Thuvia, Maid of Mars (Barsoom #4)

Page 11

Never, she thought, in all her life had the sight of any man been so welcome to her. It was with difficulty that she refrained from rushing forward to meet him.

She knew that he loved her; but, in time, she recalled that she was promised to Kulan Tith. Not even might she trust herself to show too great gratitude to the Heliumite, lest he misunderstand.

Carthoris was by her side now. His quick glance had taken in the scene within the room—the still figure of the jeddak sprawled upon the floor—the girl hastening toward a shrouded exit.

“Did he harm you, Thuvia?” he asked.

She held up her crimsoned blade that he might see it.

“No,” she said, “he did not harm me.”

A grim smile lighted Carthoris’ face.

“Praised be our first ancestor!” he murmured. “And now let us see if we may not make good our escape from this accursed city before the Lotharians discover that their jeddak is no more.”

With the firm authority that sat so well upon him in whose veins flowed the blood of John Carter of Virginia and Dejah Thoris of Helium, he grasped her hand and, turning back across the hall, strode toward the great doorway through which Jav had brought them into the presence of the jeddak earlier in the day.

They had almost reached the threshold when a figure sprang into the apartment through another entrance. It was Jav. He, too, took in the scene within at a glance.

Carthoris turned to face him, his sword ready in his hand, and his great body shielding the slender figure of the girl.

“Come, Jav of Lothar!” he cried. “Let us face the issue at once, for only one of us may leave this chamber alive with Thuvia of Ptarth.” Then, seeing that the man wore no sword, he exclaimed: “Bring on your bowmen, then, or come with us as my prisoner until we have safely passed the outer portals of thy ghostly city.”

“You have killed Tario!” exclaimed Jav, ignoring the other’s challenge. “You have killed Tario! I see his blood upon the floor—real blood—real death. Tario was, after all, as real as I. Yet he was an etherealist. He would not materialize his sustenance. Can it be that they are right? Well, we, too, are right. And all these ages we have been quarrelling—each saying that the other was wrong!

“However, he is dead now. Of that I am glad. Now shall Jav come into his own. Now shall Jav be Jeddak of Lothar!”

As he finished, Tario opened his eyes and then quickly sat up.

“Traitor! Assassin!” he screamed, and then: “Kadar! Kadar!” which is the Barsoomian for guard.

Jav went sickly white. He fell upon his belly, wriggling toward Tario.

“Oh, my Jeddak, my Jeddak!” he whimpered. “Jav had no hand in this. Jav, your faithful Jav, but just this instant entered the apartment to find you lying prone upon the floor and these two strangers about to leave. How it happened I know not. Believe me, most glorious Jeddak!”

“Cease, knave!” cried Tario. “I heard your words: ‘However, he is dead now. Of that I am glad. Now shall Jav come into his own. Now shall Jav be Jeddak of Lothar.’

“At last, traitor, I have found you out. Your own words have condemned you as surely as the acts of these red creatures have sealed their fates—unless—” He paused. “Unless the woman—”

But he got no further. Carthoris guessed what he would have said, and before the words could be uttered he had sprung forward and struck the man across the mouth with his open palm.

Tario frothed in rage and mortification.

“And should you again affront the Princess of Ptarth,” warned the Heliumite, “I shall forget that you wear no sword—not for ever may I control my itching sword hand.”

Tario shrank back toward the little doorways behind the dais. He was trying to speak, but so hideously were the muscles of his face working that he could utter no word for several minutes. At last he managed to articulate intelligibly.

“Die!” he shrieked. “Die!” and then he turned toward the exit at his back.

Jav leaped forward, screaming in terror.

“Have pity, Tario! Have pity! Remember the long ages that I have served you faithfully. Remember all that I have done for Lothar. Do not condemn me now to the death hideous. Save me! Save me!”

But Tario only laughed a mocking laugh and continued to back toward the hangings that hid the little doorway.

Jav turned toward Carthoris.

“Stop him!” he screamed. “Stop him! If you love life, let him not leave this room,” and as he spoke he leaped in pursuit of his jeddak.

Carthoris followed Jav’s example, but the “last of the jeddaks of Barsoom” was too quick for them. By the time they reached the arras behind which he had disappeared, they found a heavy stone door blocking their further progress.

Jav sank to the floor in a spasm of terror.

“Come, man!” cried Carthoris. “We are not dead yet. Let us hasten to the avenues and make an attempt to leave the city. We are still alive, and while we live we may yet endeavour to direct our own destinies. Of what avail, to sink spineless to the floor? Come, be a man!”

Jav but shook his head.

“Did you not hear him call the guards?” he moaned. “Ah, if we could have but intercepted him! Then there might have been hope; but, alas, he was too quick for us.”

“Well, well,” exclaimed Carthoris impatiently. “What if he did call the guards? There will be time enough to worry about that after they come—at present I see no indication that they have any idea of over-exerting themselves to obey their jeddak’s summons.”

Jav shook his head mournfully.

“You do not understand,” he said. “The guards have already come—and gone. They have done their work and we are lost. Look to the various exits.”

Carthoris and Thuvia turned their eyes in the direction of the several doorways which pierced the walls of the great chamber. Each was tightly closed by huge stone doors.

“Well?” asked Carthoris.

“We are to die the death,” whispered Jav faintly.

Further than that he would not say. He just sat upon the edge of the jeddak’s couch and waited.

Carthoris moved to Thuvia’s side, and, standing there with naked sword, he let his brave eyes roam ceaselessly about the great chamber, that no foe might spring upon them unseen.

For what seemed hours no sound broke the silence of their living tomb. No sign gave their executioners of the time or manner of their death. The suspense was terrible. Even Carthoris of Helium began to feel the terrible strain upon his nerves. If he could but know how and whence the hand of death was to strike, he could meet it unafraid, but to suffer longer the hideous tension of this blighting ignorance of the plans of their assassins was telling upon him grievously.

Thuvia of Ptarth drew quite close to him. She felt safer with the feel of his arm against hers, and with the contact of her the man took a new grip upon himself. With his old-time smile he turned toward her.

“It would seem that they are trying to frighten us to death,” he said, laughing; “and, shame be upon me that I should confess it, I think they were close to accomplishing their designs upon me.”

She was about to make some reply when a fearful shriek broke from the lips of the Lotharian.

“The end is coming!” he cried. “The end is coming! The floor! The floor! Oh, Komal, be merciful!”

Thuvia and Carthoris did not need to look at the floor to be aware of the strange movement that was taking place.

Slowly the marble flagging was sinking in all directions toward the centre. At first the movement, being gradual, was scarce noticeable; but presently the angle of the floor became such that one might stand easily only by bending one knee considerably.

Jav was shrieking still, and clawing at the royal couch that had already commenced to slide toward the centre of the room, where both Thuvia and Carthoris suddenly noted a small orifice which grew in diameter as the floor assumed more closely a funnel-like contour.

Now it became more and more difficult to cling to the dizzy inclination of the smooth and polished marble.

Carthoris tried to support Thuvia, but himself commenced to slide and slip toward the ever-enlarging aperture.

Better to cling to the smooth stone he kicked off his sandals of zitidar hide and with his bare feet braced himself against the sickening tilt, at the same time throwing his arms supportingly about the girl.

In her terror her own hands clasped about the man’s neck. Her cheek was close to his. Death, unseen and of unknown form, seemed close upon them, and because unseen and unknowable infinitely more terrifying.

“Courage, my princess,” he whispered.

She looked up into his face to see smiling lips above hers and brave eyes, untouched by terror, drinking deeply of her own.

Then the floor sagged and tilted more swiftly. There was a sudden slipping rush as they were precipitated toward the aperture.

Jav’s screams rose weird and horrible in their ears, and then the three found themselves piled upon the royal couch of Tario, which had stuck within the aperture at the base of the marble funnel.

For a moment they breathed more freely, but presently they discovered that the aperture was continuing to enlarge. The couch slipped downward. Jav shrieked again. There was a sickening sensation as they felt all let go beneath them, as they fell through darkness to an unknown death.

 

CHAPTER IX

THE BATTLE IN THE PLAIN

The distance from the bottom of the funnel to the floor of the chamber beneath it could not have been great, for all three of the victims of Tario’s wrath alighted unscathed.

Carthoris, still clasping Thuvia tightly to his breast, came to the ground catlike, upon his feet, breaking the shock for the girl. Scarce had his feet touched the rough stone flagging of this new chamber than his sword flashed out ready for instant use. But though the room was lighted, there was no sign of enemy about.

Carthoris looked toward Jav. The man was pasty white with fear.

“What is to be our fate?” asked the Heliumite. “Tell me, man! Shake off your terror long enough to tell me, so I may be prepared to sell my life and that of the Princess of Ptarth as dearly as possible.”

“Komal!” whispered Jav. “We are to be devoured by Komal!”

“Your deity?” asked Carthoris.

The Lotharian nodded his head. Then he pointed toward a low doorway at one end of the chamber.

“From thence will he come upon us. Lay aside your puny sword, fool. It will but enrage him the more and make our sufferings the worse.”

Carthoris smiled, gripping his long-sword the more firmly.

Presently Jav gave a horrified moan, at the same time pointing toward the door.

“He has come,” he whimpered.

Carthoris and Thuvia looked in the direction the Lotharian had indicated, expecting to see some strange and fearful creature in human form; but to their astonishment they saw the broad head and great-maned shoulders of a huge banth, the largest that either ever had seen.

Slowly and with dignity the mighty beast advanced into the room. Jav had fallen to the floor, and was wriggling his body in the same servile manner that he had adopted toward Tario. He spoke to the fierce beast as he would have spoken to a human being, pleading with it for mercy.

Carthoris stepped between Thuvia and the banth, his sword ready to contest the beast’s victory over them. Thuvia turned toward Jav.

“Is this Komal, your god?” she asked.

Jav nodded affirmatively. The girl smiled, and then, brushing past Carthoris, she stepped swiftly toward the growling carnivore.

In low, firm tones she spoke to it as she had spoken to the banths of the Golden Cliffs and the scavengers before the walls of Lothar.

The beast ceased its growling. With lowered head and catlike purr, it came slinking to the girl’s feet. Thuvia turned toward Carthoris.

“It is but a banth,” she said. “We have nothing to fear from it.”

Carthoris smiled.