The Swordsman of Mars

Chapter XIV

Otis Adelbert Kline

THE GROUP of slaves was ushered into a large building and set at the task of filling and sealing small phials of fire-powder. Here the laborers were seated at long benches, above which were suspended large hoppers of the powder. This was conveyed down to them by means of tubes with small valves at the bottom which could be opened or closed by the operator as the phials were filled.

Stoppers of red, resilient material like that which formed the suits of the guards were pressed into the bottles, then held for a moment against hot plates, the heat melting them down and sealing them hermetically.

The labor in this department was the lightest of any in the baridium pit. Yet it was the most dreaded of all, as the air was constantly filled with the searing powder which attacked skin and lungs alike.

With a sickening apprehension of the fate in store for him, Thorne gradually saw his own skin turning yellow from contact with the fumes and powder in the air. And despite the utmost watchfulness he was unable to avoid burning his fingers and the backs of his hands by spilling on them small quantities of powder which sifted down from the none too efficient valve.

When night came the slaves were herded into a great communal building, the only furniture of which consisted of heating globes. Here a coarse porridge was doled out to them. They were given water to drink.

In this building the air was somewhat freer from dust and fumes than outside, and therefore offered some slight relief to Thorne and other newcomers whose lungs and skin had not, as yet, been badly seared. After eating their rations, the slaves flung themselves down on the hard floor around the heating globes, many to fall asleep from utter exhaustion.

Thorne was about to fling himself down like the others when he saw, sprawled on the floor at his feet, a sleeping figure that somehow seemed familiar. The skin was yellow and mottled with many burns, yet he could not mistake Yirl Du, Jen of the Takkor Free Swordsmen.

Stooping, the Earthman shook his friend. Yirl Du’s red-rimmed eyes blinked open. An angry snarl died in his throat as sudden recognition came to him. He sat up abruptly, saluted.

“I shield my eyes, my lord. I did not dream of seeing you here, and at first I did not recognize you with that yellow cast to your skin.”

“You seem to have acquired considerable color yourself, old friend. How long have you been here?”

“The seven judges sentenced me the day you were taken before the Dixtar,” Yirl Du told him. “The trial was a farce. There were no witnesses, and no evidence was produced against me except a letter from Sel Han.”

Thorne made Yirl Du and the silvery-haired Levri Thornel acquainted, and for a time they conversed. Then the baridium globes which lighted the building were hooded, and they composed themselves for sleep.

It seemed, however, that he had scarcely fallen asleep when a small baridium hand-torch was flashed in his face, awakening him, and a guard prodded him with his foot.

“Are you Sheb Takkor?” the fellow asked in a hoarse whisper.

“I am,” Thorne replied.

“Where is he who is called Yirl Du?”

“He sleeps here beside me.”

“It seems you two have a powerful friend at Dukor. My superior officer has ordered me to assist you hence. Awaken Yirl Du and follow me.”

The guard hooded his torch as Thorne shook Yirl Du awake and explained the situation to him. Then he thought of Levri Thornel. A touch awakened the old man.

“Come with me,” Thorne whispered. “It may be that we can escape.”

Then he called to the guard: “Ready.”

The fellow opened the slide of his torch only wide enough to enable him to make his way among the sleeping slaves who sprawled on the floor. Then he started toward the nearest doorway, closely followed by Thorne, Yirl Du, and Levri Thornel. Once outside the building, the guard hooded his torch, and they made their way by the light of the nearer moon, which was dropping swiftly toward the eastern horizon. They presently came to a small guardhouse near the rim of the pit. Their conductor entered, and motioned them to follow.

Thorne marched in first, and found himself in the presence of an officer who sat on the edge of a swinging divan.

The officer looked up sharply. “What’s this, Hendra Suhn? You have brought three of them.”

The guard seemed dumbfounded. “I only awakened Sheb Takkor, and told him to bring Yirl Du.”

Thorne hastened to explain. “I am Sheb Takkor. These are my friends Yirl Du and Levri Thornel. It is my desire that both accompany me.”

“I was only ordered to assist two, yourself and Yirl Du,” said the officer. “Levri Thornel goes back.

“If he goes back, then I go with him,” said Thorne.

“You refuse escape when it is offered you?”

“I decline to attempt it without my friend.”

“The more fool, you,” growled the officer. “Yet I have my orders to assist you, and I suppose this doddering old derelict must go with you.” He arose, and stepping into another room brought two bundles of warm clothing, and two of weapons. One bundle of each he handed to Thorne and the like to Yirl Du. But Thorne instantly passed his bundles to Levri Thornel.

The officer glared for a moment, but checked himself, and went into the next room for more clothing and weapons, which he thrust into the hands of Thorne with ill grace.

“You win,” he said angrily. “But this old wreck you persist in taking with you will yet cause your undoing.”

Swiftly the three men donned the clothing and belted sword, mace and dagger about them. In addition to these, each was provided with a bundle of javelins in a quiver that hung by a strap across one shoulder.

“As soon as the nearer moon sets,” said the officer, “and before the farther rises, you will have time to make your way in the dark up the side of the pit. The rim is guarded, but one guard has orders to pass you. That guard is stationed directly above this building. When you have passed the guard, you will proceed out into the desert until you have passed five out-cropping rocks. At the northern base of the sixth, which you will recognize because it leans as if it were about to fall to the ground, you will find supplies left there for you by your friends, because they would have been awkward for you to carry up the side of the pit.”

“Who are these friends who have been so thoughtful?” asked Thorne.

“I only know that these orders came down to me from my superiors, and that they must have had them from some one high in the councils of the Kamud.”

So swiftly did the nearer moon move across the sky, that only a short time elapsed where it dropped below the eastern horizon. Then the three men set out.

Overhead, the stars were blazing jewels of white, red, pale blue and yellow, in a sky of jet. Though their combined radiance was too feeble to light the path of the three fugitives, they were still of service, for their line of disappearance marked the rim of the pit. And one constellation which Thorne fixed in his mind served as a guide to the point, directly above the house they had just quitted, where they expected to find a friendly guard.

Moving with great caution in order not to start a landslide on that steeply sloping bank, they began the ascent. It was a long, difficult climb, and they had scarcely reached the summit when the farther moon rose in the east close to the point where the nearer moon had vanished a short time before. Its light was more dim than that of the nearer and larger orb, but bright enough to reveal them to a tall guard who stood looking out over the pit. Instantly he raised a javelin and advanced threateningly.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

“Sheb Takkor and friends.”

The guard stared at him suspiciously. “I can pass but two. The third must go back.”

“That order was changed. You will pass three or none,” Thorne told him. “We are going on at once. Raise an alarm now, and we will kill you. Raise it later, and there is one high in the councils of the Kamud who will see that you are condemned to the powder room.”

“I crave pardon, Sheb Takkor Jen,” he said humbly. “Pass, and may Deza guard you.”

And so the three now clambered over the wall, dropped to the other side, and marched out into the desert, free men.

Carefully, now, they counted the outcropping stones of which the officer had told them. They had passed the fifth, at a considerable distance from the pit, and were just coming up to the sixth when a half dozen warriors suddenly broke from a nearby clump of conifers and charged toward them, hurling a cloud of javelins.

Thorne shouted a warning to his companions, both of whom were able to dodge the barbed weapons. He called to his two friends to support him on the right and left, then dashed straight at the advancing warriors.

There was another exchange of javelins, in which the skilled Yirl Du transfixed an enemy, cutting the attacking party down to five.

Both sides expended their store of javelins at about the same time. Then swords and daggers were drawn and the hand-to-hand fighting began. Thorne engaged the blade of the leader of the band, and was instantly beset by another warrior on the fellow’s right. Over at his left, Yirl Du fought alone. Levri Thornel, on his right, was attacked by the remaining two, and showed amazing skill with sword and dagger.

For a time there was only the clash of steel on steel and an occasional grunt from one of the wounded contestants. Then Thorne thrust the leader of the band through the throat. With his chief opponent out of the way it was but child’s play for him to quickly dispose of the other. Then, seeing that Yirl Du was getting the best of his assailant, he dashed to the assistance of Levri Thornel.

The old man still stood his ground, apparently unhurt, as Thorne came in to engage one of his opponents. A clumsy fencer, the fellow quickly succumbed. At the same instant Levri Thornel ran his antagonist through the heart. Turning, Thorne saw Yirl Du coming toward them, cleansing his blade with a bit of fabric cut from the cloak of his fallen adversary.

“A glorious victory, my lord. Six enemies stretched out on the sand, and we three still live.”

“It was well fought,” agreed Thorne. “But who could these men be? And how came they to be waiting here for us?”

“I recognized the last fellow I killed,” said Yirl Du. “He was a henchman of Sel Han. The spies of the deputy evidently discovered the plot to release us, and he posted these assassins here for the purpose of ambushing us. He expected but two, and we were three—enough to defeat his cutthroats and upset his scheme.”

“That is true,” agreed Thorne. He turned to Levri Thornel. “It is you, my friend, who turned the tide. But for you, Yirl Du and I would now be stark on the sand in the place of these six assassins. Until I am able to express my appreciation more fittingly, permit me to merely thank you.”

“It is I who owe you a lasting debt of gratitude,” protested the old man. “But for you I would be down there in the pit, doomed to a lingering death. As it is, I—I . . . ” Suddenly he swayed, and pitched forward on his face.

Alarmed, Thorne sprang to his side, and, turning him over asked: “What is it, my friend? Are you ill?”

“Ill unto death,” the old fellow replied. “I was wounded early in the engagement and have been bleeding freely since. It is the end I would have chosen. Farewell, my comrades.”

Hastily, Thorne undid his cloak, exposing a wound just above the heart. For a moment he held his hand there, but felt no pulsations.

“Levri Thornel is dead,” he solemnly told Yirl Du.

“He was a brave man, my lord. And now we must look for that leaning stone, and be gone. If the morning sun finds us near the baridium pit, we too are dead men.”

Sadly, silently, they gathered their javelins and moved forward. Presently they came to the leaning stone.

“It was at the north base of the stone we were to look,” said Thorne, “yet there is nothing here.”

Yirl Du thrust a javelin into the sand. At a depth of about ten inches it encountered an obstruction. Swiftly he dropped to his knees and began scooping out the sand with his cupped hands.

The Swordsman of Mars    |     Chapter XV

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