willingly give up five warriors to them when they come, they will attack the village and burn it, they will take our treasure, they will steal our women and kill as many of our men as they can find. It is simpler this way; but it is hard on those who are chosen. However, we have no alternative but to obey, for if we did not the tribe would kill us with torture.”

“But why give up to them?” I asked. “There are only six, and we are six; let’s fight them. We have as good a chance to win as they.”

They looked at me in surprise. “But we never fight anyone,” they said, “unless we outnumber them ten to one. It would not be good strategy.”

“Forget your strategy,” I commanded, “and stand up against these men with me.”

“Do you suppose we could?” asked one of another.

“It has never been done,” was the reply.

“That is no reason why it can’t be done now,” I snapped. “If you will give me even a little help, we can kill them all.”

“Give me a sword,” said Janai, “and I will help, too.”

“Let us try it,” said one of the Goolians.

“Why not?” demanded another. “We are going to die anyway.”

The savages had now approached and were quite near us. They were laughing and talking among themselves and casting contemptuous glances at the Goolians. “Come on,” said one, “throw down your arms and come with us.”

For answer, I leaped forward and clove the fellow from crown to breastbone with a single stroke. The five Goolians came forward slowly. They had no stomach for fighting; but when they saw the success of my first blow they were encouraged; and, in the same measure, the savages were taken aback. I did not stop with the one but pushed on toward the remainder of the savages. I now met with a little competition; but my great reach and my enormous strength gave me an advantage which they could not overcome, with the result that three of them were soon down and the other three running away as fast as they could go.

At sight of the enemy in retreat, something which they had probably seldom seen in their lives, the Goolians became demons of bravery and set out in pursuit of them. They could easily have overtaken them, for they moved in great bounds that carried them fully twenty feet at a time; but they let them escape over the edge of the plateau; and then they came bounding back, their chests stuck out and their expressions radiating self-satisfaction and egotism.

Evidently the encounter had been witnessed by those in hiding in the woods, for now the entire tribe came straggling toward us. Anatok looked a little shame-faced, but his first words belied his expression. “You see the value of our strategy,” he said. “By appearing to run away in fright, we lured them on and then destroyed them.”

“You are not fooling me or yourself either,” I said. “You are a race of braggarts and cowards. I saved the five men that you would have given up as tribute without a single effort to defend them. You permitted six savages to route you and all your warriors. I could kill you all single-handed, and you know it. Now I demand that you reward me for what I have done by permitting me and my companion to remain here in safety until we are able to make plans for continuing our journey. If you refuse, you shall be the first to feel the edge of my sword.”

“You don’t have to threaten me,” he said, trembling. “It was my intention to give you your liberty as a reward for what you have done. You are free to remain with us and to go and come as you please. You may remain as long as you like, if you will fight against our enemies when they come.”