The Swordsman of Mars

Chapter V

Otis Adelbert Kline

THORNE was still carrying the beetle over his shoulder, hanging on the long spear. He thrust upward with the spear. The beetle prevented it from slipping through the meshes, and with the long handle he was able to raise the net and pitch it back over his head.

Scarcely had he freed himself when he saw descending from the branches of the surrounding trees six grotesque specimens of humanity. Not one of them was more than five feet tall. Their skins were bright yellow in color, and their spindly arms and legs branched out from bodies that were almost globular. Their Mongoloid features were surmounted by queer pagoda-shaped helmets of yellow metal and their bodies were protected by armor.

As they converged on him, shouting wildly, they brandished long, slightly curved swords with blunt ends, small oval guards and hilts long enough to be grasped in both hands.

Thorne ran his nearest foe through with the long spear which still held the carcass of the anuba beetle. The barbed point stuck, leaving him weaponless for the instant. Then he leaped forward, seized the sword dropped by his fallen enemy, and came on guard in time to meet the attack of the next.

Swiftly parrying a lightning cut at his legs which would instantly have laid him at the mercy of his attackers, he countered with a sudden moulinet which sheared down through the left shoulder of his second adversary, inflicting a mortal wound.

The four that remained seemed taken aback by this display of the Earthman’s swordplay, and now approached him more warily. They were closing in on him from all sides when Tezzu gave up his attempts to tear down the door of the hut and suddenly rushed to Thorne’s assistance.

A leap, a crunch of those powerful jaws, and one foeman fell with his head crushed. At the same time Thorne’s sword disemboweled another of his antagonists. With shrieks of terror, the two survivors turned and fled. But the beast, despite its short legs, pursued them with incredible swiftness. One went down with his head between those relentless jaws and the last, catching a liana, scampered up for a little way only to be pulled down and as swiftly dispatched.

Thorne now rushed to the door of the hut and flung himself against it, but it remained immovable. Inside he heard the sound of clashing blades. A moment later he heard the inner bolt slide back and the door was flung open.

He was about to spring through the opening when he saw the girl framed in the doorway, dagger in one hand and sword in the other, both dripping blood. Behind her, barely visible in the dim light of the interior, lay one dead and one dying foeman.

“Why—why, I thought . . . ” stammered Thorne, lowering his point.

The girl smiled amusedly and stepped out of the hut. “So you believed these clumsy Ma Gongi had cut me down. Really, Sheb, I gave you credit for a better memory. Have you forgotten the many times Thaine’s blade has bested yours?”

So her name is Thaine, mused Thorne. Aloud he said: “Your demonstration has been most convincing. Yet I have not lost my ambition to improve my swordsmanship, and I should be grateful for further instruction.”

“No better time than now. Still, I have you at a disadvantage, since you hold an inferior weapon.”

“It is a handicap which a man should accord a girl,” Thorne replied.

“Not one this girl requires.”

She sheathed her dagger and extended her blade. Thorne engaged it with his captured weapon which, though more heavy and clumsy, was smewhat similar to a saber.

He instantly found that he had to deal with the swiftest and most dexterous fencer he had ever encountered, and time after time he barely saved himself from being touched.

“It seems your stay at the military school has improved your swordsmanship,” said the girl, cutting, thrusting, and parrying easily—almost effortlessly. “In the old days I would have touched you long ere this. Yet, you but prolong the inevitable.”

“The inevitable,” replied Thorne, “is sometimes perceptible only by deity. For instance, this”—beating sharply on her blade, then catching it on his with a rotary motion— “has often been known to end a conflict.”

Wrenched from her grasp by his impetuous attack, her sword went spinning into the undergrowth.

Instead of taking her defeat badly, Thaine actually beamed.

“You have developed into a real swordsman, old comrade! I am so glad I could almost kiss you.”

“That,” Thorne answered, recovering her weapon for her, “is a reward which should fire any man to supreme endeavor.”

“It is evident that you have mastered courtly speech as well as fencing. And now I will prepare your favorite dish for you.” She called the brute. “Here, Tezzu,” indicating the bodies. “Take these away.”

Thorne marveled at its intelligence, when it instantly took up one of the corpses.

“A smart beast, that,” he said.

“He is the most intelligent of all my father’s dalfs. That’s why I always take him with me when I hunt.”

While Tezzu carried the bodies away and dropped them into the stream, Thaine took her mace and chopped off the two thick hind legs of the beetle. From these, she lopped the thighs, and splitting the shells open, extracted two cylinders of white meat. With her dagger she sliced these into small, round steaks, piling them neatly on a broad leaf, then carried it into the hut.

Thorne followed her in. “May I help?”

“I’d like some water,” she replied. “Fill the big jar, please.” She indicated a large square jar which stood beside the mud fireplace over which she now bent, placing faggots on a small heap of charcoal.

Thorne picked up the jar, and from its great weight was convinced that it was gold. He also noticed that the figures on the sides were of exquisite workmanship.

When he returned with water from the stream, the interior of the hut had grown quite dark, but a shaft of moonlight lit up the lithe figure of the girl, kneeling before the fireplace. He went in and placed the jar beside her.

Having arranged the faggots to her satisfaction, she took a small bottle of sparkling powder from a pouch attached to her belt, and emptied a few grains on the wood. Then, dipping a cup into the jar, she poured part of its contents on the powder. Thorne was amazed to see the powder and the surrounding wood wherever the water had touched it burst into instant flame.

With the fire blazing merrily, the girl now dipped several cupfuls of water from the jar into a smaller container, dropped into it a handful of red berries taken from another jar, and set the mixture against the blaze. Then she arranged the steaks she had cut on a grill made from crossed metal rods.

Tezzu came in, his immense mouth full of faggots, which he dropped beside her. Then he touched her elbow with his nose. She turned and patted his head. “Good boy. Bring more.”

Obediently the beast turned and trotted out into the moonlight.

By the time the steaks were broiled, Tezzu had brought in a considerable quantity of wood. After removing her broiler, Thaine threw more fuel on the coals. From the vessel into which she had put the red berries she now filled two cubical golden cups with a steaming pink liquid. Then, using a wide leaf for a platter, she piled it high with the grilled steaks, set two other bits of leaf on the floor for plates. “Come, Sheb. The banquet is ready for the victors.” Thorne sat opposite her and took the steaming cup from her hand. He had guessed that the beverage it contained was pulcho, and a sip confirmed this. Then came the realization that the time had arrived for him to simulate a liking for his “favorite dish.”

“It is a banquet fit for a mighty conqueror,” he said, reaching for one of the grilled steaks. He bit out a portion and instantly recognized the flavor. It was the same as that of the broiled food which had been served him for his first breakfast on Mars.

He had noted a swift, curious glance on the part of Thaine, when she had seen him take up his steak in his hand. Now he saw that she used her dagger as a fork to convey a slice to her leaf-plate, and that she cut off a small piece which she raised to her mouth with her fingers.

Obviously he had made a Martian social error.

Suddenly the girl leaned forward. “Just who are you, masquerading as Sheb Takkor?”

For a moment Thorne was speechless with surprise. Then he replied, “Ever since I met you I have been wanting to tell you, but the consideration of a duty restrained me.”

“A duty?”

“Yes. To friends who helped me.”

“And now, am I not—another friend who has helped you?”

“Decidedly! Yet, I wonder if you will believe me. I can scarcely believe myself, that I am here.”

“Don’t be too sure that I would not believe. I know. You are—Hahr Ree Thorne, and you were born on the planet, Dhu Gong, which you call Earth.”

“How did you know that?”

“Borgen told me what he was going to do,” she replied. “I did not believe it possible, but now I know. You are so different. And you do not understand some of our Martian customs.”

“For instance, my manner of eating? Pray tell me where I erred.”

“Having a dagger, you would have waited for me to take the first morsel,” she said. “Lacking it, you would wait for me to hand you mine, then use it as I used it.”

“ I have been a boor.”

“Not at all. One cannot be expected to know the customs of a new world without some instruction.” When both had eaten all they wanted, the remainder was tossed to the waiting dalf. Then the girl rose, closed and bolted the door, and selecting two large furs from a pile against the wall, gave one to the Earthman and spread the other on the floor before the fire.

“It is time for sleep,” she said. Then, without another word, she lay down on the fur and drawing its folds about her, closed her eyes.

As he spread his fur and rolled himself therein, he again mentally compared his former fiancée to the girl who slept calmly there beside him, and the comparison was overwhelmingly favorable to Thaine.

The Swordsman of Mars    |     Chapter VI

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