The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom #5)

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“Gladly!” exclaimed the other. “What may I do for him?”

“Make me chief of the Black and give me for my pieces all slaves from Gathol, for I understand that those be excellent warriors,” replied the panthan.

“It is a strange request,” said the keeper, “but for my friend O-Zar I would do even more, though of course—” he hesitated—”it is customary for one who would be chief to make some slight payment.”

“Certainly,” Turan hastened to assure him; “I had not forgotten that. I was about to ask you what the customary amount is.”

“For the friend of my friend it shall be nominal,” replied the keeper, naming a figure that Gahan, accustomed to the high price of wealthy Gathol, thought ridiculously low.

“Tell me,” he said, handing the money to the keeper, “when the game for the Heliumite is to be played.”

“It is the second in order of the day’s games; and now if you will come with me you may select your pieces.”

Turan followed the keeper to a large court which lay between the towers and the jetan field, where hundreds of warriors were assembled. Already chiefs for the games of the day were selecting their pieces and assigning them to positions, though for the principal games these matters had been arranged for weeks before. The keeper led Turan to a part of the courtyard where the majority of the slaves were assembled.

“Take your choice of those not assigned,” said the keeper, “and when you have your quota conduct them to the field. Your place will be assigned you by an officer there, and there you will remain with your pieces until the second game is called. I wish you luck, U-Kal, though from what I have heard you will be more lucky to lose than to win the slave from Helium.”

After the fellow had departed Turan approached the slaves. “I seek the best swordsmen for the second game,” he announced. “Men from Gathol I wish, for I have heard that these be noble fighters.”

A slave rose and approached him. “It is all the same in which game we die,” he said. “I would fight for you as a panthan in the second game.”

Another came. “I am not from Gathol,” he said. “I am from Helium, and I would fight for the honor of a princess of Helium.”

“Good!” exclaimed Turan. “Art a swordsman of repute in Helium?”

“I was a dwar under the great Warlord, and I have fought at his side in a score of battles from The Golden Cliffs to The Carrion Caves. My name is Val Dor. Who knows Helium, knows my prowess.”

The name was well known to Gahan, who had heard the man spoken of on his last visit to Helium, and his mysterious disappearance discussed as well as his renown as a fighter.

“How could I know aught of Helium?” asked Turan; “but if you be such a fighter as you say no position could suit you better than that of Flier. What say you?”

The man’s eyes denoted sudden surprise. He looked keenly at Turan, his eyes running quickly over the other’s harness. Then he stepped quite close so that his words might not be overheard.

“Methinks you may know more of Helium than of Manator,” he whispered.

“What mean you, fellow?” demanded Turan, seeking to cudgel his brains for the source of this man’s knowledge, guess, or inspiration.

“I mean,” replied Val Dor, “that you are not of Manator and that if you wish to hide the fact it is well that you speak not to a Manatorian as you did just speak to me of—Fliers! There be no Fliers in Manator and no piece in their game of Jetan bearing that name. Instead they call him who stands next to the Chief or Princess, Odwar. The piece has the same moves and power that the Flier has in the game as played outside Manator. Remember this then and remember, too, that if you have a secret it be safe in the keeping of Val Dor of Helium.”

Turan made no reply but turned to the task of selecting the remainder of his pieces. Val Dor, the Heliumite, and Floran, the volunteer from Gathol, were of great assistance to him, since one or the other of them knew most of the slaves from whom his selection was to be made. The pieces all chosen, Turan led them to the place beside the playing field where they were to wait their turn, and here he passed the word around that they were to fight for more than the stake he offered for the princess should they win. This stake they accepted, so that Turan was sure of possessing Tara if his side was victorious, but he knew that these men would fight even more valorously for chivalry than for money, nor was it difficult to enlist the interest even of the Gatholians in the service of the princess. And now he held out the possibility of a still further reward.

“I cannot promise you,” he explained, “but I may say I have heard that this day which makes it possible that should we win this game we may even win your freedom!”

They leaped to their feet and crowded around him with many questions.

“It may not be spoken of aloud,” he said; “but Floran and Val Dor know and they assure me that you may all be trusted. Listen! What I would tell you places my life in your hands, but you must know that every man will realize that he is fighting today the greatest battle of his life—for the honor and the freedom of Barsoom’s most wondrous princess and for his own freedom as well—for the chance to return each to his own country and to the woman who awaits him there.

“First, then, is my secret. I am not of Manator. Like yourselves I am a slave, though for the moment disguised as a Manatorian from Manataj. My country and my identity must remain undisclosed for reasons that have no bearing upon our game today. I, then, am one of you. I fight for the same things that you will fight for.

“And now for that which I have but just learned. U-Thor, the great jed of Manatos, quarreled with O-Tar in the palace the day before yesterday and their warriors set upon one another. U-Thor was driven as far as The Gate of Enemies, where he now lies encamped. At any moment the fight may be renewed; but it is thought that U-Thor has sent to Manatos for reinforcements. Now, men of Gathol, here is the thing that interests you. U-Thor has recently taken to wife the Princess Haja of Gathol, who was slave to O-Tar and whose son, A-Kor, was dwar of The Towers of Jetan. Haja’s heart is filled with loyalty for Gathol and compassion for her sons who are here enslaved, and this latter sentiment she has to some extent transmitted to U-Thor. Aid me, therefore, in freeing the Princess Tara of Helium and I believe that I can aid you and her and myself to escape the city. Bend close your ears, slaves of O-Tar, that no cruel enemy may hear my words,” and Gahan of Gathol whispered in low tones the daring plan he had conceived. “And now,” he demanded, when he had finished, “let him who does not dare speak now.” None replied. “Is there none?”

“And it would not betray you should I cast my sword at thy feet, it had been done ere this,” said one in low tones pregnant with suppressed feeling.

“And I!” “And I!” “And I!” chorused the others in vibrant whispers.
CHAPTER XVII

A PLAY TO THE DEATH

Clear and sweet a trumpet spoke across The Fields of Jetan. From The High Tower its cool voice floated across the city of Manator and above the babel of human discords rising from the crowded mass that filled the seats of the stadium below. It called the players for the first game, and simultaneously there fluttered to the peaks of a thousand staffs on tower and battlement and the great wall of the stadium the rich, gay pennons of the fighting chiefs of Manator. Thus was marked the opening of The Jeddak’s Games, the most important of the year and second only to the Grand Decennial Games.

Gahan of Gathol watched every play with eagle eye. The match was an unimportant one, being but to settle some petty dispute between two chiefs, and was played with professional jetan players for points only. No one was killed and there was but little blood spilled. It lasted about an hour and was terminated by the chief of the losing side deliberately permitting himself to be out-pointed, that the game might be called a draw.

Again the trumpet sounded, this time announcing the second and last game of the afternoon. While this was not considered an important match, those being reserved for the fourth and fifth days of the games, it promised to afford sufficient excitement since it was a game to the death. The vital difference between the game played with living men and that in which inanimate pieces are used, lies in the fact that while in the latter the mere placing of a piece upon a square occupied by an opponent piece terminates the move, in the former the two pieces thus brought together engage in a duel for possession of the square. Therefore there enters into the former game not only the strategy of jetan but the personal prowess and bravery of each individual piece, so that a knowledge not only of one’s own men but of each player upon the opposing side is of vast value to a chief.

In this respect was Gahan handicapped, though the loyalty of his players did much to offset his ignorance of them, since they aided him in arranging the board to the best advantage and told him honestly the faults and virtues of each. One fought best in a losing game; another was too slow; another too impetuous; this one had fire and a heart of steel, but lacked endurance. Of the opponents, though, they knew little or nothing, and now as the two sides took their places upon the black and orange squares of the great jetan board Gahan obtained, for the first time, a close view of those who opposed him. The Orange Chief had not yet entered the field, but his men were all in place. Val Dor turned to Gahan. “They are all criminals from the pits of Manator,” he said. “There is no slave among them. We shall not have to fight against a single fellow-countryman and every life we take will be the life of an enemy.”

“It is well,” replied Gahan; “but where is their Chief, and where the two Princesses?”

“They are coming now, see?” and he pointed across the field to where two women could be seen approaching under guard.

As they came nearer Gahan saw that one was indeed Tara of Helium, but the other he did not recognize, and then they were brought to the center of the field midway between the two sides and there waited until the Orange Chief arrived.

Floran voiced an exclamation of surprise when he recognized him. “By my first ancestor if it is not one of their great chiefs,” he said, “and we were told that slaves and criminals were to play for the stake of this game.”

His words were interrupted by the keeper of The Towers whose duty it was not only to announce the games and the stakes, but to act as referee as well.

“Of this, the second game of the first day of the Jeddak’s Games in the four hundred and thirty-third year of O-Tar, Jeddak of Manator, the Princesses of each side shall be the sole stakes and to the survivors of the winning side shall belong both the Princesses, to do with as they shall see fit. The Orange Princess is the slave woman Lan-O of Gathol; the Black Princess is the slave woman Tara, a princess of Helium. The Black Chief is U-Kal of Manataj, a volunteer player; the Orange Chief is the dwar U-Dor of the 8th Utan of the jeddak of Manator, also a volunteer player. The squares shall be contested to the death. Just are the laws of Manator! I have spoken.”

The initial move was won by U-Dor, following which the two Chiefs escorted their respective Princesses to the square each was to occupy. It was the first time Gahan had been alone with Tara since she had been brought upon the field. He saw her scrutinizing him closely as he approached to lead her to her place and wondered if she recognized him: but if she did she gave no sign of it. He could not but remember her last words—”I hate you!” and her desertion of him when he had been locked in the room beneath the palace by I-Gos, the taxidermist, and so he did not seek to enlighten her as to his identity. He meant to fight for her—to die for her, if necessary—and if he did not die to go on fighting to the end for her love. Gahan of Gathol was not easily to be discouraged, but he was compelled to admit that his chances of winning the love of Tara of Helium were remote. Already had she repulsed him twice. Once as jed of Gathol and again as Turan the panthan. Before his love, however, came her safety and the former must be relegated to the background until the latter had been achieved.

Passing among the players already at their stations the two took their places upon their respective squares. At Tara’s left was the Black Chief, Gahan of Gathol; directly in front of her the Princess’ Panthan, Floran of Gathol; and at her right the Princess’ Odwar, Val Dor of Helium. And each of these knew the part that he was to play, win or lose, as did each of the other Black players. As Tara took her place Val Dor bowed low. “My sword is at your feet, Tara of Helium,” he said.

She turned and looked at him, an expression of surprise and incredulity upon her face. “Val Dor, the dwar!” she exclaimed. “Val Dor of Helium—one of my father’s trusted captains! Can it be possible that my eyes speak the truth?”

“It is Val Dor, Princess,” the warrior replied, “and here to die for you if need be, as is every wearer of the Black upon this field of jetan today. Know Princess,” he whispered, “that upon this side is no man of Manator, but each and every is an enemy of Manator.”

She cast a quick, meaning glance toward Gahan. “But what of him?” she whispered, and then she caught her breath quickly in surprise. “Shade of the first jeddak!” she exclaimed. “I did but just recognize him through his disguise.”

“And you trust him?” asked Val Dor. “I know him not; but he spoke fairly, as an honorable warrior, and we have taken him at his word.”

“You have made no mistake,” replied Tara of Helium. “I would trust him with my life—with my soul; and you, too, may trust him.”

Happy indeed would have been Gahan of Gathol could he have heard those words; but Fate, who is usually unkind to the lover in such matters, ordained it otherwise, and then the game was on.

U-Dor moved his Princess’ Odwar three squares diagonally to the right, which placed the piece upon the Black Chief’s Odwar’s seventh. The move was indicative of the game that U-Dor intended playing—a game of blood, rather than of science—and evidenced his contempt for his opponents.

Gahan followed with his Odwar’s Panthan one square straight forward, a more scientific move, which opened up an avenue for himself through his line of Panthans, as well as announcing to the players and spectators that he intended having a hand in the fighting himself even before the exigencies of the game forced it upon him. The move elicited a ripple of applause from those sections of seats reserved for the common warriors and their women, showing perhaps that U-Dor was none too popular with these, and, too, it had its effect upon the morale of Gahan’s pieces. A Chief may, and often does, play almost an entire game without leaving his own square, where, mounted upon a thoat, he may overlook the entire field and direct each move, nor may he be reproached for lack of courage should he elect thus to play the game since, by the rules, were he to be slain or so badly wounded as to be compelled to withdraw, a game that might otherwise have been won by the science of his play and the prowess of his men would be drawn. To invite personal combat, therefore, denotes confidence in his own swordsmanship, and great courage, two attributes that were calculated to fill the Black players with hope and valor when evinced by their Chief thus early in the game.