“That is the least of our troubles, Xodar,” I replied. “I will guarantee to scale the wall and take you with me, if you will help with your knowledge of the customs here to appoint the best time for the attempt, and guide me to the shaft that lets from the dome of this abysmal sea to the light of God’s pure air above.”
“Night time is the best and offers the only slender chance we have, for then men sleep, and only a dozing watch nods in the tops of the battleships. No watch is kept upon the cruisers and smaller craft. The watchers upon the larger vessels see to all about them. It is night now.”
“But,” I exclaimed, “it is not dark! How can it be night, then?”
“You forget,” he said, “that we are far below ground. The light of the sun never penetrates here. There are no moons and no stars reflected in the bosom of Omean. The phosphorescent light you now see pervading this great subterranean vault emanates from the rocks that form its dome; it is always thus upon Omean, just as the billows are always as you see them—rolling, ever rolling over a windless sea.
“At the appointed hour of night upon the world above, the men whose duties hold them here sleep, but the light is ever the same.”
“It will make escape more difficult,” I said, and then I shrugged my shoulders; for what, pray, is the pleasure of doing an easy thing?
“Let us sleep on it to-night,” said Xodar. “A plan may come with our awakening.”
So we threw ourselves upon the hard stone floor of our prison and slept the sleep of tired men.
WHEN HELL BROKE LOOSE
Early the next morning Xodar and I commenced work upon our plans for escape. First I had him sketch upon the stone floor of our cell as accurate a map of the south polar regions as was possible with the crude instruments at our disposal—a buckle from my harness, and the sharp edge of the wondrous gem I had taken from Sator Throg.
From this I computed the general direction of Helium and the distance at which it lay from the opening which led to Omean.
Then I had him draw a map of Omean, indicating plainly the position of Shador and of the opening in the dome which led to the outer world.
These I studied until they were indelibly imprinted in my memory. From Xodar I learned the duties and customs of the guards who patrolled Shador. It seemed that during the hours set aside for sleep only one man was on duty at a time. He paced a beat that passed around the prison, at a distance of about a hundred feet from the building.
The pace of the sentries, Xodar said, was very slow, requiring nearly ten minutes to make a single round. This meant that for practically five minutes at a time each side of the prison was unguarded as the sentry pursued his snail-like pace upon the opposite side.
“This information you ask,” said Xodar, “will be all very valuable AFTER we get out, but nothing that you have asked has any bearing on that first and most important consideration.”
“We will get out all right,” I replied, laughing. “Leave that to me.”
“When shall we make the attempt?” he asked.
“The first night that finds a small craft moored near the shore of Shador,” I replied.
“But how will you know that any craft is moored near Shador? The windows are far beyond our reach.”
“Not so, friend Xodar; look!”
With a bound I sprang to the bars of the window opposite us, and took a quick survey of the scene without.
Several small craft and two large battleships lay within a hundred yards of Shador.
“To-night,” I thought, and was just about to voice my decision to Xodar, when, without warning, the door of our prison opened and a guard stepped in.
If the fellow saw me there our chances of escape might quickly go glimmering, for I knew that they would put me in irons if they had the slightest conception of the wonderful agility which my earthly muscles gave me upon Mars.
The man had entered and was standing facing the centre of the room, so that his back was toward me. Five feet above me was the top of a partition wall separating our cell from the next.
There was my only chance to escape detection. If the fellow turned, I was lost; nor could I have dropped to the floor undetected, since he was so nearly below me that I would have struck him had I done so.
“Where is the white man?” cried the guard of Xodar. “Issus commands his presence.” He started to turn to see if I were in another part of the cell.
I scrambled up the iron grating of the window until I could catch a good footing on the sill with one foot; then I let go my hold and sprang for the partition top.
“What was that?” I heard the deep voice of the black bellow as my metal grated against the stone wall as I slipped over. Then I dropped lightly to the floor of the cell beyond.
“Where is the white slave?” again cried the guard.
“I know not,” replied Xodar. “He was here even as you entered. I am not his keeper—go find him.”
The black grumbled something that I could not understand, and then I heard him unlocking the door into one of the other cells on the further side. Listening intently, I caught the sound as the door closed behind him. Then I sprang once more to the top of the partition and dropped into my own cell beside the astonished Xodar.
“Do you see now how we will escape?” I asked him in a whisper.
“I see how you may,” he replied, “but I am no wiser than before as to how I am to pass these walls. Certain it is that I cannot bounce over them as you do.”
We heard the guard moving about from cell to cell, and finally, his rounds completed, he again entered ours. When his eyes fell upon me they fairly bulged from his head.
“By the shell of my first ancestor!” he roared. “Where have you been?”
“I have been in prison since you put me here yesterday,” I answered. “I was in this room when you entered. You had better look to your eyesight.”
He glared at me in mingled rage and relief.
“Come,” he said. “Issus commands your presence.”
He conducted me outside the prison, leaving Xodar behind. There we found several other guards, and with them the red Martian youth who occupied another cell upon Shador.
The journey I had taken to the Temple of Issus on the preceding day was repeated. The guards kept the red boy and myself separated, so that we had no opportunity to continue the conversation that had been interrupted the previous night.
The youth’s face had haunted me. Where had I seen him before. There was something strangely familiar in every line of him; in his carriage, his manner of speaking, his gestures. I could have sworn that I knew him, and yet I knew too that I had never seen him before.
When we reached the gardens of Issus we were led away from the temple instead of toward it. The way wound through enchanted parks to a mighty wall that towered a hundred feet in air.
Massive gates gave egress upon a small plain, surrounded by the same gorgeous forests that I had seen at the foot of the Golden Cliffs.
Crowds of blacks were strolling in the same direction that our guards were leading us, and with them mingled my old friends the plant men and great white apes.
The brutal beasts moved among the crowd as pet dogs might. If they were in the way the blacks pushed them roughly to one side, or whacked them with the flat of a sword, and the animals slunk away as in great fear.
Presently we came upon our destination, a great amphitheatre situated at the further edge of the plain, and about half a mile beyond the garden walls.
Through a massive arched gateway the blacks poured in to take their seats, while our guards led us to a smaller entrance near one end of the structure.
Through this we passed into an enclosure beneath the seats, where we found a number of other prisoners herded together under guard. Some of them were in irons, but for the most part they seemed sufficiently awed by the presence of their guards to preclude any possibility of attempted escape.
During the trip from Shador I had had no opportunity to talk with my fellow-prisoner, but now that we were safely within the barred paddock our guards abated their watchfulness, with the result that I found myself able to approach the red Martian youth for whom I felt such a strange attraction.
“What is the object of this assembly?” I asked him. “Are we to fight for the edification of the First Born, or is it something worse than that?”
“It is a part of the monthly rites of Issus,” he replied, “in which black men wash the sins from their souls in the blood of men from the outer world. If, perchance, the black is killed, it is evidence of his disloyalty to Issus—the unpardonable sin. If he lives through the contest he is held acquitted of the charge that forced the sentence of the rites, as it is called, upon him.
“The forms of combat vary. A number of us may be pitted together against an equal number, or twice the number of blacks; or singly we may be sent forth to face wild beasts, or some famous black warrior.”
“And if we are victorious,” I asked, “what then—freedom?”
“Freedom, forsooth. The only freedom for us death. None who enters the domains of the First Born ever leave. If we prove able fighters we are permitted to fight often. If we are not mighty fighters—” He shrugged his shoulders. “Sooner or later we die in the arena.”
“And you have fought often?” I asked.
“Very often,” he replied. “It is my only pleasure. Some hundred black devils have I accounted for during nearly a year of the rites of Issus. My mother would be very proud could she only know how well I have maintained the traditions of my father’s prowess.”
“Your father must have been a mighty warrior!” I said. “I have known most of the warriors of Barsoom in my time; doubtless I knew him. Who was he?”
“My father was—”
“Come, calots!” cried the rough voice of a guard. “To the slaughter with you,” and roughly we were hustled to the steep incline that led to the chambers far below which let out upon the arena.
The amphitheatre, like all I had ever seen upon Barsoom, was built in a large excavation. Only the highest seats, which formed the low wall surrounding the pit, were above the level of the ground. The arena itself was far below the surface.
Just beneath the lowest tier of seats was a series of barred cages on a level with the surface of the arena. Into these we were herded. But, unfortunately, my youthful friend was not of those who occupied a cage with me.
Directly opposite my cage was the throne of Issus. Here the horrid creature squatted, surrounded by a hundred slave maidens sparkling in jewelled trappings. Brilliant cloths of many hues and strange patterns formed the soft cushion covering of the dais upon which they reclined about her.
On four sides of the throne and several feet below it stood three solid ranks of heavily armed soldiery, elbow to elbow. In front of these were the high dignitaries of this mock heaven—gleaming blacks bedecked with precious stones, upon their foreheads the insignia of their rank set in circles of gold.
On both sides of the throne stretched a solid mass of humanity from top to bottom of the amphitheatre. There were as many women as men, and each was clothed in the wondrously wrought harness of his station and his house. With each black was from one to three slaves, drawn from the domains of the therns and from the outer world. The blacks are all “noble.” There is no peasantry among the First Born. Even the lowest soldier is a god, and has his slaves to wait upon him.
The First Born do no work. The men fight—that is a sacred privilege and duty; to fight and die for Issus. The women do nothing, absolutely nothing. Slaves wash them, slaves dress them, slaves feed them. There are some, even, who have slaves that talk for them, and I saw one who sat during the rites with closed eyes while a slave narrated to her the events that were transpiring within the arena.
The first event of the day was the Tribute to Issus. It marked the end of those poor unfortunates who had looked upon the divine glory of the goddess a full year before. There were ten of them—splendid beauties from the proud courts of mighty Jeddaks and from the temples of the Holy Therns. For a year they had served in the retinue of Issus; to-day they were to pay the price of this divine preferment with their lives; tomorrow they would grace the tables of the court functionaries.
A huge black entered the arena with the young women. Carefully he inspected them, felt of their limbs and poked them in the ribs. Presently he selected one of their number whom he led before the throne of Issus. He addressed some words to the goddess which I could not hear. Issus nodded her head. The black raised his hands above his head in token of salute, grasped the girl by the wrist, and dragged her from the arena through a small doorway below the throne.
“Issus will dine well to-night,” said a prisoner beside me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“That was her dinner that old Thabis is taking to the kitchens. Didst not note how carefully he selected the plumpest and tenderest of the lot?”