The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom #5)

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Here then was the explanation of the thing he had witnessed that afternoon, when Tara of Helium had struck the head from her captor and Gahan had seen the head crawl back to its body. And to think that the pearl of Helium was in the power of such hideous things as these. Again the man shuddered, but he hastened to make fast the flier, clamber again to its deck and lower it to the floor of the enclosure. Then he strode toward a door in the base of the tower, stepping lightly over the recumbent forms of the unconscious rykors, and crossing the threshold disappeared within.
CHAPTER VIII

CLOSE WORK

Ghek, in his happier days third foreman of the fields of Luud, sat nursing his anger and his humiliation. Recently something had awakened within him the existence of which he had never before even dreamed. Had the influence of the strange captive woman aught to do with this unrest and dissatisfaction? He did not know. He missed the soothing influence of the noise she called singing. Could it be that there were other things more desirable than cold logic and undefiled brain power? Was well balanced imperfection more to be sought after then, than the high development of a single characteristic? He thought of the great, ultimate brain toward which all kaldanes were striving. It would be deaf, and dumb, and blind. A thousand beautiful strangers might sing and dance about it, but it could derive no pleasure from the singing or the dancing since it would possess no perceptive faculties. Already had the kaldanes shut themselves off from most of the gratifications of the senses. Ghek wondered if much was to be gained by denying themselves still further, and with the thought came a question as to the whole fabric of their theory. After all perhaps the girl was right; what purpose could a great brain serve sealed in the bowels of the earth?

And he, Ghek, was to die for this theory. Luud had decreed it. The injustice of it overwhelmed him with rage. But he was helpless. There was no escape. Beyond the enclosure the banths awaited him; within, his own kind, equally as merciless and ferocious. Among them there was no such thing as love, or loyalty, or friendship—they were just brains. He might kill Luud; but what would that profit him? Another king would be loosed from his sealed chamber and Ghek would be killed. He did not know it but he would not even have the poor satisfaction of satisfied revenge, since he was not capable of feeling so abstruse a sentiment.

Ghek, mounted upon his rykor, paced the floor of the tower chamber in which he had been ordered to remain. Ordinarily he would have accepted the sentence of Luud with perfect equanimity, since it was but the logical result of reason; but now it seemed different. The stranger woman had bewitched him. Life appeared a pleasant thing—there were great possibilities in it. The dream of the ultimate brain had receded into a tenuous haze far in the background of his thoughts.

At that moment there appeared in the doorway of the chamber a red warrior with naked sword. He was a male counterpart of the prisoner whose sweet voice had undermined the cold, calculating reason of the kaldane.

“Silence!” admonished the newcomer, his straight brows gathered in an ominous frown and the point of his longsword playing menacingly before the eyes of the kaldane. “I seek the woman, Tara of Helium. Where is she? If you value your life speak quickly and speak the truth.”

If he valued his life! It was a truth that Ghek had but just learned. He thought quickly. After all, a great brain is not without its uses. Perhaps here lay escape from the sentence of Luud.

“You are of her kind?” he asked. “You come to rescue her?”

“Yes.”

“Listen, then. I have befriended her, and because of this I am to die. If I help you to liberate her, will you take me with you?”

Gahan of Gathol eyed the weird creature from crown to foot—the perfect body, the grotesque head, the expressionless face. Among such as these had the beautiful daughter of Helium been held captive for days and weeks.

“If she lives and is unharmed,” he said, “I will take you with us.”

“When they took her from me she was alive and unharmed,” replied Ghek. “I cannot say what has befallen her since. Luud sent for her.”

“Who is Luud? Where is he? Lead me to him.” Gahan spoke quickly in tones vibrant with authority.

“Come, then,” said Ghek, leading the way from the apartment and down a stairway toward the underground burrows of the kaldanes. “Luud is my king. I will take you to his chambers.”

“Hasten!” urged Gahan.

“Sheathe your sword,” warned Ghek, “so that should we pass others of my kind I may say to them that you are a new prisoner with some likelihood of winning their belief.”

Gahan did as he was bid, but warning the kaldane that his hand was ever ready at his dagger’s hilt.

“You need have no fear of treachery,” said Ghek. “My only hope of life lies in you.”

“And if you fail me,” Gahan admonished him, “I can promise you as sure a death as even your king might guarantee you.”

Ghek made no reply, but moved rapidly through the winding subterranean corridors until Gahan began to realize how truly was he in the hands of this strange monster. If the fellow should prove false it would profit Gahan nothing to slay him, since without his guidance the red man might never hope to retrace his way to the tower and freedom.

Twice they met and were accosted by other kaldanes; but in both instances Ghek’s simple statement that he was taking a new prisoner to Luud appeared to allay all suspicion, and then at last they came to the ante-chamber of the king.

“Here, now, red man, thou must fight, if ever,” whispered Ghek. “Enter there!” and he pointed to a doorway before them.

“And you?” asked Gahan, still fearful of treachery.

“My rykor is powerful,” replied the kaldane. “I shall accompany you and fight at your side. As well die thus as in torture later at the will of Luud. Come!”

But Gahan had already crossed the room and entered the chamber beyond. Upon the opposite side of the room was a circular opening guarded by two warriors. Beyond this opening he could see two figures struggling upon the floor, and the fleeting glimpse he had of one of the faces suddenly endowed him with the strength of ten warriors and the ferocity of a wounded banth. It was Tara of Helium, fighting for her honor or her life.

The warriors, startled by the unexpected appearance of a red man, stood for a moment in dumb amazement, and in that moment Gahan of Gathol was upon them, and one was down, a sword-thrust through its heart.

“Strike at the heads,” whispered the voice of Ghek in Gahan’s ear. The latter saw the head of the fallen warrior crawl quickly within the aperture leading to the chamber where he had seen Tara of Helium in the clutches of a headless body. Then the sword of Ghek struck the kaldane of the remaining warrior from its rykor and Gahan ran his sword through the repulsive head.

Instantly the red warrior leaped for the aperture, while close behind him came Ghek.

“Look not upon the eyes of Luud,” warned the kaldane, “or you are lost.”

Within the chamber Gahan saw Tara of Helium in the clutches of a mighty body, while close to the wall upon the opposite side of the apartment crouched the hideous, spider-like Luud. Instantly the king realized the menace to himself and sought to fasten his eyes upon the eyes of Gahan, and in doing so he was forced to relax his concentration upon the rykor in whose embraces Tara struggled, so that almost immediately the girl found herself able to tear away from the awful, headless thing.

As she rose quickly to her feet she saw for the first time the cause of the interruption of Luud’s plans. A red warrior! Her heart leaped in rejoicing and thanksgiving. What miracle of fate had sent him to her? She did not recognize him, though, this travel-worn warrior in the plain harness which showed no single jewel. How could she have guessed him the same as the scintillant creature of platinum and diamonds that she had seen for a brief hour under such different circumstances at the court of her august sire?

Luud saw Ghek following the strange warrior into the chamber. “Strike him down, Ghek!” commanded the king. “Strike down the stranger and your life shall be yours.”

Gahan glanced at the hideous face of the king.

“Seek not his eyes,” screamed Tara in warning; but it was too late. Already the horrid hypnotic gaze of the king kaldane had seized upon the eyes of Gahan. The red warrior hesitated in his stride. His sword point drooped slowly toward the floor. Tara glanced toward Ghek. She saw the creature glaring with his expressionless eyes upon the broad back of the stranger. She saw the hand of the creature’s rykor creeping stealthily toward the hilt of its dagger.

And then Tara of Helium raised her eyes aloft and poured forth the notes of Mars’ most beautiful melody, The Song of Love.

Ghek drew his dagger from its sheath. His eyes turned toward the singing girl. Luud’s glance wavered from the eyes of the man to the face of Tara, and the instant that the latter’s song distracted his attention from his victim, Gahan of Gathol shook himself and as with a supreme effort of will forced his eyes to the wall above Luud’s hideous head. Ghek raised his dagger above his right shoulder, took a single quick step forward, and struck. The girl’s song ended in a stifled scream as she leaped forward with the evident intention of frustrating the kaldane’s purpose; but she was too late, and well it was, for an instant later she realized the purpose of Ghek’s act as she saw the dagger fly from his hand, pass Gahan’s shoulder, and sink full to the guard in the soft face of Luud.

“Come!” cried the assassin, “we have no time to lose,” and started for the aperture through which they had entered the chamber; but in his stride he paused as his glance was arrested by the form of the mighty rykor lying prone upon the floor—a king’s rykor; the most beautiful, the most powerful, that the breeders of Bantoom could produce. Ghek realized that in his escape he could take with him but a single rykor, and there was none in Bantoom that could give him better service than this giant lying here. Quickly he transferred himself to the shoulders of the great, inert hulk. Instantly the latter was transformed to a sentient creature, filled with pulsing life and alert energy.

“Now,” said the kaldane, “we are ready. Let whoso would revert to nothingness impede me.” Even as he spoke he stooped and crawled into the chamber beyond, while Gahan, taking Tara by the arm, motioned her to follow. The girl looked him full in the eyes for the first time. “The Gods of my people have been kind,” she said; “you came just in time. To the thanks of Tara of Helium shall be added those of The Warlord of Barsoom and his people. Thy reward shall surpass thy greatest desires.”

Gahan of Gathol saw that she did not recognize him, and quickly he checked the warm greeting that had been upon his lips.

“Be thou Tara of Helium or another,” he replied, “is immaterial, to serve thus a red woman of Barsoom is in itself sufficient reward.”

As they spoke the girl was making her way through the aperture after Ghek, and presently all three had quitted the apartments of Luud and were moving rapidly along the winding corridors toward the tower. Ghek repeatedly urged them to greater speed, but the red men of Barsoom were never keen for retreat, and so the two that followed him moved all too slowly for the kaldane.

“There are none to impede our progress,” urged Gahan, “so why tax the strength of the Princess by needless haste?”

“I fear not so much opposition ahead, for there are none there who know the thing that has been done in Luud’s chambers this night; but the kaldane of one of the warriors who stood guard before Luud’s apartment escaped, and you may count it a truth that he lost no time in seeking aid. That it did not come before we left is due solely to the rapidity with which events transpired in the king’s* room. Long before we reach the tower they will be upon us from behind, and that they will come in numbers far superior to ours and with great and powerful rykors I well know.”

* I have used the word king in describing the rulers or chiefs of the Bantoomian swarms, since the word itself is unpronounceable in English, nor does jed or jeddak of the red Martian tongue have quite the same meaning as the Bantoomian word, which has practically the same significance as the English word queen as applied to the leader of a swarm of bees.—J. C.

 

Nor was Ghek’s prophecy long in fulfilment. Presently the sounds of pursuit became audible in the distant clanking of accouterments and the whistling call to arms of the kaldanes.

“The tower is but a short distance now,” cried Ghek. “Make haste while yet you may, and if we can barricade it until the sun rises we may yet escape.”

“We shall need no barricades for we shall not linger in the tower,” replied Gahan, moving more rapidly as he realized from the volume of sound behind them the great number of their pursuers.

“But we may not go further than the tower tonight,” insisted Ghek. “Beyond the tower await the banths and certain death.”

Gahan smiled. “Fear not the banths,” he assured them. “Can we but reach the enclosure a little ahead of our pursuers we have naught to fear from any evil power within this accursed valley.”

Ghek made no reply, nor did his expressionless face denote either belief or skepticism. The girl looked into the face of the man questioningly. She did not understand.

“Your flier,” he said. “It is moored before the tower.”

Her face lighted with pleasure and relief. “You found it!” she exclaimed. “What fortune!”