The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom #5)

Page 19

“U-Thor is a just man and good, then?” asked Tara of Helium.

“There be none nobler,” replied Lan-O. “In Manatos none but wicked criminals who deserve death are forced to play at jetan, and even then the play is fair and they have their chance for freedom. Volunteers may play, but the moves are not necessarily to the death—a wound, and even sometimes points in swordplay, deciding the issue. There they look upon jetan as a martial sport—here it is but butchery. And U-Thor is opposed to the ancient slave raids and to the policy that keeps Manator forever isolated from the other nations of Barsoom; but U-Thor is not jeddak and so there is no change.”

The two girls watched the column moving up the broad avenue from The Gate of Enemies toward the palace of O-Tar. A gorgeous, barbaric procession of painted warriors in jewel-studded harness and waving feathers; vicious, squealing thoats caparisoned in rich trappings; far above their heads the long lances of their riders bore fluttering pennons; foot-soldiers swinging easily along the stone pavement, their sandals of zitidar hide giving forth no sound; and at the rear of each utan a train of painted chariots, drawn by mammoth zitidars, carrying the equipment of the company to which they were attached. Utan after utan entered through the great gate, and even when the head of the column reached the palace of O-Tar they were not all within the city.

“I have been here many years,” said the girl, Lan-O; “but never have I seen even The Great Jed bring so many fighting men into the city of Manator.”

Through half-closed eyes Tara of Helium watched the warriors marching up the broad avenue, trying to imagine them the fighting men of her beloved Helium coming to the rescue of their princess. That splendid figure upon the great thoat might be John Carter, himself, Warlord of Barsoom, and behind him utan after utan of the veterans of the empire, and then the girl opened her eyes again and saw the host of painted, befeathered barbarians, and sighed. But yet she watched, fascinated by the martial scene, and now she noted again the groups of silent figures upon the balconies. No waving silks; no cries of welcome; no showers of flowers and jewels such as would have marked the entry of such a splendid, friendly pageant into the twin cities of her birth.

“The people do not seem friendly to the warriors of Manatos,” she remarked to Lan-O; “I have not seen a single welcoming sign from the people on the balconies.”

The slave girl looked at her in surprise. “It cannot be that you do not know!” she exclaimed. “Why, they are—” but she got no further. The door swung open and an officer stood before them.

“The slave girl, Tara, is summoned to the presence of O-Tar, the jeddak!” he announced.

 

CHAPTER XIV

AT GHEK’S COMMAND

Turan the panthan chafed in his chains. Time dragged; silence and monotony prolonged minutes into hours. Uncertainty of the fate of the woman he loved turned each hour into an eternity of hell. He listened impatiently for the sound of approaching footsteps that he might see and speak to some living creature and learn, perchance, some word of Tara of Helium. After torturing hours his ears were rewarded by the rattle of harness and arms. Men were coming! He waited breathlessly. Perhaps they were his executioners; but he would welcome them notwithstanding. He would question them. But if they knew naught of Tara he would not divulge the location of the hiding place in which he had left her.

Now they came—a half-dozen warriors and an officer, escorting an unarmed man; a prisoner, doubtless. Of this Turan was not left long in doubt, since they brought the newcomer and chained him to an adjoining ring. Immediately the panthan commenced to question the officer in charge of the guard.

“Tell me,” he demanded, “why I have been made prisoner, and if other strangers were captured since I entered your city.”

“What other prisoners?” asked the officer.

“A woman, and a man with a strange head,” replied Turan.

“It is possible,” said the officer; “but what were their names?”

“The woman was Tara, Princess of Helium, and the man was Ghek, a kaldane, of Bantoom.”

“These were your friends?” asked the officer.

“Yes,” replied Turan.

“It is what I would know,” said the officer, and with a curt command to his men to follow him he turned and left the cell.

“Tell me of them!” cried Turan after him. “Tell me of Tara of Helium! Is she safe?” but the man did not answer and soon the sound of their departure died in the distance.

“Tara of Helium was safe, but a short time since,” said the prisoner chained at Turan’s side.

The panthan turned toward the speaker, seeing a large man, handsome of face and with a manner both stately and dignified. “You have seen her?” he asked. “They captured her then? She is in danger?”

“She is being held in The Towers of Jetan as a prize for the next games,” replied the stranger.

“And who are you?” asked Turan. “And why are you here, a prisoner?”

“I am A-Kor the dwar, keeper of The Towers of Jetan,” replied the other. “I am here because I dared speak the truth of O-Tar the jeddak, to one of his officers.”

“And your punishment?” asked Turan.

“I do not know. O-Tar has not yet spoken. Doubtless the games—perhaps the full ten, for O-Tar does not love A-Kor, his son.”

“You are the jeddak’s son?” asked Turan.

“I am the son of O-Tar and of a slave, Haja of Gathol, who was a princess in her own land.”

Turan looked searchingly at the speaker. A son of Haja of Gathol! A son of his mother’s sister, this man, then, was his own cousin. Well did Gahan remember the mysterious disappearance of the Princess Haja and an entire utan of her personal troops. She had been upon a visit far from the city of Gathol and returning home had vanished with her whole escort from the sight of man. So this was the secret of the seeming mystery? Doubtless it explained many other similar disappearances that extended nearly as far back as the history of Gathol. Turan scrutinized his companion, discovering many evidences of resemblance to his mother’s people. A-Kor might have been ten years younger than he, but such differences in age are scarce accounted among a people who seldom or never age outwardly after maturity and whose span of life may be a thousand years.

“And where lies Gathol?” asked Turan.

“Almost due east of Manator,” replied A-Kor.

“And how far?”

“Some twenty-one degrees it is from the city of Manator to the city of Gathol,” replied A-Kor; “but little more than ten degrees between the boundaries of the two countries. Between them, though, there lies a country of torn rocks and yawning chasms.”

Well did Gahan know this country that bordered his upon the west—even the ships of the air avoided it because of the treacherous currents that rose from the deep chasms, and the almost total absence of safe landings. He knew now where Manator lay and for the first time in long weeks the way to his own Gathol, and here was a man, a fellow prisoner, in whose veins flowed the blood of his own ancestors—a man who knew Manator; its people, its customs and the country surrounding it—one who could aid him, with advice at least, to find a plan for the rescue of Tara of Helium and for escape. But would A-Kor—could he dare broach the subject? He could do no less than try.

“And O-Tar you think will sentence you to death?” he asked; “and why?”

“He would like to,” replied A-Kor, “for the people chafe beneath his iron hand and their loyalty is but the loyalty of a people to the long line of illustrious jeddaks from which he has sprung. He is a jealous man and has found the means of disposing of most of those whose blood might entitle them to a claim upon the throne, and whose place in the affections of the people endowed them with any political significance. The fact that I was the son of a slave relegated me to a position of minor importance in the consideration of O-Tar, yet I am still the son of a jeddak and might sit upon the throne of Manator with as perfect congruity as O-Tar himself. Combined with this is the fact that of recent years the people, and especially many of the younger warriors, have evinced a growing affection for me, which I attribute to certain virtues of character and training derived from my mother, but which O-Tar assumes to be the result of an ambition upon my part to occupy the throne of Manator.

“And now, I am firmly convinced, he has seized upon my criticism of his treatment of the slave girl Tara as a pretext for ridding himself of me.”

“But if you could escape and reach Gathol,” suggested Turan.

“I have thought of that,” mused A-Kor; “but how much better off would I be? In the eyes of the Gatholians I would be, not a Gatholian; but a stranger and doubtless they would accord me the same treatment that we of Manator accord strangers.”

“Could you convince them that you are the son of the Princess Haja your welcome would be assured,” said Turan; “while on the other hand you could purchase your freedom and citizenship with a brief period of labor in the diamond mines.”

“How know you all these things?” asked A-Kor. “I thought you were from Helium.”

“I am a panthan,” replied Turan, “and I have served many countries, among them Gathol.”

“It is what the slaves from Gathol have told me,” said A-Kor, thoughtfully, “and my mother, before O-Tar sent her to live at Manatos. I think he must have feared her power and influence among the slaves from Gathol and their descendants, who number perhaps a million people throughout the land of Manator.”

“Are these slaves organized?” asked Turan.

A-Kor looked straight into the eyes of the panthan for a long moment before he replied. “You are a man of honor,” he said; “I read it in your face, and I am seldom mistaken in my estimate of a man; but—” and he leaned closer to the other—”even the walls have ears,” he whispered, and Turan’s question was answered.

It was later in the evening that warriors came and unlocked the fetter from Turan’s ankle and led him away to appear before O-Tar, the jeddak. They conducted him toward the palace along narrow, winding streets and broad avenues; but always from the balconies there looked down upon them in endless ranks the silent people of the city. The palace itself was filled with life and activity. Mounted warriors galloped through the corridors and up and down the runways connecting adjacent floors. It seemed that no one walked within the palace other than a few slaves. Squealing, fighting thoats were stabled in magnificent halls while their riders, if not upon some duty of the palace, played at jetan with small figures carved from wood.

Turan noted the magnificence of the interior architecture of the palace, the lavish expenditure of precious jewels and metals, the gorgeous mural decorations which depicted almost exclusively martial scenes, and principally duels which seemed to be fought upon jetan boards of heroic size. The capitals of many of the columns supporting the ceilings of the corridors and chambers through which they passed were wrought into formal likenesses of jetan pieces—everywhere there seemed a suggestion of the game. Along the same path that Tara of Helium had been led Turan was conducted toward the throne room of O-Tar the jeddak, and when he entered the Hall of Chiefs his interest turned to wonder and admiration as he viewed the ranks of statuesque thoatmen decked in their gorgeous, martial panoply. Never, he thought, had he seen upon Barsoom more soldierly figures or thoats so perfectly trained to perfection of immobility as these. Not a muscle quivered, not a tail lashed, and the riders were as motionless as their mounts—each warlike eye straight to the front, the great spears inclined at the same angle. It was a picture to fill the breast of a fighting man with awe and reverence. Nor did it fail in its effect upon Turan as they conducted him the length of the chamber, where he waited before great doors until he should be summoned into the presence of the ruler of Manator.

When Tara of Helium was ushered into the throne room of O-Tar she found the great hall filled with the chiefs and officers of O-Tar and U-Thor, the latter occupying the place of honor at the foot of the throne, as was his due. The girl was conducted to the foot of the aisle and halted before the jeddak, who looked down upon her from his high throne with scowling brows and fierce, cruel eyes.

“The laws of Manator are just,” said O-Tar, addressing her; “thus is it that you have been summoned here again to be judged by the highest authority of Manator. Word has reached me that you are suspected of being a Corphal. What word have you to say in refutation of the charge?”

Tara of Helium could scarce restrain a sneer as she answered the ridiculous accusation of witchcraft. “So ancient is the culture of my people,” she said, “that authentic history reveals no defense for that which we know existed only in the ignorant and superstitious minds of the most primitive peoples of the past. To those who are yet so untutored as to believe in the existence of Corphals, there can be no argument that will convince them of their error—only long ages of refinement and culture can accomplish their release from the bondage of ignorance. I have spoken.”

“Yet you do not deny the accusation,” said O-Tar.

“It is not worthy the dignity of a denial,” she responded haughtily.

“And I were you, woman,” said a deep voice at her side, “I should, nevertheless, deny it.”

Tara of Helium turned to see the eyes of U-Thor, the great jed of Manatos, upon her. Brave eyes they were, but neither cold nor cruel. O-Tar rapped impatiently upon the arm of his throne. “U-Thor forgets,” he cried, “that O-Tar is the jeddak.”

“U-Thor remembers,” replied the jed of Manatos, “that the laws of Manator permit any who may be accused to have advice and counsel before their judge.”

Tara of Helium saw that for some reason this man would have assisted her, and so she acted upon his advice.

“I deny the charge,” she said, “I am no Corphal.”

“Of that we shall learn,” snapped O-Tar. “U-Dor, where are those who have knowledge of the powers of this woman?”