“Silence!” I hissed.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
Even in the instant my plans were formed. I made him turn with his back toward me and then I disarmed him, after which I bound him securely and gagged him.
“Where can I hide him, Sanoma Tora?” I asked.
“There is a little closet here,” she said, pointing toward a small door in one side of the room, and then she crossed to it and opened it, while I dragged Tul Axtar behind her and cast him into the closet—none too gently I can assure you.
As I closed the closet door I turned to find Sanoma Tora white and trembling. “I am afraid,” she said. “If they come back and find him thus, they will kill me.”
“His courtiers will not return until he summons them,” I reminded her. “You heard him tell them that such were his wishes—his command.”
“Here is his dagger,” I told her. “If worse comes to worst you can hold them off by threatening to kill Tul Axtar,” but the girl seemed terrified, she trembled in every limb and I feared that she might fail if put to the test. How I wished that Tavia were here. I knew that she would not fail, and, in the name of my first ancestor, how much depended upon success!
“I shall return soon,” I said, as I groped about the floor for the robe of invisibility. “Leave that large window open and when I return, be ready.”
As I replaced the cloak about me I saw that she was trembling so that she could not reply; in fact, she was even having difficulty in holding the dagger, which I expected momentarily to see drop from her nerveless fingers, but there was naught that I could do but hasten to the Jhama and try to return before it was too late.
I gained the summit of the tower without incident. Above me twinkled the brilliant stars of a Barsoomian night, while just above the palace roof hung the gorgeous planet, Jasoom (Earth).
The Jhama, of course, was invisible, but so great was my confidence in Tavia that when I stretched a hand upward I knew that I should feel the keel of the craft and sure enough I did. Three times I rapped gently upon the forward hatch, which was the signal that we had determined upon before I had entered the palace. Instantly the hatch was raised and a moment later I had clambered aboard.
“Where is Sanoma Tora?” asked Tavia.
“No questions now,” I replied. “We must work quickly. Be ready to take over the controls the moment that I leave them.”
In silence she took her place at my side, her soft shoulder touching my arm, and in silence I dropped the Jhama to the level of the windows in the women’s quarters. In a general way I knew the location of Sanoma Tora’s apartment, and as I moved slowly along I kept the periscope pointed toward the windows and presently I saw the figure of Sanoma Tora upon the ground glass before me. I brought the Jhama close to the sill, her upper deck just below it.
“Hold her here, Tavia,” I said. Then I raised the upper hatch a few inches and called to the girl within the room.
At the sound of my voice she trembled so that she almost dropped the dagger, although she must have known that I was coming and had been awaiting me.
“Darken your room,” I whispered to her. I saw her stagger across to a button that was set in the wall and an instant later the room was enveloped in darkness. Then I raised the hatch and stepped to the sill. I did not wish to be bothered with the enveloping folds of the mantle of invisibility and so I had folded it up and tucked it into my harness, where I could have it instantly ready for use in the event of an emergency. I found Sanoma Tora in the darkness and so weak with terror was she that I had to lift her in my arms and carry her to the window, where with Phao’s help I managed to draw her through the open hatch into the interior. Then I returned to the closet where Tul Axtar lay bound and gagged. I stopped and cut the bonds which held his ankles.
“Do precisely as I tell you, Tul Axtar,” I said, “or my steel will have its way yet and find your heart. It thirsts for your blood, Tul Axtar, and I have difficulty in restraining it, but if you do not fail me perhaps I shall be able to save you yet. I can use you, Tul Axtar, and upon your usefulness to me depends your life, for dead you are no value to me.”
I made him rise and walk to the window and there I assisted him to the sill. He was terror-stricken when I tried to make him step out into space, as he thought, but when I stepped to the deck of the Jhama ahead of him and he saw me apparently floating there in the air, he took a little heart and I finally succeeded in getting him aboard.
Following him I closed the hatch and lighted a single dim light within the hull. Tavia turned and looked at me for orders.
“Hold her where she is, Tavia,” I said.
There was a tiny desk in the cabin of the Jhama where the officer of the ship was supposed to keep his log and attend to any other records or reports that it might be necessary to make. Here were writing materials, and as I got them out of the drawer in which they were kept, I called Phao to my side.
“You are of Jahar.” I said. “You can write in the language of your country?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Then write what I dictate,” I instructed her.
She prepared to do my bidding.
“If a single ship of Helium is destroyed,” I dictated, “Tul Axtar dies. Now sign it Hadron of Hastor, Padwar of Helium.”
Tavia and Phao looked at me and then at the prisoner, their eyes wide in astonishment, for in the dim light of the ship’s interior they had not recognized the prisoner.
“Tul Axtar of Jahar!” breathed Tavia incredulously. “Tan Hadron of Hastor, you have saved Helium and Barsoom tonight.”
I could not but note how quickly her mind functioned, with what celerity she had seen the possibilities that lay in the possession of the person of Tul Axtar, Jeddak of Jahar.
I took the note that Phao had written, and, returning quickly to Sanoma Tora’s room, I laid it upon her dressing table. A moment later I was again in the cabin of the Jhama and we were rising swiftly above the roofs of Jahar.
Morning found us beyond the uttermost line of Jaharian ships, beneath which we had passed, guided by their lights—evidence to me that the fleet was poorly officered, for no trained man, expecting an enemy in force, would show lights aboard his ships at night.
We were speeding now in the direction of far Helium, following the course that I hoped would permit us to intercept the fleet of the Warlord in the event that it was already bound for Jahar as Tul Axtar had announced.
Sanoma Tora had slightly recovered her poise and control of her nerves. Tavia’s sweet solicitude for her welfare touched me deeply. She had soothed and quieted her as she might have soothed and quieted a younger sister, though she herself was younger than Sanoma Tora, but with the return of confidence Sanoma Tora’s old haughtiness was returning and it seemed to me that she showed too little gratitude to Tavia for her kindliness, but I realized that that was Sanoma Tora’s way, that it was born in her and that doubtless deep in her heart she was fully appreciative and grateful. However that may be, I cannot but admit that I wished at the time that she would show it by some slight word or deed. We were flying smoothly, slightly above the normal altitude of battleships. The destination control compass was holding the Jhama to her course, and after all that I had passed through, I felt the need of sleep. Phao, at my suggestion, had rested earlier in the night, and as all that was needed was a lookout to keep a careful watch for ships, I entrusted this duty to Phao, and Tavia and I rolled up in our sleeping silks and furs and were soon asleep.
Tavia and I were about mid-ship, Phao was forward at the controls, constantly swinging the periscope to and fro searching the sky for ships. When I retired Sanoma Tora was standing at one of the starboard ports looking out into the night, while Tul Axtar lay down in the stern of the ship. I had long since removed the gag from his mouth, but he seemed too utterly cowed even to address us and lay there in morose silence, or perhaps he was asleep, I do not know.
I was thoroughly fatigued and must have slept like a log from the moment that I laid down until I was suddenly awakened by the impact of a body upon me. As I struggled to free myself, I discovered to my chagrin that my hands had been deftly bound while I slept, a feat that had been rendered simple by the fact that it is my habit to sleep with my hands together in front of my face.
A man’s knee was upon my chest, pressing me heavily against the deck and one of his hands clutched me by the throat. In the dim light of the cabin I saw that it was Tul Axtar and that his other hand held a dagger.
“Silence!” he whispered. “If you would live, make no sound,” and then to make assurance doubly sure he gagged me and bound my ankles. Then he crossed quickly to Tavia and bound her, and as he did so my eyes moved quickly about the interior of the cabin in search of aid. On the floor, near the controls, I saw Phao lying bound and gagged as was I. Sanoma Tora crouched against the wall, apparently overcome by terror. She was neither bound nor gagged. Why had she not warned me? Why had she not come to my help? If it had been Tavia who remained unbound instead of Sanoma Tora, how different would have been the outcome of Tul Axtar’s bid for liberty and revenge.
How had it all happened? I was sure that I had bound Tul Axtar so securely that he could not possibly have freed himself, and yet I must have been mistaken and I cursed myself for the carelessness that had upset all my plans and that might easily eventually spell the doom of Helium.
Having disposed of Phao, Tavia and me, Tul Axtar moved quickly to the controls, ignoring Sanoma Tora as he passed by her. In view of the marked terror that she displayed, I could readily understand why he did not consider her any menace to his plans—she was as harmless to him free as bound.
Putting the ship about he turned back toward Jahar and though he did not understand the mechanism of the destination control compass and could not cut it out, this made no difference as long as he remained at the controls, the only effect that the compass might have being to return the ship to its former course should the controls be again abandoned while the ship was in motion.
Presently he turned toward me. “I should destroy you, Hadron of Hastor,” he said, “had I not given the word of a jeddak that I would not.”
Vaguely I had wondered to whom he had given his word that he would not kill me, but other and more important thoughts were racing through my mind, crowding all else into the background. Uppermost among them, of course, were plans for regaining control of the Jhama and, secondarily, apprehension as to the fate of Tavia, Sanoma Tora and Phao.
“Give thanks for the magnanimity of Tul Axtar,” he continued, “who exacts no penalty for the affront you have put upon him. Instead you are to be set free. I shall land you.” He laughed. “Free! I shall land you in the province of U-Gor!”
There was something nasty in the tone of his voice which made his promise sound more like a threat. I had never heard of U-Gor, but I assumed that it was some remote province from which it would be difficult or impossible for me to make my way either to Jahar or Helium. Of one thing I was confident—that Tul Axtar would not set me free any place that I might become a menace to him.
For hours the Jhama moved on in silence. Tul Axtar had not had the decency or the humanity to remove our gags. He was engrossed with the business of the controls, and Sanoma Tora, crouching against the side of the cabin, never spoke; nor once in all that time did her eyes turn toward me. What thoughts were passing in that beautiful head? Was she trying to find some plan by which she might turn the tables upon Tul Axtar, or was she merely crushed by the hopeless outlook—the prospect of being returned to the slavery of Jahar? I did not know; I could not guess; she was an enigma to me.
How far we traveled or in what direction, I did not know. The night had long since passed and the sun was high when I became aware that Tul Axtar was bringing the ship down. Presently the purring of the motor ceased and the ship came to a stop. Leaving the controls he walked back to where I lay.
“We have arrived in U-Gor,” he said. “Here I shall set you at liberty, but first give me the strange thing that rendered you invisible in my palace.”
The cloak of invisibility! How had he learned of that? Who could have told him? There seemed but one explanation, but every fiber of my being shrank even from considering it. I had rolled it up into a small ball and tucked it into the bottom of my pocket pouch, its sheer silk permitting it to be compressed into a very small space. He took the gag from my mouth.
“When you return to your palace at Jahar,” I said, “look upon the floor beneath the window in the apartment that was occupied by Sanoma Tora. If you find it there you are welcome to it. As far as I am concerned it has served its purpose well.”
“Why did you leave it there?” he demanded.
“I was in a great hurry when I quit the palace and accidents will happen.” I will admit that my lie may not have been very clever, but neither was Tul Axtar and he was deceived by it.
Grumbling, he opened one of the keel hatches and very unceremoniously dropped me through it. Fortunately the ship lay close to the ground and I was not injured. Next he lowered Tavia to my side, and then he, himself, descended to the ground. Stooping, he cut the bonds that secured Tavia’s wrists.
“I shall keep the other,” he said. “She pleases,” and somehow I knew that he meant Phao. “This one looks like a man and I swear that she would be as easy to subdue as a she banth. I know the type. I shall leave her with you.” It was evident that he had not recognized Tavia as one of the former occupants of the women’s quarters in his palace and I was glad that he had not.
He re-entered the Jhama, but before he closed the hatch he spoke to us again. “I shall drop your weapons when we are where you cannot use them against me and you may thank the future Jeddara of Jahar for the clemency I have shown you!”
Slowly the Jhama rose. Tavia was removing the cords from her ankles and when she was free she came and fell to work upon the bonds that secured me, but I was too dazed, too crushed by the blow that had been struck me to realize any other fact than that Sanoma Tora, the woman I loved, had betrayed me, for I fully realized now what any one but a fool would have guessed before—that Tul Axtar had bribed her to set him free by the promise that he would make her Jeddara of Jahar.
Well, her ambition would be fulfilled, but at what a hideous cost. Never, if she lived for a thousand years could she look upon herself or her act with aught but contempt and loathing, unless she was far more degraded than I could possibly believe. No; she would suffer, of that I was sure; but that thought gave me no pleasure. I loved her and I could not even now wish her unhappiness.
As I sat there on the ground, my head bowed in misery, I felt a soft arm steal about my shoulders and a tender voice spoke close to my ear. “My poor Hadron!”
That was all; but those few words embodied such a wealth of sympathy and understanding that, like some miraculous balm, they soothed the agony of my tortured heart.
No one but Tavia could have spoken them. I turned and taking one of her little hands in mine, I pressed it to my lips. “Loved friend,” I said. “Thanks be to all my ancestors that it was not you.”
I do not know what made me say that. The words seemed to speak themselves without my volition, and yet when they were spoken there came to me a sudden realization of the horror that I would have felt had it been Tavia who had betrayed me. I could not even contemplate it without an agony of pain. Impulsively I took her in my arms.
“Tavia,” I cried, “promise me that you will never desert me. I could not live without you.”
She put her strong, young arms about my neck and clung to me. “Never this side of death,” she whispered, and then she tore herself from me and I saw that she was weeping.
What a friend! I knew that I could never again love a woman, but what cared I for that if I could have Tavia’s friendship for life.
“We shall never part again, Tavia,” I said. “If our ancestors are kind and we are permitted to return to Helium, you shall find a home in the house of my father and a mother in my mother.”
She dried her eyes and looked at me with a strange wistful expression that I could not fathom, and then, through her tears, she smiled—that odd, quizzical little smile that I had seen before and that I did not understand any more than I understood a dozen of her moods and expressions, which made her so different from other girls and which, I think, helped to attract me toward her. Her characteristics lay not all upon the surface—there were depths and undercurrents which one might not easily fathom. Sometimes when I expected her to cry, she laughed; and when I thought she should be happy, she wept, but she never wept as I have seen other women weep—never hysterically, for Tavia never lost control of herself, but quietly as though from a full heart rather than from over-wrought nerves, and through her tears there might burst a smile at the end.
I think that Tavia was quite the most wonderful girl that I have ever known and as I had come to know her better and see more of her, I had grown to realize that despite her attempt at mannish disguise to which she still clung, she was quite the most beautiful girl that I had ever seen. Her beauty was not like that of Sanoma Tora, but as she looked up into my face now the realization came to me quite suddenly, and for what reason I do not know, that the beauty of Tavia far transcended that of Sanoma Tora because of the beauty of the soul that, shining through her eyes, transfigured her whole countenance.
Tul Axtar, true to his promise, dropped our weapons through a lower hatch of the Jhama and as we buckled them on we listened to the rapidly diminishing sound of the propellers of the departing craft. We were alone and on foot in a strange and, doubtless, an unhospitable country.
“U-Gor!” I said. “I have never heard of it. Have you, Tavia?”
“Yes,” she said. “This is one of the outlying provinces of Jahar. Once it was a rich and thriving agricultural country, but as it fell beneath the curse of Tul Axtar’s mad ambition for man power, the population grew to such enormous proportions that U-Gor could not support its people. Then cannibalism started. It began justly with the eating of the officials that Tul Axtar had sent to enforce his cruel decrees. An army was dispatched to subdue the province, but the people were so numerous that they conquered the army and ate the warriors. By this time their farms were ruined. They had no seed and they had developed a taste for human flesh. Those who wished to till the ground were set upon by bands of roving men and devoured. For a hundred years they have been feeding upon one another until now it is no longer a populous province, but a wasteland inhabited by roving bands, searching for one another that they may eat.”
I shuddered at her recital. It was obvious that we must escape this accursed place as rapidly as possible. I asked Tavia if she knew the location of U-Gor and she told me that it lay southeast of Jahar, about a thousands haads and about two thousand haads southwest of Xanator.
I saw that it would be useless to attempt to reach Helium from here. Such a journey on foot, if it could be accomplished at all, would require years. The nearest friendly city toward which we could turn was Gathol, which I estimated lay some seven thousand haads almost due north. The possibility of reaching Gathol seemed remote in the extreme, but it was our only hope and so we turned our faces toward the north and set out upon our long and seemingly hopeless journey toward the city of my mother’s birth.
The country about us was rolling, with here and there a range of low hills, while far to the north I could see the outlines of higher hills against the horizon. The land was entirely denuded of all but noxious weeds, attesting the grim battle for survival waged by its unhappy people. There were no reptiles; no insects; no birds—all had been devoured during the century of misery that had lain upon the land.
As we plodded onward through this desolate and depressing waste, we tried to keep up one another’s spirit as best we could and a hundred times I had reason to give thanks that it was Tavia who was my companion and no other.
What could I have done under like circumstances burdened with Sanoma Tora? I doubt that she could have walked a dozen haads, while Tavia swung along at my side with the lithe grace of perfect health and strength. It takes a good man to keep up with me on a march, but Tavia never lagged; nor did she show signs of fatigue more quickly than I.
“We are well matched, Tavia,” I said.
“I had thought of that—a long time ago,” she said quietly.
We continued on until almost dusk without seeing a sign of any living thing and were congratulating ourselves upon our good fortune when Tavia glanced back, as one of us often did.
She touched my arm and nodded toward the rear. “They come!” she said simply.
I looked back and saw three figures upon our trail. They were too far away for me to be able to do more than identify them as human beings. It was evident that they had seen us and they were closing the distance between us at a steady trot.
“What shall we do?” asked Tavia. “Stand and fight, or try to elude them until night falls?”
“We shall do neither,” I said. “We shall elude them now without exerting ourselves in the least.”
“How?” she asked.
“Through the inventive genius of Phor Tak, and the compound of invisibility that I filched from him.”
“Splendid!” exclaimed Tavia. “I had forgotten your cloak. With it we should have no difficulty in eluding all dangers between here and Gathol.”
I opened my pocket pouch and reached in to withdraw the cloak. It was gone! As was the vial containing the remainder of the compound. I looked at Tavia and she must have read the truth in my expression.
“You have lost it?” she asked.
“No, it has been stolen from me,” I replied.
She came again and laid her hand upon my arm in sympathy and I knew that she was thinking what I was thinking, that it could have been none other than Sanoma Tora who had stolen it. I hung my head. “And to think that I jeopardized your safety, Tavia, to save such as she.”
“Do not judge her hastily,” she said. “We cannot know how sorely she may have been tempted, or what threats were used to turn her from the path of honor. Perhaps she is not as strong as we.”
“Let us not speak of her,” I said. “It is a hideous sensation, Tavia, to feel love turned to hatred.”
She pressed my arm. “Time heals all hurts,” she said, “and some day you will find a woman worthy of you, if such a one exists.”
I looked down at her. “If such a one exists,” I mused, but she interrupted my meditation with a question.
“Shall we fight or run, Hadron of Hastor?” she demanded.
“I should prefer to fight and die,” I replied, “but I must think of you, Tavia.”
“Then we shall remain and fight,” she said; “but Hadron, you must not die.”
There was a note of reproach in her tone that did not escape me and I was ashamed of myself for having seemed to forget the great debt that I owed her for her friendship.
“I am sorry,” I said. “Tavia, I could not wish to die while you live.”
“That is better,” she said. “How shall we fight? Shall I stand upon your right or upon your left?”
“You shall stand behind me, Tavia,” I told her. “While my hand can hold a sword, you will need no other defense.”
“A long time ago, after we first met,” she said, “you told me that we should be comrades in arms. That means that we fight together, shoulder to shoulder, or back to back. I hold you to your word, Tan Hadron of Hastor.”
I smiled, and, though I felt that I could fight better alone than with a woman at my side, I admired her courage. “Very well,” I said; “fight at my right, for thus you will be between two swords.”
The three upon our trail had approached us so closely by this time that I could discern what manner of creatures they were and I saw before me naked savages with tangled, unkempt hair, filthy bodies and degraded faces. The wild light in their eyes, their snarling lips exposing yellow fangs, their stealthy, slinking carriage gave them more the appearance of wild beasts than men.
They were armed with swords which they carried in their hands, having neither harness nor scabbard. They halted at a short distance from us, eyeing us hungrily, and doubtless they were hungry for their flabby bellies suggested that they went often empty and were then gorged when meat fell to their lot in sufficient quantities. Tonight these three had hoped to gorge themselves; I could see it in their eyes. They whispered together in low tones for a few minutes and then they separated to rush us from different points simultaneously.
“We’ll carry the battle to them, Tavia,” I whispered. “When they have taken their positions around us, I shall give the word and then I shall rush the one in front of me and try to dispatch him before the others can set upon us. Keep close beside me so that they cannot cut you off.” “Shoulder to shoulder until the end,” she said.