THORNE’S journey was not a pleasant one.
Like the other prisoners, the Earthman was compelled by the lurching of the ship to keep a tight hold on his chain with both hands, and thus ease the sudden jerks on his metal collar that would otherwise have choked him. Consequently he was thankful when, after more than an hour of riding, he sensed that the ship was settling, then felt the shock of its landing.
A moment later the door was flung open by one of the guards and the folding metal steps were dropped. The other guard opened the prisoners’ collars, one by one, with a key he carried, and ordered them out the door. Thorne, the third to step out, saw that they were in a large walled inclosure in which were several hundred men, some lying on the ground or lolling against the walls, others pacing up and down, or conversing in small groups.
At the bottom of the ladder an officer waited, attended by two soldiers, one of whom carried a bundle of metal rings. The officer was scanning a paper which the first guard had handed him, evidently a list of prisoners. As each man descended, he asked his name and checked the list. Then the soldier with the rings fastened one about the prisoner’s neck and called the number engraved on the ring.
When it came Thorne’s turn, the officer asked “Your name?”
“What is your real name?”
“I have told you,” Thorne replied.
The officer shrugged. “It will be so entered, though the report says you are an impostor. But that will be a matter for the judges.”
He signed to the soldier with the rings, who clamped one about Thorne’s neck and called the number. The soldier gave him a push that sent him stumbling into the yard, and the officer began questioning the next prisoner.
Recovering his balance, the Earthman walked morosely to the center of the inclosure. A glance about him at the high walls patrolled by heavily armed warriors convinced him that escape would be next to impossible. Beyond the walls on all sides he saw the upper stories of many cylindrical, flat-topped buildings. He concluded, from this, that he must be in the midst of a large and populous city.
Having completed his inspection of his surroundings, he found a place where he could sit and lean against the wall, and think. His case, it seemed, was well nigh hopeless.
As he sat there, Thorne noticed coming toward him a man with a huge chest and shoulders, long, ape-like arms, and abnormally short legs. With a start of surprise, he recognized the Jen of the Takkor Free Swordsmen.
“Yirl Du!” he exclaimed.
“I shield my eyes, my lord Sheb,” said the Jen, “and thank Deza that you still live. Lal Vak and I thought you dead, and so reported at the castle.”
“What brought you here?”
“My arrest came so suddenly,” replied Yirl Du, “that I am still bewildered. I was sent here this morning charged with inciting the Free Swordsmen to revolt against the Kamud.”
“And should they be able to prove such an absurd charge, what will be the penalty?”
“Death. In what form, I know not. The seven dread judges of the Kamud deal out death in many fiendish forms. Their most merciful sentence is the stroke of the sword. Then there are the mines. A sentence to the mines is really a death sentence, for few men survive their rigors for many days.”
“And what sentence do you think they will pass on me?”
“Of what is my lord accused?”
“I slew a soldier of the Kamud who attacked me. Also I am to be charged with impersonating myself, because I am officially dead. Furthermore, there is some suspicion attached to me, which I cannot fathom, because I was wearing a sword of the Ma Gongi.”
Yirl Du groaned. “You might have obtained an acquittal on the first two counts, but I fear this latter spells your doom. Deza grant that I, Yirl Du, Jen of the Takkor Free Swordsmen, may never live to see my Rad die in such dishonor.”
“But why should a sword of the Ma Gongi constitute such damning evidence?”
“It is believed,” the Jen told him, “that the Ma Gongi are plotting to overthrow the Old Race—to conquer all Mars. There have been persistent rumors that one of the archaeologists has unearthed the secret of the deadly green ray.
“Although we would not dare to publicly voice our suspicions, there are also those among us who suspect Sel Han of plotting with the Ma Gongi. He has so wormed himself into the good graces of Irintz Tel that a word breathed against him would bring instant disaster to almost any man.
“It is said, also, that the Dixtar intends to wed his daughter Neva to this arch-plotter, and that through marriage with her he will eventually succeed to the dixtarship of Xancibar.”
“It is obvious that this Sel Han is indeed a menace to all mankind,” said Thorne.
“I have a further suspicion,” went on Yirl Du, “born when you told me of the disappearance of Thaine’s father. Miradon Vil, a prisoner, would be of inestimable value to Sel Han in his plans for conquest. With the Vil in his power, he could hold the royalists as well as the Kamud in the hollow of his hand. A colony of the Ma Gongi inhabits a part of the marsh not far from Miradon’s hiding place. And it may well be that they, at the instigation of their ally, Sel Han, have captured the Vil and are holding him in some secret hiding place.”
Thorne was about to reply when a shrill whistle sounded.
“Come,” said Yirl Du. “That was the food signal, and the last ten men in line always go hungry.”
They both sprang forward to where a long line of prisoners was forming before a table containing some small cakes and cubical cups of pulcho, presided over by four orderlies who had already begun to hand a cup and cake to each man, under the watchful eyes of the half dozen soldiers with drawn swords. Thorne saw, on looking back, that there were exactly ten men behind him.
Shuffling forward with the others, he was surprised to feel a powerful hand clapped on his shoulder. Before he could offer the slightest resistance, he was spun around, and found himself walking behind the man who had previously been just behind him.
Thorne seized the brawny arm of the man who had supplanted him and swung him around. He had a swift glimpse of a glaring face, crisscrossed by a frightful pattern of livid scars. Then he drove a smashing right hook to the point of the jaw that sent the man reeling backward to the ground.
In a moment the fellow began to recover from the effect of the blow, and sat up looking about him. Suddenly spying Thorne, he shook his bullet head, then lurched to his feet, and charged.
Thorne turned at the sound, and prepared to meet the shock of the attack. With both arms outstretched, the man attempted to seize him, but a blow in the solar plexus followed by a swift uppercut downed him again.
Instantly, Yirl Du, who had drained his pulcho cup and was munching his cake, tossed the food aside and sprang forward. “Let me handle this beast, my lord. He is Sur Det, the most dreaded duelist and assassin in all Xancibar.”
By this time most of the prisoners were crowding around, talking excitedly while they munched and drank.
“Swords!” some one shouted. “Bring swords!”
A group of guards came shouldering through the crowd, making way for a handsome fellow who wore the purple cloak of an officer of the Kamud.
“What’s this, Sur Det?” he asked. “Fighting again?”
Sur Det scrambled to his feet and saluted. “That fellow,” he said, glaring at Thorne, “has twice assaulted me. I ask settlement by swords, which is my right according to the prison rules.”
The officer turned to Thorne. “What say you? Do you, also, desire settlement by swords?”
“I do,” the Earthman replied.
“Obviously you have not heard of the prowess of Sur Det,” said the officer. “But on your own head be your decision. Give them swords, soldiers, and let a circle be formed.”