The Chessmen of Mars (Barsoom #5)

Page 29

“S-s-st,” cautioned one; “here comes the licker of feet,” and all eyes were turned upon the approaching E-Thas.

“Kaor, friends!” he exclaimed as he stopped among them, but his friendly greeting elicited naught but a few surly nods. “Have you heard the news?” he continued, unabashed by treatment to which he was becoming accustomed.

“What—has O-Tar seen an ulsio and fainted?” demanded I-Gos with broad sarcasm.

“Men have died for less than that, ancient one,” E-Thas reminded him.

“I am safe,” retorted I-Gos, “for I am not a brave and popular son of the jeddak of Manator.”

This was indeed open treason, but E-Thas feigned not to hear it. He ignored I-Gos and turned to the others. “O-Tar goes to the chamber of O-Mai this night in search of Turan the slave,” he said. “He sorrows that his warriors have not the courage for so mean a duty and that their jeddak is thus compelled to arrest a common slave,” with which taunt E-Thas passed on to spread the word in other parts of the palace. As a matter of fact the latter part of his message was purely original with himself, and he took great delight in delivering it to the discomfiture of his enemies. As he was leaving the little group of men I-Gos called after him. “At what hour does O-Tar intend visiting the chambers of O-Mai?” he asked.

“Toward the end of the eighth zode*,” replied the major-domo, and went his way.

* About 1:00 A. M. Earth Time.

 

“We shall see,” stated I-Gos.

“What shall we see?” asked a warrior.

“We shall see whether O-Tar visits the chamber of O-Mai.”

“How?”

“I shall be there myself and if I see him I will know that he has been there. If I don’t see him I will know that he has not,” explained the old taxidermist.

“Is there anything there to fill an honest man with fear?” asked a chieftain. “What have you seen?”

“It was not so much what I saw, though that was bad enough, as what I heard,” said I-Gos.

“Tell us! What heard and saw you?”

“I saw the dead O-Mai,” said I-Gos. The others shuddered.

“And you went not mad?” they asked.

“Am I mad?” retorted I-Gos.

“And you will go again?”

“Yes.”

“Then indeed you are mad,” cried one.

“You saw the dead O-Mai; but what heard you that was worse?” whispered another.

“I saw the dead O-Mai lying upon the floor of his sleeping chamber with one foot tangled in the sleeping silks and furs upon his couch. I heard horrid moans and frightful screams.”

“And you are not afraid to go there again?” demanded several.

“The dead cannot harm me,” said I-Gos. “He has lain thus for five thousand years. Nor can a sound harm me. I heard it once and live—I can hear it again. It came from almost at my side where I hid behind the hangings and watched the slave Turan before I snatched the woman away from him.”

“I-Gos, you are a very brave man,” said a chieftain.

“O-Tar called me ‘doddering fool’ and I would face worse dangers than lie in the forbidden chambers of O-Mai to know it if he does not visit the chamber of O-Mai. Then indeed shall O-Tar fall!”

The night came and the zodes dragged and the time approached when O-Tar, Jeddak of Manator, was to visit the chamber of O-Mai in search of the slave Turan. To us, who may doubt the existence of malignant spirits, his fear may seem unbelievable, for he was a strong man, an excellent swordsman, and a warrior of great repute; but the fact remained that O-Tar of Manator was nervous with apprehension as he strode the corridors of his palace toward the deserted halls of O-Mai and when he stood at last with his hand upon the door that opened from the dusty corridor to the very apartments themselves he was almost paralyzed with terror. He had come alone for two very excellent reasons, the first of which was that thus none might note his terror-stricken state nor his defection should he fail at the last moment, and the other was that should he accomplish the thing alone or be able to make his chiefs believe that he had, the credit would be far greater than were he to be accompanied by warriors.

But though he had started alone he had become aware that he was being followed, and he knew that it was because his people had no faith in either his courage or his veracity. He did not believe that he would find the slave Turan. He did not very much want to find him, for though O-Tar was an excellent swordsman and a brave warrior in physical combat, he had seen how Turan had played with U-Dor and he had no stomach for a passage at arms with one whom he knew outclassed him.

And so O-Tar stood with his hand upon the door—afraid to enter; afraid not to. But at last his fear of his own warriors, watching behind him, grew greater than the fear of the unknown behind the ancient door and he pushed the heavy skeel aside and entered.

Silence and gloom and the dust of centuries lay heavy upon the chamber. From his warriors he knew the route that he must take to the horrid chamber of O-Mai and so he forced his unwilling feet across the room before him, across the room where the jetan players sat at their eternal game, and came to the short corridor that led into the room of O-Mai. His naked sword trembled in his grasp. He paused after each forward step to listen and when he was almost at the door of the ghost-haunted chamber, his heart stood still within his breast and the cold sweat broke from the clammy skin of his forehead, for from within there came to his affrighted ears the sound of muffled breathing. Then it was that O-Tar of Manator came near to fleeing from the nameless horror that he could not see, but that he knew lay waiting for him in that chamber just ahead. But again came the fear of the wrath and contempt of his warriors and his chiefs. They would degrade him and they would slay him into the bargain. There was no doubt of what his fate would be should he flee the apartments of O-Mai in terror. His only hope, therefore, lay in daring the unknown in preference to the known.

He moved forward. A few steps took him to the doorway. The chamber before him was darker than the corridor, so that he could just indistinctly make out the objects in the room. He saw a sleeping dais near the center, with a darker blotch of something lying on the marble floor beside it. He moved a step farther into the doorway and the scabbard of his sword scraped against the stone frame. To his horror he saw the sleeping silks and furs upon the central dais move. He saw a figure slowly arising to a sitting posture from the death bed of O-Mai the Cruel. His knees shook, but he gathered all his moral forces, and gripping his sword more tightly in his trembling fingers prepared to leap across the chamber upon the horrid apparition. He hesitated just a moment. He felt eyes upon him—ghoulish eyes that bored through the darkness into his withering heart—eyes that he could not see. He gathered himself for the rush—and then there broke from the thing upon the couch an awful shriek, and O-Tar sank senseless to the floor.

Gahan rose from the couch of O-Mai, smiling, only to swing quickly about with drawn sword as the shadow of a noise impinged upon his keen ears from the shadows behind him. Between the parted hangings he saw a bent and wrinkled figure. It was I-Gos.

“Sheathe your sword, Turan,” said the old man. “You have naught to fear from I-Gos.”

“What do you here?” demanded Gahan.

“I came to make sure that the great coward did not cheat us. Ey, and he called me ‘doddering fool;’ but look at him now! Stricken insensible by terror, but, ey, one might forgive him that who had heard your uncanny scream. It all but blasted my own courage. And it was you, then, who moaned and screamed when the chiefs came the day that I stole Tara from you?”

“It was you, then, old scoundrel?” demanded Gahan, moving threateningly toward I-Gos.

“Come, come!” expostulated the old man; “it was I, but then I was your enemy. I would not do it now. Conditions have changed.”

“How have they changed? What has changed them?” asked Gahan.

“Then I did not fully realize the cowardice of my jeddak, or the bravery of you and the girl. I am an old man from another age and I love courage. At first I resented the girl’s attack upon me, but later I came to see the bravery of it and it won my admiration, as have all her acts. She feared not O-Tar, she feared not me, she feared not all the warriors of Manator. And you! Blood of a million sires! how you fight! I am sorry that I exposed you at The Fields of Jetan. I am sorry that I dragged the girl Tara back to O-Tar. I would make amends. I would be your friend. Here is my sword at your feet,” and drawing his weapon I-Gos cast it to the floor in front of Gahan.

The Gatholian knew that scarce the most abandoned of knaves would repudiate this solemn pledge, and so he stooped, and picking up the old man’s sword returned it to him, hilt first, in acceptance of his friendship.

“Where is the Princess Tara of Helium?” asked Gahan. “Is she safe?”

“She is confined in the tower of the women’s quarters awaiting the ceremony that is to make her Jeddara of Manator,” replied I-Gos.

“This thing dared think that Tara of Helium would mate with him?” growled Gahan. “I will make short work of him if he is not already dead from fright,” and he stepped toward the fallen O-Tar to run his sword through the jeddak’s heart.

“No!” cried I-Gos. “Slay him not and pray that he be not dead if you would save your princess.”

“How is that?” asked Gahan.

“If word of O-Tar’s death reached the quarters of the women the Princess Tara would be lost. They know O-Tar’s intention of taking her to wife and making her Jeddara of Manator, so you may rest assured that they all hate her with the hate of jealous women. Only O-Tar’s power protects her now from harm. Should O-Tar die they would turn her over to the warriors and the male slaves, for there would be none to avenge her.”

Gahan sheathed his sword. “Your point is well taken; but what shall we do with him?”

“Leave him where he lies,” counseled I-Gos. “He is not dead. When he revives he will return to his quarters with a fine tale of his bravery and there will be none to impugn his boasts—none but I-Gos. Come! he may revive at any moment and he must not find us here.”

I-Gos crossed to the body of his jeddak, knelt beside it for an instant, and then returned past the couch to Gahan. The two quit the chamber of O-Mai and took their way toward the spiral runway. Here I-Gos led Gahan to a higher level and out upon the roof of that portion of the palace from where he pointed to a high tower quite close by. “There,” he said, “lies the Princess of Helium, and quite safe she will be until the time of the ceremony.”

“Safe, possibly, from other hands, but not from her own,” said Gahan. “She will never become Jeddara of Manator—first will she destroy herself.”

“She would do that?” asked I-Gos.

“She will, unless you can get word to her that I still live and that there is yet hope,” replied Gahan.

“I cannot get word to her,” said I-Gos. “The quarters of his women O-Tar guards with jealous hand. Here are his most trusted slaves and warriors, yet even so, thick among them are countless spies, so that no man knows which be which. No shadow falls within those chambers that is not marked by a hundred eyes.”

Gahan stood gazing at the lighted windows of the high tower in the upper chambers of which Tara of Helium was confined. “I will find a way, I-Gos,” he said.

“There is no way,” replied the old man.

For some time they stood upon the roof beneath the brilliant stars and hurtling moons of dying Mars, laying their plans against the time that Tara of Helium should be brought from the high tower to the throne room of O-Tar. It was then, and then alone, argued I-Gos, that any hope of rescuing her might be entertained. Just how far he might trust the other Gahan did not know, and so he kept to himself the knowledge of the plan that he had forwarded to Floran and Val Dor by Ghek, but he assured the ancient taxidermist that if he were sincere in his oft-repeated declaration that O-Tar should be denounced and superseded he would have his opportunity on the night that the jeddak sought to wed the Heliumetic princess.

“Your time shall come then, I-Gos,” Gahan assured the other, “and if you have any party that thinks as you do, prepare them for the eventuality that will succeed O-Tar’s presumptuous attempt to wed the daughter of The Warlord. Where shall I see you again, and when? I go now to speak with Tara, Princess of Helium.”

“I like your boldness,” said I-Gos; “but it will avail you naught. You will not speak with Tara, Princess of Helium, though doubtless the blood of many Manatorians will drench the floors of the women’s quarters before you are slain.”

Gahan smiled. “I shall not be slain. Where and when shall we meet? But you may find me in O-Mai’s chamber at night. That seems the safest retreat in all Manator for an enemy of the jeddak in whose palace it lies. I go!”

“And may the spirits of your ancestors surround you,” said I-Gos.

After the old man had left him Gahan made his way across the roof to the high tower, which appeared to have been constructed of concrete and afterward elaborately carved, its entire surface being covered with intricate designs cut deep into the stone-like material of which it was composed. Though wrought ages since, it was but little weather-worn owing to the aridity of the Martian atmosphere, the infrequency of rains, and the rarity of dust storms. To scale it, though, presented difficulties and danger that might have deterred the bravest of men—that would, doubtless, have deterred Gahan, had he not felt that the life of the woman he loved depended upon his accomplishing the hazardous feat.