The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom #5)

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Ghek had never seen an ulsio, since these great Martian rats had long ago disappeared from Bantoom, their flesh and blood having been greatly relished by the kaldanes; but Ghek had inherited, almost unimpaired, every memory of every ancestor, and so he knew that ulsio inhabited these lairs and that ulsio was good to eat, and he knew what ulsio looked like and what his habits were, though he had never seen him nor any picture of him. As we breed animals for the transmission of physical attributes, so the Kaldanes breed themselves for the transmission of attributes of the mind, including memory and the power of recollection, and thus have they raised what we term instinct, above the level of the threshold of the objective mind where it may be commanded and utilized by recollection. Doubtless in our own subjective minds lie many of the impressions and experiences of our forebears. These may impinge upon our consciousness in dreams only, or in vague, haunting suggestions that we have before experienced some transient phase of our present existence. Ah, if we had but the power to recall them! Before us would unfold the forgotten story of the lost eons that have preceded us. We might even walk with God in the garden of His stars while man was still but a budding idea within His mind.

Ghek descended into the burrow at a steep incline for some ten feet, when he found himself in an elaborate and delightful network of burrows! The kaldane was elated. This indeed was life! He moved rapidly and fearlessly and he went as straight to his goal as you could to the kitchen of your own home. This goal lay at a low level in a spheroidal cavity about the size of a large barrel. Here, in a nest of torn bits of silk and fur lay six baby ulsios.

When the mother returned there were but five babies and a great spider-like creature, which she immediately sprang to attack only to be met by powerful chelae which seized and held her so that she could not move. Slowly they dragged her throat toward a hideous mouth and in a little moment she was dead.

Ghek might have remained in the nest for a long time, since there was ample food for many days; but he did not do so. Instead he explored the burrows. He followed them into many subterranean chambers of the city of Manator, and upward through walls to rooms above the ground. He found many ingeniously devised traps, and he found poisoned food and other signs of the constant battle that the inhabitants of Manator waged against these repulsive creatures that dwelt beneath their homes and public buildings.

His exploration revealed not only the vast proportions of the network of runways that apparently traversed every portion of the city, but the great antiquity of the majority of them. Tons upon tons of dirt must have been removed, and for a long time he wondered where it had been deposited, until in following downward a tunnel of great size and length he sensed before him the thunderous rush of subterranean waters, and presently came to the bank of a great, underground river, tumbling onward, no doubt, the length of a world to the buried sea of Omean. Into this torrential sewer had unthinkable generations of ulsios pushed their few handsful of dirt in the excavating of their vast labyrinth.

For only a moment did Ghek tarry by the river, for his seemingly aimless wanderings were in reality prompted by a definite purpose, and this he pursued with vigor and singleness of design. He followed such runways as appeared to terminate in the pits or other chambers of the inhabitants of the city, and these he explored, usually from the safety of a burrow’s mouth, until satisfied that what he sought was not there. He moved swiftly upon his spider legs and covered remarkable distances in short periods of time.

His search not being rewarded with immediate success, he decided to return to the pit where his rykor lay chained and look to its wants. As he approached the end of the burrow that terminated in the pit he slackened his pace, stopping just within the entrance of the runway that he might scan the interior of the chamber before entering it. As he did so he saw the figure of a warrior appear suddenly in an opposite doorway. The rykor sprawled upon the table, his hands groping blindly for more food. Ghek saw the warrior pause and gaze in sudden astonishment at the rykor; he saw the fellow’s eyes go wide and an ashen hue replace the copper bronze of his cheek. He stepped back as though someone had struck him in the face. For an instant only he stood thus as in a paralysis of fear, then he uttered a smothered shriek and turned and fled. Again was it a catastrophe that Ghek, the kaldane, could not smile.

Quickly entering the room he crawled to the table top and affixed himself to the shoulders of his rykor, and there he waited; and who may say that Ghek, though he could not smile, possessed not a sense of humor? For a half-hour he sat there, and then there came to him the sound of men approaching along corridors of stone. He could hear their arms clank against the rocky walls and he knew that they came at a rapid pace; but just before they reached the entrance to his prison they paused and advanced more slowly. In the lead was an officer, and just behind him, wide-eyed and perhaps still a little ashen, the warrior who had so recently departed in haste. At the doorway they halted and the officer turned sternly upon the warrior. With upraised finger he pointed at Ghek.

“There sits the creature! Didst thou dare lie, then, to thy dwar?”

“I swear,” cried the warrior, “that I spoke the truth. But a moment since the thing groveled, headless, upon this very table! And may my first ancestor strike me dead upon the spot if I speak other than a true word!”

The officer looked puzzled. The men of Mars seldom if ever lie. He scratched his head. Then he addressed Ghek. “How long have you been here?” he asked.

“Who knows better than those who placed me here and chained me to a wall?” he returned in reply.

“Saw you this warrior enter here a few minutes since?”

“I saw him,” replied Ghek.

“And you sat there where you sit now?” continued the officer.

“Look thou to my chain and tell me then where else might I sit!” cried Ghek. “Art the people of thy city all fools?”

Three other warriors pressed behind the two in front, craning their necks to view the prisoner while they grinned at the discomfiture of their fellow. The officer scowled at Ghek.

“Thy tongue is as venomous as that of the she-banth O-Tar sent to The Towers of Jetan,” he said.

“You speak of the young woman who was captured with me?” asked Ghek, his expressionless monotone and face revealing naught of the interest he felt.

“I speak of her,” replied the dwar, and then turning to the warrior who had summoned him: “return to thy quarters and remain there until the next games. Perhaps by that time thy eyes may have learned not to deceive thee.”

The fellow cast a venomous glance at Ghek and turned away. The officer shook his head. “I do not understand it,” he muttered. “Always has U-Van been a true and dependable warrior. Could it be—?” he glanced piercingly at Ghek. “Thou hast a strange head that misfits thy body, fellow,” he cried. “Our legends tell us of those ancient creatures that placed hallucinations upon the mind of their fellows. If thou be such then maybe U-Van suffered from thy forbidden powers. If thou be such O-Tar will know well how to deal with thee.” He wheeled about and motioned his warriors to follow him.

“Wait!” cried Ghek. “Unless I am to be starved, send me food.”

“You have had food,” replied the warrior.

“Am I to be fed but once a day?” asked Ghek. “I require food oftener than that. Send me food.”

“You shall have food,” replied the officer. “None may say that the prisoners of Manator are ill-fed. Just are the laws of Manator,” and he departed.

No sooner had the sounds of their passing died away in the distance than Ghek clambered from the shoulders of his rykor, and scurried to the burrow where he had hidden the key. Fetching it he unlocked the fetter from about the creature’s ankle, locked it empty and carried the key farther down into the burrow. Then he returned to his place upon his brainless servitor. After a while he heard footsteps approaching, whereupon he rose and passed into another corridor from that down which he knew the warrior was coming. Here he waited out of sight, listening. He heard the man enter the chamber and halt. He heard a muttered exclamation, followed by the jangle of metal dishes as a salver was slammed upon a table; then rapidly retreating footsteps, which quickly died away in the distance.

Ghek lost no time in returning to the chamber, recovering the key, relocking the rykor to his chain. Then he replaced the key in the burrow and squatting on the table beside his headless body, directed its hands toward the food. While the rykor ate Ghek sat listening for the scraping sandals and clattering arms that he knew soon would come. Nor had he long to wait. Ghek scrambled to the shoulders of his rykor as he heard them coming. Again it was the officer who had been summoned by U-Van and with him were three warriors. The one directly behind him was evidently the same who had brought the food, for his eyes went wide when he saw Ghek sitting at the table and he looked very foolish as the dwar turned his stern glance upon him.

“It is even as I said,” he cried. “He was not here when I brought his food.”

“But he is here now,” said the officer grimly, “and his fetter is locked about his ankle. Look! it has not been opened—but where is the key? It should be upon the table at the end opposite him. Where is the key, creature?” he shouted at Ghek.

“How should I, a prisoner, know better than my jailer the whereabouts of the key to my fetters?” he retorted.

“But it lay here,” cried the officer, pointing to the other end of the table.

“Did you see it?” asked Ghek.

The officer hesitated. “No but it must have been there,” he parried.

“Did you see the key lying there?” asked Ghek, pointing to another warrior.

The fellow shook his head negatively. “And you? and you?” continued the kaldane addressing the others.

They both admitted that they never had seen the key. “And if it had been there how could I have reached it?” he continued.

“No, he could not have reached it,” admitted the officer; “but there shall be no more of this! I-Zav, you will remain here on guard with this prisoner until you are relieved.”

I-Zav looked anything but happy as this intelligence was transmitted to him, and he eyed Ghek suspiciously as the dwar and the other warriors turned and left him to his unhappy lot.

 

CHAPTER XIII

A DESPERATE DEED

E-Med crossed the tower chamber toward Tara of Helium and the slave girl, Lan-O. He seized the former roughly by a shoulder. “Stand!” he commanded. Tara struck his hand from her and rising, backed away.

“Lay not your hand upon the person of a princess of Helium, beast!” she warned.

E-Med laughed. “Think you that I play at jetan for you without first knowing something of the stake for which I play?” he demanded. “Come here!”

The girl drew herself to her full height, folding her arms across her breast, nor did E-Med note that the slim fingers of her right hand were inserted beneath the broad leather strap of her harness where it passed over her left shoulder.

“And O-Tar learns of this you shall rue it, E-Med,” cried the slave girl; “there be no law in Manator that gives you this girl before you shall have won her fairly.”

“What cares O-Tar for her fate?” replied E-Med. “Have I not heard? Did she not flout the great jeddak, heaping abuse upon him? By my first ancestor, I think O-Tar might make a jed of the man who subdued her,” and again he advanced toward Tara.

“Wait!” said the girl in low, even tone. “Perhaps you know not what you do. Sacred to the people of Helium are the persons of the women of Helium. For the honor of the humblest of them would the great jeddak himself unsheathe his sword. The greatest nations of Barsoom have trembled to the thunders of war in defense of the person of Dejah Thoris, my mother. We are but mortal and so may die; but we may not be defiled. You may play at jetan for a princess of Helium, but though you may win the match, never may you claim the reward. If thou wouldst possess a dead body press me too far, but know, man of Manator, that the blood of The Warlord flows not in the veins of Tara of Helium for naught. I have spoken.”

“I know naught of Helium and O-Tar is our warlord,” replied E-Med; “but I do know that I would examine more closely the prize that I shall play for and win. I would test the lips of her who is to be my slave after the next games; nor is it well, woman, to drive me too far to anger.” His eyes narrowed as he spoke, his visage taking on the semblance of that of a snarling beast. “If you doubt the truth of my words ask Lan-O, the slave girl.”

“He speaks truly, O woman of Helium,” interjected Lan-O. “Try not the temper of E-Med, if you value your life.”

But Tara of Helium made no reply. Already had she spoken. She stood in silence now facing the burly warrior who approached her. He came close and then quite suddenly he seized her and, bending, tried to draw her lips to his.

Lan-O saw the woman from Helium half turn, and with a quick movement jerk her right hand from where it had lain upon her breast. She saw the hand shoot from beneath the arm of E-Med and rise behind his shoulder and she saw in the hand a long, slim blade. The lips of the warrior were drawing closer to those of the woman, but they never touched them, for suddenly the man straightened, stiffly, a shriek upon his lips, and then he crumpled like an empty fur and lay, a shrunken heap, upon the floor. Tara of Helium stooped and wiped her blade upon his harness.

Lan-O, wide-eyed, looked with horror upon the corpse. “For this we shall both die,” she cried.

“And who would live a slave in Manator?” asked Tara of Helium.

“I am not so brave as thou,” said the slave girl, “and life is sweet and there is always hope.”

“Life is sweet,” agreed Tara of Helium, “but honor is sacred. But do not fear. When they come I shall tell them the truth—that you had no hand in this and no opportunity to prevent it.”

For a moment the slave girl seemed to be thinking deeply. Suddenly her eyes lighted. “There is a way, perhaps,” she said, “to turn suspicion from us. He has the key to this chamber upon him. Let us open the door and drag him out—maybe we shall find a place to hide him.”