The Swordsman of Mars

Chapter XVII

Otis Adelbert Kline

AS soon as he felt the net swish under him in the water, Thorne instinctively dived forward in an effort to evade it. But it had traveled too far beneath him to make such an attempt successful. However, he was able to catch hold of the rim with both hands, and clung to this as he was borne aloft, so he did not sink into the coils as Yirl Du had done.

An instant later he was soaring fifty feet above the treetops, and though he well knew the risk he ran, decided on a desperate attempt at escape. Accordingly, he drew himself up until the edge of the net was on a level with his thighs, then turned a somersault and let go, falling feet foremost.

His feet were still thrust through the bands of his pneumatic water-shoes, and these helped, to a considerable extent, in breaking his fall as he crashed downward through the branches of a large tree. Straight down through the foliage he plunged, and upon striking the ground bounced upward like a rubber ball on his resilient water-shoes. After several gradually diminishing bounces, he checked himself by clutching a shrub. Then he swiftly removed the water-shoes, and, taking them under his arm, dashed away through the thick undergrowth.

So dense was the leafy tangle overhead that Thorne was unable to see his enemies, though he heard their shouts and learned that a warrior was landing. But this same dense canopy prevented his enemies from seeing him, and for this he was thankful.

He was grieved by the capture of his faithful retainer, but he could not possibly help Yirl Du, and would only render his own capture or death certain. Moreover, there was his debt to Thaine. Somehow he must contrive to escape for her sake.

It was not long before he came to a narrow stream, almost completely concealed from observers in the sky by the branches and lianas which arched and interlaced across it.

The stream, he soon found, had seemingly endless ramifications, and he traveled for several hours; in this manner he grew weary, hungry and thirsty, and decided to stop for rest and refreshment. Instead of sleeping directly out on the bank, he caught hold of a low-hanging liana, by means of this he reached another, and swung himself up into a tree. Removing his water-shoes and slinging them over his back, he now traveled for some distance by swinging from tree to tree before alighting on the ground.

Wearily he flung himself down on a bed of soft moss beneath the spreading branches of an immense, aromatic sebolis tree. Then, after a pull at his water flask, he opened his box and removed therefrom a ration of dried meat and a cake. These he washed down with copious droughts of cold water. He rested there on the moss for a while, then packed up and wandered on.

As he felt that he had effectively baffled his pursuers, and knew that he was hopelessly lost, he saw no great need for haste. And so he wandered on through this strange Martian jungle, pausing at times to examine odd flowers or fruits, and marveling at its fantastic and often gigantic insect life, as well as its many queer beasts, birds and reptiles.

Part of the time he walked on boggy land from which the water oozed at each step, and often he splashed through shallow pools. At other times he was compelled to don his water-shoes to cross flooded areas where the trees stood in the water.

There were also considerable stretches of high, dry land, usually quite heavily wooded.

Shortly after he had entered one of these he suddenly sighted a colony of pale green caterpillars, the bodies and heads of which were protected by sharp yellow spikes. There was a great diversity of size among them, the smallest being barely an inch in length, while the largest were more than three feet long and proportionately thick. All were browsing on leaves except a few of the largest individuals, which were busy spinning cocoons. He noticed many finished cocoons hanging from limbs by twisted, rope-like fastenings. They were pale green in color, and of a glistening, silky texture.

Presently he came to one hanging directly above his path, its lower tip at the height of his head. Curiously, he extended his hand to feel the silky covering, and pinched it to test its thickness. But scarcely had he done so ere a mournful, wailing cry smote his ears. It sounded much like the cry of a new-born human child, and seemed to come from the cocoon he had touched.

He jerked his hand away, but the wailing continued. Then he was suddenly aware of the whirring of a host of invisible wings in the air above him. There was a sharp twang, and a tiny arrow embedded itself in the ground at his feet. A second whizzed past his ear, and a third grazed his arm.

He realized that he was being attacked by the Little People, and suddenly he thought of the ring. Snatching it from the pouch in which he had placed it, he rubbed it briskly on his palm. At this the twanging of the bowstrings ceased, and where he had only heard the beating of their wings, he now saw a number of Ulf men hovering in the air.

All of them were slightly larger than Eriné; there was as much diversity of appearance among them as there would have been in a similar sized group of humans. Their antennae were longer than those of the Ulf girl, and projected from shiny metal headpieces, notched at the front to let them through. They wore shirts of light chain-mail which reached to their thighs, drawn in at the middle by green silk belts from which depended swords and daggers. In addition to these weapons, each man carried a small bow in his hand, and a quiver of arrows strapped to his thigh.

One of the tiny warriors alighted on the ground, and advancing, saluted Thorne respectfully.

“Fleeswin, a Jen of the Ulf Archers, shields his eyes in the light of your presence, man of the Old Race and friend of Estabil, the Great One,” he said. “We regret that we attacked you unknowingly, and humbly craving your pardon, place ourselves at your disposal and under your command.”

“My greetings to you and your archers, Fleeswin Jen,” Thorne answered, returning his salute. “Actuated by curiosity I touched this cocoon, not meaning to injure it.”

“Our infants are easily frightened by the touch of strangers,” Fleeswin said, “and we who guard them cannot watch them all at one time. We would lose many that might otherwise be saved if they did not summon us when menaced or interfered with.”

“Then I am fortunate that your marksmanship was no better.”

“Had you been one of the Ma Gongi, you would now be bristling with arrows,” Fleeswin hastened to inform him. “But we saw you were of the Old Race, so only shot to drive you away. What would you with us, Bearer of the Ring?”

“If you can help me to find Thaine, daughter of Miradon Vil, I’ll be grateful,” Thorne answered. “I am the Rad of Takkor and her friend.”

As soon as he had announced his title, every member of the little company saluted. “We are doubly honored,” said Fleeswin, “that you prove to be the Lord of Takkor as well as a Bearer of the Ring. As for finding Thaine, if she is anywhere within the Takkor Marsh, our Vil can find her for you. Permit me to conduct you to him.”

After sending a warrior ahead to announce their coming, and placing another in temporary charge of the archers, Fleeswin led the way. Presently, above the drone of insects and the songs of birds, Thorne heard a haunting exquisite fantasy of sound which seemed to emanate from a carillon of no less than a thousand tiny silver-tongued bells. Yet he knew, as he drew closer, that it was not bells he heard but a chorus of Ulf voices. Soon he was able to distinguish the words of their song, and was surprised to learn that it was a paean of welcome for him.

A moment later he and Fleeswin emerged into a pleasant glen, the verdure-clothed sides of which rose steeply at his right and left. The place literally swarmed with the Ulfi, both male and female, and all were singing—some hanging suspended in the air with fanning wings, some perched in the trees or upon outcropping rocks on the hillside, some standing in cave mouths, with which the place was honeycombed, and others gathered on the mossy ground.

Fleeswin now kept to the ground, marching as if some great and honorable task had been delegated to him. As Thorne came abreast of the first singers, these began showering him with tiny, fragrant white blossoms. Then a group of two-score pretty Ulf maidens fluttered down and some draped Thorne with garlands while others strewed flowers before him.

Suddenly the music ceased, and Thorne, his body swathed with ropes of blossoms, found himself standing before a jovial looking pot-bellied old Ulf with a merry twinkle in his eyes. He sat enthroned on the lip of a large lily.

“Greetings, Sheb Takkor Rad,” cried the little old fellow on the lily throne, returning his salute. “Estabil, Vil of the Ulfi, bids you welcome to Ulf-land, and desires to publicly thank you for saving the life of his precious daughter, Eriné. If there is aught that Estabil can do for you, you have but to make known your wishes.”

“I wish to find . . . ” Thorne began.

“I’ll spare you the trouble of saying more,” Estabil interrupted. “You wish to find Thaine. That we can promise to perform for you.”

He leaped nimbly down from the lily throne, and continued: “Now that that is done, will you not stay to eat and drink with us?”

“Of course,” Thorne assured him, “but it is important that I find Thaine, quickly. I should prefer to stay only long enough to drink a friendly cup with you, though if I were not pressed for time your hospitality would be most welcome. I’m sure you understand.”

“We do. Indeed we do,” Estabil replied. He turned and raised his hand, whereupon a little bearded Ulf struck a gong. Then there issued from the mouth of a cave in the hillside a figure Thorne instantly recognized. It was Eriné. Behind her came an Ulf maiden bearing a golden tray on which reposed three tiny platinum cups that sparkled with jewels, and a jar.

Thorne saluted as the Vil’s daughter approached, and she smiled up at him.

“I hoped I might greet you at the banquet table,” she said, “but since you cannot tarry with us, I bring you the cup of friendship and of farewell.”

So saying, she filled the three jeweled cups from the jar, handed one to Thorne, one to her father, and retained one for herself.

Estabil raised his cup.

“Once there was a Rad of Takkor,” he said, “who, wandering through his marshlands saw an Ulf maiden about to be done to death by a savage monster of the air. The Rad slew the monster and rescued the Ulf maiden, who proved to be the daughter of the Vil of the Ulfi. Every Ulf, from the Vil to his lowliest subject, will never forget. And in this cup we pledge to the Rad of Takkor our eternal friendship.”

He and Eriné both raised their cups to their lips, and Thorne followed their example. “The Rad of Takkor gratefully accepts the pledge of friendship of the Ulfi,” he said, “and is deeply sensible of the honor thus bestowed upon him. In return, he pledges his lasting friendship to Estabil, his lovely daughter, and his loyal subjects.”

As soon as they had emptied their cups, Estabil raised his hand. Behind him the gong sounded twice, and a dozen Ulf warriors, flying six on a side, emerged from the mouth of a cave high on the hillside, bearing between them a rectangle of silken fabric about eight feet long and four wide. They alighted in front of the Vil, and saluted.

“The Rad of Takkor is ready to be conveyed to the house of Thaine,” he said. Then he turned to Thorne. “Seat yourself in the middle of the cloth, my lord,” he invited, “and you will be carried swiftly and safely to your destination.”

Though he was not entirely reassured as to the safety of this fragile conveyance, Thorne did as directed.

The Vil raised his hand. The gong sounded three strokes. Then the wings of the twelve Ulf warriors began whirring rapidly, and Thorne felt himself rising. All around him the Ulfi burst into song. He waved farewell. A moment later he was gliding over the treetops, the Ulf-song swiftly dying in the distance.

Presently they flew out over a lake, in the center of which was an island. Straight to the island they took him, and set him down in the midst of it in a small clearing.

One of the Ulf warriors touched his arm and pointed. “There is the house of Thaine.”

Thorne gazed intently in the direction the little fellow indicated. Presently he was able to make out what had entirely escaped his attention before—a small, irregularly shaped stone house, camouflaged with vines and creepers, and surrounded by trees.

“Ah, I see it now. I am beholden to you and your Vil for this favor. Please convey my thanks to him.”

One of the little warriors rolled the cloth into a bundle and thrust it beneath his arm. All twelve of them saluted and swiftly faded from view.

He crossed the clearing, and entering an opening in the vines, found a large circular doorway cut in the stone. The door stood open, revealing a large room with several swinging chairs, suspended divans, and a fireplace. Three circular doorways cut in the walls led to other rooms.

“Thaine,” he called, then waited expectantly.

There was no answer.

He was about to call her a second time when he suddenly heard a low growl from one of the rooms beyond. Then, out of that room streaked a huge black-haired beast with short legs, webbed feet, a paddle-shaped tail armed with spikes, and a cavernous mouth as large as that of a crocodile. He instantly recognized it as a dalf.

There was but one thing to do, and that quickly. Thorne seized the handle of the great door of thick planking, and swung it shut. A moment later he felt the impact of the heavy beast on the other side. He kept his hand on the latch, and it was well that he did so, for he suddenly felt that it was being pressed upward from the other side. Recalling the remarkable sagacity of these creatures, he was convinced that the beast was trying to open the door.

He was looking around for something with which to brace the latch, when he suddenly heard another growl, this time behind him. Turning, he beheld a second dalf, black with a ring of bright yellow fur circling its neck, swiftly bearing down upon him.

The Swordsman of Mars    |     Chapter XVIII

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