The Swordsman of Mars

Chapter III

Otis Adelbert Kline

THORNE woke to a weirdly beautiful sight. Two full moons were shining down on him from a black sky in which the stars sparkled like brilliant jewels. He was lying on a bed which was suspended by four chains on a single large flexible cable which depended from the ceiling, and had his view of the sky through a large circular window.

He turned on his side, the better to look around him, and as he did so, saw Lal Vak seated on a legless chair suspended, like his bed, on a single cable which was fastened to the ceiling.

“Hello, Lal Vak,” he said. “What happened?”

“I regret to inform you that you are in disgrace. If you had told me, before the duel, that you were weak from loss of blood, I could have delayed the meeting. It was only after I had brought you here that I discovered your wound, and by that time the news had gone about that you were afraid—that you had dropped your sword when faced by Sel Han.”

“Sel Han! Why, that’s the man Doctor Morgan wanted me to kill!”

“The same. On Earth he was Frank Boyd, a robber of mines and a jumper of claims, so the doctor informed me.”

“I’ll challenge Sel Han as soon as I’m up and around again. That ought to square everything, and if I win, why, the first part of my mission will have been accomplished.”

“Unfortunately,” replied the scientist, “that will be impossible. According to our Martian code, it would be unethical for you, under any circumstances, to provoke another duel with Sel Han. He, on the other hand, may insult or humiliate you all he likes, so long as he uses no physical violence, and does not have to stand challenge from you, for he is technically the victor.”

“Then what am I to do?”

“That will rest with Sheb Takkor. As Borgen Takkor, you are, of course, son of Sheb, the Rad of Takkor. If he were to die, your name would become Sheb. As it is, you are the Zorad of Takkor. Zorad, in your language, might be translated viscount, and Rad, earl. The titles, of course, no longer have meaning, except that they denote noble blood, as the Swarm has changed all that.”

“The Swarm?”

Lal Vak nodded.

“I can think of no other English equivalent for our word Kamud. The Kamud is the new order of government which took control of Xancibar about ten Martian years, or nearly nineteen Earth years ago. At that time, like other Martian vilets, or empires, of the present day, we had a Vil, or emperor. Although his office was hereditary, he could be deposed at any time by the will of the people, and a new Vil elected.

“For the most part, our people were satisfied. But there suddenly rose into power a man named Irintz Tel. He taught that an ideal community could be attained by imitating the communal life of the black bees. Under his system the individuals exist for the benefit of the community, not the community for the befit of the individuals.

“Irintz Tel did not gather many followers, but those who flocked to his banner were vociferous and vindictive. At length, they decided to establish their form of government by force. Hearing this, Miradon, our Vil, abdicated rather than see his people involved in a civil war. He could have crushed the upstart, of course, but many lives would have been lost, and he preferred the more peaceful way.

“As soon as Miradon Vil was gone, Irintz Tel and his henchmen seized the reins of government in Dukor, the capital of Xancibar. After considerable fighting, he established the Kamud, which now owns all land, buildings, waterways, mines and commercial enterprises within our borders. He promised us annual elections, but once he was firmly established as Dixtar of Xancibar, this promise was repudiated. Theoretically, like all other citizens, Irintz Tel owns nothing except his personal belongings. But actually, he owns and controls all of Xancibar in the name of the Kamud, and has the absolute power of life and death over every citizen.”

“What do people think of this arrangement?” asked Thorne. “Do they submit to such tyranny?”

“They have no choice,” replied Lal Vak. “Irintz Tel rules with an iron hand. His spies are everywhere. And those detected speaking against his regime are quickly done away with.

“Some are executed, charged with some trumped-up offense, usually treason to the Kamud. Men in high places are often challenged and slain by Irintz Tel’s hired swordsmen. Others are sent to the mines, which means that they will not live long. I will leave you, now. You must sleep.”

“My wounds—I had forgotten them.” Thorne raised his hand to his face where the sword of Sel Han had slashed him. He felt no soreness, only a porous pumicelike protrusion traveling the length of the gash. The wound in his side was covered with a similar substance.

“I had them dressed as soon as you were brought here,” said the scientist. “They should not pain you, now.”

“They don’t. And what a strange dressing.”

“It is rjembal, a flexible aromatic gum which is antiseptic, protects the wound from infection, and is porous enough to absorb seepage. Wounds closed with this gum usually heal quickly, painlessly, and without leaving scars.

“I go now. Sleep well, and tomorrow I will come to give you your first lesson in our language.”

.     .     .     .     .

Early the next morning Thorne was awakened. He saw the white-haired Lal Vak smiling down at him. Behind him stood an orderly, who carried a large bowl which he placed on a tripod beside the bed. The orderly saluted and withdrew.

The bowl was divided into sections like a scooped-out grapefruit. In one section reposed several slices of grilled food. In another was a whole raw fruit, purple in color, and cubical in shape. In the third was a hollow cube containing an aromatic pink beverage.

Thorne sampled one of the grilled slices. The flavor baffled him, as it did not appear to be either flesh or vegetable. Having finished the strange grilled food, he tasted the pink beverage. It was slightly bitter and about as acid as a ripe orange. A sip sent an instant glow through his veins. “What’s this stuff?” he asked.

“Puho. A single cup is stimulating, but many are intoxicating.”

Thorne finished the beverage, and Lal Vak instantly set about teaching him the things he must know in order to establish himself as Borgen Takkor.

Although Thorne’s wounds healed in a few days, Lal Vak used them as a pretense to keep him in his room for about twenty. The Earthman learned the language quickly, for stored in the braincells of the Martian body which had become his were the recollections of all the sounds and their meanings.

One day an orderly came to announce that there was a man below calling himself Yirl Du, who asked to see Sheb Takkor.

“Let him come up,” said Lal Vak. When the orderly had gone out he said to Thorne: “You heard what he said? He asked for Sheb Takkor.”

“Yes. What does it mean?”

“It means that Sheb Takkor, father of Borgen Takkor, is dead. Hence, you are Sheb Takkor. This is one of the Takkor retainers who knows you, so call him by name when he appears before us.”

A moment later, a short, stocky man entered the room. His features were coarse, but kindly. He raised one huge hand in salute, saying: “I shield my eyes, my lord Sheb, Rad of Takkor.”

Thorne smiled and returned his salute. “Greetings, Yirl Du. This is my instructor, Lal Vak.”

“I shield my eyes, excellency.”

“You forget that under the Kamud all men are equal,” said Lal Vak, returning his salute, “and one man no longer says to another: ‘I shield my eyes,’ ‘my lord,’ or ’excellency.’”

“I do not forget that I am hereditary Jen of the Takkor Free Swordsmen, nor that Sheb Takkor is my liege. From our isolated position, we of Takkor know little of the Kamud. We have submitted to it because our Rad, emulating Miradon Vil, saw fit to do so. So long as Takkor Rad rules us, though he is only the agent of the Kamud, we are content, and life goes on much as usual.”

“You have come to escort your new Rad back to Takkor, I presume.”

“That is my purpose, excellency.”

“Then suppose you see about the gawrs while we make ready for the journey. I will accompany your Rad, and spend a few days with him.”

“I go, excellency.” Yirl Du saluted and withdrew.

“Strange,” said Thorne, when he had gone. “He said nothing about the death of Sheb Takkor, the elder.”

“His words conveyed the tidings,” said Lal Vak. “A dead man’s friends or relatives must not speak of him nor of his death until his ashes have been ceremonially scattered.”

“When will that take place?”

“Upon your arrival. As his son and successor, you should be present at the ceremony. When it is completed, you may talk as freely as you like.”

While they were talking both men had belted on their weapons and adjusted their head-cloaks. They descended to the courtyard and crossed to the lagoon, where Yirl Du waited with three gawrs attended by orderlies.

Lal Vak edged close to him. “Watch Yirl Du and me, and set your course as we do,” he whispered. “You will be supposed to lead but as you don’t know the way you will have to depend on one or the other of us for guidance.”

In a few moments all was in readiness. The three ungainly mounts trotted forward, spread their membranous wings and took to the air.

By glancing right and left at his two companions, Thorne was easily able to gauge their course, and steer his bird-beast accordingly. They set out in a direction which he judged was due west.

Then, far ahead, Thorne saw a straight, high wall which stretched as far as he could see to the north and south. It was constructed of black stone, and at intervals of about a half mile towers built from the same material projected above it. The aqueduct which they were following led straight up to and entered this wall. As they drew near it, armed men became visible, patrolling the battlements.

Soon Thorne was able to catch a glimpse of what lay beyond the wall. First there was the glint of water in a broad canal, then the rich green of luxuriant vegetation, dotted here and there with the gleam of cylindrical crystal dwellings, and sloping in a series of terraces to a much wider canal than the first. Beyond this in the dim distance another series of terraces ascended to another elevated canal as high as the first, flanked by a wall like the one over which they were flying.

Beyond the second wall they encountered desert once more, and for several hours continued their flight toward the west. Then the contour of the ground beneath them changed abruptly. It was as if they were on the shore of a vast ocean from which the water had suddenly evaporated. First they passed over rugged cliffs, then a gently sloping beach strewn with sand and boulders. This presently dipped sharply to what was now a marshy lowland, a vast expanse of shallow water dotted and streaked with patches of green vegetation.

So absorbed was Thorne that he did not notice the menace that had crept silently up behind him. A shout from Lal Vak and a backward gesture caused him to turn in time to see a cloaked and masked warrior mounted on a swiftly flying gawr in the act of hurling a javelin at him. Behind his assailant he caught a fleeting glimpse of four more riders. He dodged just in time to avoid the barbed weapon. As it whizzed past him he whirled his gawr, then seized one of his own javelins and hurled it at his attacker.

The rider avoided Thorne’s shaft with ease, and in a moment more was above him with drawn sword. Thorne whipped out his own weapon, parried a vicious head-cut, and countered with a swift slash at the neck of his assailant. The blow fell true, nearly severing the fellow’s head from his body.

In the meantime, Lal Vak and Yirl Du were engaged in a lively conflict. Thorne saw the powerful Jen of the Free Swordsmen hurl a javelin with such force that it passed completely through the body of his nearest enemy. Lal Vak was fighting a sword duel with another of the attackers. The two who remained each sought a single encounter, one with Yirl Du and the other with Thorne.

The Earthman’s new assailant hurled a javelin which fell short. He reached for another, and drew it back for a throw just as Thorne hurled his weapon mightily. The fellow tried to throw and dodge at the same time. He ducked low, but not low enough. Thorne’s javelin struck him in the eye. His own weapon flew wide of the mark, but struck a wingjoint of the Earthman’s mount. A moment later Thorne found himself out of the saddle dangling by his safety chains, while his crippled gawr, fluttering futilely with its uninjured wing, turned over and over in the air as they hurtled swiftly toward the marsh, two thousand feet below.

The Swordsman of Mars    |     Chapter IV

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