The Swordsman of Mars

Chapter XIX

Otis Adelbert Kline

WHEN Thorne looked out through the leafy screen that camouflaged the door of Thaine’s island home, he saw that a warrior in the uniform of an officer of the Kamud had dismounted in the clearing. The fellow was leading his gawr beneath the branches of a large, spreading tree, where the bird-beast would be concealed from observers flying overhead. The newcomer walked with the peculiar, rolling gait of a man whose legs are abnormally short in proportion to the rest of his body.

“It’s Yirl Du!” Thorne exclaimed.

Keeping cautiously beneath the trees which fringed the clearing, Yirl Du circled toward the house. A few moments later he entered the opening in the screen. To Thorne he rendered the usual salutation, but to Thaine, the royal salute. This surprised the Earthman until he remembered that she was the daughter of Miradon Vil, and therefore entitled to the homage due a princess.

“I have news—momentous news,” said Yirl Du as he entered the hut.

“Have—have you news of my father?” Thaine asked, anxiously.

“Ill news,” he replied. “His majesty is in the clutches of Sel Han, who has imprisoned him in Castle Takkor.”

“We must find a way to rescue him,” exclaimed Thorne.

“Wait, I have not told you all,” Yirl Du said. “Perhaps I had best begin at the beginning. After I was netted by Sel Han’s Ma Gongi, they searched a while for you, my lord. But at last they gave up the chase and flew with me to Castle Takkor. I found the castle garrisoned entirely by Ma Gongi, with Sur Det and a few of his cronies in command. Sur Det had been rescued from the prison pen by Sel Han.

“It seems that some time ago the yellow scientists rediscovered how to generate the deadly green ray used in warfare by their ancestors. Since then they have been building large ray projectors, not as yet being able to manufacture small hand projectors powerful enough for efficient use. With four of these projectors and an army of Ma Gongi mounted on gawrs, Sel Han yesterday flew to Dukor, overawed the army and the people with the weapons he had brought with him, and took over the government. He captured all the high officers of the Kamud, and it is said he intends to proclaim himself Vil of Xancibar in a day or two. These officers, among whom are Kov Lutas and Lal Vak, together with the Dixtar and his daughter Neva, were sent to Castle Takkor, where they are now prisoners, guarded by the Ma Gongi warriors.

“Miradon Vil, who had previously been captured by Sel Han’s Ma Gongi scouts, was at first held in the secret camp where they were making the ray projectors. But as soon as the government had been over-thrown, Sel Han ordered him brought to Castle Takkor, where he could be guarded with the other important prisoners.

“Sur Det ordered me imprisoned in a room in one of the towers, to await the arrival of Sel Han, who would then decide what my fate should be. But, unfortunately for his plans, he had me put in a room in which there was a hidden panel which communicated with a secret passageway that led to the underground cellars, and thence out under the docks.

“I lost no time in making use of this means of escape, but ran into one of Sel Han’s officers. I caught him by the throat before he could make a sound, and hung on until he ceased to breathe. Then I donned his uniform and weapons, and boldly ascended to the dock. There, by virtue of the authority vested in my borrowed uniform, I demanded and received a gawr from one of the attendants, and flew away unmolested.”

“Do you think it would be possible for you and me to return to the castle, enter by way of the secret passage, and rescue Miradon Vil?” Thorne asked.

“I fear it would not, my lord,” Yirl Du answered. “His majesty is too well guarded. He is an even more important prisoner than Irintz Tel. Sel Han holds him as a hostage to prevent any uprising among the royalists, just as he holds the Dixtar to keep the loyal Kamudists from revolting.”

“How many ray projectors are left at the castle?” Thorne asked.

“There are none,” Yirl Du told him. “All four are in use in Dukor. Where Sel Han goes, there go the projectors, also. He will not leave them in the hands of his most trusted officers, for they are his very lifeblood. Without them he could be easily defeated by a handful of regular soldiers. And so far as I know, no others have been completed.”

“Why, then, perhaps we can take the castle,” mused Thorne. “You told me once that the Free Swordsmen would revolt against the rule of any but a rad of the Takkor blood.”

“I’m sure they are loyal, my lord,” Yirl Du said. “You have but to command, and they will fight to the last man to recover your castle for you.”

“Good. I think it can be done without heavy losses. I have a plan.”

.     .     .     .     .

That afternoon, shortly after Thorne had outlined his plan and given his instructions to Yirl Du, the latter flew away in the direction of Takkor City.

Some time later, when the shadows had begun to lengthen, Thorne, who had been snatching forty winks on one of Thaine’s divans, was awakened by her hand on his brow.

“The time has come,” she said.

Thorne sat up, drank the cup of freshly brewed pulcho she proffered him, and sprang to the floor.

“Now if you will be so kind as to lend me Tezzu and a boat,” he said, “I’ll be off.”

“Why do you say lend,’ ” she asked, “when I am going with you?”

“You are to remain here. There will be fighting—bloodshed. It is too dangerous.”

She drew herself up proudly. “I am a warrior, and as good a swordsman as the man you just sent to rally your followers. If you won’t take me with you I shall go in a separate boat.”

Seeing the impossibility of dissuading her from her resolve, Thorne set about making preparations for their journey. They then took Tezzu with them, leaving Neem, the other beast, to guard the house, and went down to the boat.

Tezzu, with the tow-rope in his huge mouth, swiftly took them across the lake and into a narrow stream where the foliage arching overhead concealed them from the sight of flying enemies. After traversing a veritable network of these tiny streams and crossing a number of small lakes, they reached the shore of Takkor Lake just before sundown.

At the command of his mistress, Tezzu dragged the boat up out of the water, upon which ice crystals were already beginning to form, and into a place of concealment, where he was left to guard it. Then the man and girl set off along the lake shore, following the same route that Thorne had followed upon his first disastrous visit to Castle Takkor, and carefully keeping out of sight among the trees.

They had not traveled far before the sun set, so they were forced to pick their way through the undergrowth by the light of the nearer moon. Shortly thereafter, Yirl Du appeared in the path before them.

“Everything is arranged,” he said softly. “I have been waiting to lead you to the rendezvous.”

They paused only long enough to draw up their boots and let down their head-cloaks for warmth. Then Yirl Du led them away through the glittering, frost-coated jungle. Presently they came to a large clearing where several hundred warriors, mounted on gawrs, were assembled, and more were arriving constantly from all points of the compass, singly and in small groups. There was also a group of fifty warriors who were unmounted.

“In a little while there will be five hundred mounted warriors here, my lord,” said Yirl Du. “My son, Rid Du, has assembled a thousand more afoot. They are scattered about in the city, seemingly only amusing themselves, but will rally to him at the signal, half to capture the gawrs on the wharf and the other half to rush the castle gate.”

Shortly thereafter the last flying warrior arrived.

After a brief final conference with Thorne, Yirl Du led his foot-soldiers away. They were picked men, for they were to follow Yirl Du through the secret passageway into the castle and then capture and throw open the gates, so the soldiers under Rid Du could rush in.

Thorne was to lead the air attack which was calculated first to draw the attention of the defenders from Yirl Du’s little party, and later to assist in crushing the Ma Gongi guards.

After he had waited for the length of time agreed upon with Yirl Du, Thorne gave the signal to his men, and one by one the great bird-beasts left the ground. With the Earthman in the lead, they formed a long line which ascended for about two thousand feet, then straightened out to fly directly for the castle. Once above his objective, Thorne led the way downward in a swift, descending spiral which, as it neared the upper parapets, flattened into a great circle that followed the outline of the walls.

An alarm had been sounded at the first approach of this flying host, and now, as they drew nearer, javelins flew up at them, hurled by the defenders on the walls. Assisted by the force of gravity, while their enemies were impeded by it, the flying warriors were able to reply to good purpose, and soon there were many dead and wounded Ma Gongi on the ramparts. But it seemed that as fast as they fell more rushed up to take their places.

At the first alarm, five hundred of Rid Du’s warriors had swarmed down over the docks where the gawrs were kept. As they were guarded only by a few soldiers and orderlies, the bird-beasts were soon captured. In the meantime, led by Rid Du, the other half of his little company assembled before the gate and began hurling javelins up at the defenders.

Now was the time for Yirl Du to strike, and Thorne watched tensely. Presently he saw the little company emerge from one of the castle doors, quickly form a flying wedge with Yirl Du at the apex, and charge across the courtyard, cutting down or scattering the surprised Ma Gongi in their way. Just before the gate the two wings of the wedge divided, and each column ascended into one of the watch towers which guarded the gateway. A moment later the gates swung open, and in poured the Free Swordsmen from the town, with Rid Du at their head.

Now Thorne’s flying warriors swooped down into the melee, abandoning their javelins for fear of injuring their comrades, and fighting at close range with sword, mace and dagger. The slaughter was appalling. The Ma Gongi, most of whom had been slaves and were unaccustomed to warfare, were no match for the disciplined Takkor swordsmen.

The ramparts and courtyard were thickly strewn with their bodies as Thorne, with Yirl Du, Thaine, and a small contingent of Takkor swordsmen, cut down the warriors who guarded the entrance, charged into the castle, and began their search for the prisoners.

Yirl Du led the way to the great central tower, then fought their way up the winding staircase, the yellow defenders stubbornly contesting each step of the way.

Thorne and Yirl Du were ever in the front as they climbed the stairs, and both were soon covered with wounds. When they reached the flight which led to the top story, they met with the most desperate resistance they had yet encountered. But the swiftly flashing blade of the Earthman backed up the swords of Yirl Du and Thaine, and the javelins of the warriors who came behind them soon cleared the stairs of living enemies, and the few who remained above to contest their way were quickly cut down.

Thorne tried the door and found it barred on the inside. Reversing his bloody sword, he beat upon the panels with the pommel.

“Who is it?” came a cautious call from within.

“The Rad of Takkor,” Thorne replied. “Open quickly.”

At this, there was the sound of a sliding bolt, and the door swung open. A tall, broad-shouldered man whose shaggy hair and flowing beard gleamed golden yellow under the baridium lights stood in the doorway.

At sight of him, Yirl Du and the other warriors instantly raised both hands before their eyes and muttered the royal salutation, while Thaine, with an exclamation of joy, ran forward and flung her arms around his neck.

“Father!” she cried. “I’m so glad we found you safe.”

Gently he took her face between his huge hands, and bending, kissed her forehead. “Little daughter!” he murmured. “This was man’s work. You should not have come.”

“Did you not train me to do a man’s work? And have I not done it well? Ask Sheb Takkor.”

Thorne, who had instantly sensed that this regal looking personage must be Miradon Vil, had only been a shade behind the others in rendering the royal salutation. He now stood, respectfully waiting for the Vil to speak.

“It is a question I need not propound,” said Miradon. “I know you have fought nobly, or you would not be here. But, come, Sheb Takkor Rad, and you, Yirl Du Jen. There are those in other apartments who will be glad to thank their gallant rescuers.”

He led the way down the hall and tapped on a door. From within came a little squeaky voice, which Thorne immediately recognized as that of Irintz Tel. “Who is there?”

“Miradon Vil with friends who have rescued us. Open.”

The bolt slid back, the door swung open, and the little rat-faced Dixtar stepped out, followed by Kov Lutas and Lal Vak.

“Where’s Neva?” squeaked Irintz Tel. “Have you found my daughter?”

“She should be in one of these apartments,” replied Miradon Vil.

“Open the doors! Break them down!” ordered the Dixtar, with a wave of his hand. “Why do you all stand there, staring?”

Thorne regarded him coldly. “You forget, Irintz Tel,” he said, “that this is my castle and these are my warriors. They take orders only from me.”

At this, the Dixtar turned deathly pale, but Thorne, ignoring him, warmly greeted the handsome young Kov Lutas and the white-haired Lal Vak, both of whom profusely thanked him for coming to their rescue.

In the meantime, Miradon Vil had gone on to the next door and rapped. Thorne’s heart gave a great bound as he heard the voice that answered—the voice of Neva.

Irintz Tel rushed to the door and embraced his daughter as she stepped out, followed by two of her slave-girls. Kov Lutas and Lal Vak instantly crowded forward to greet her, and the latter ceremoniously introduced Miradon Vil.

Thorne held aloof, watching them, his breast seething with conflicting emotions. Despite his resolve to put Neva forever from his thoughts, he now found that sight of her had suddenly reawakened all the old longing with redoubled intensity.

Suddenly he realized that Neva had seen him—was coming toward him—holding out her arms to him. His heart throbbed wildly. Yet he resolutely steeled himself to break the subtle spell she had again cast over him—forcing his flagging will to recall her betrayal of him and the hideous death to which she had condemned him.

“Sheb, beloved!” she murmured. “The time has been so long . . . ”

“The Dixtar’s daughter,” he said with frigid politeness, “honors the lowly castle of the Rad of Takkor by her charming presence. The Takkor retainers will have instructions to do all in their power to make her stay a pleasant one.”

With this he saluted stiffly, and walked to where Yirl Du stood awaiting his orders. “See that these, my honored guests, are given the best the castle affords.”

“Yes, my lord.”

For a moment Neva stood bewildered. Then a sudden flush suffused her lovely face. Turning, she reentered her apartment, head held high and eyes flashing.

Without even glancing at the door through which she had vanished, Thorne addressed Yirl Du. “I understand that the chief officials of the Kamud, including the seven judges, are confined here.”

“They are in the west wing, my lord.”

“Have them brought here, Jen,” cut in Irintz Tel imperiously. “We would speak with them.”

“They are to be kept in their quarters, and well guarded,” continued Thorne. “Also, you are to search for Sur Det, and if he still lives, bring him to me. I would question him.”

“Yes, my lord.”

The Earthman now turned to the little Dixtar. “I trust it will not be necessary to again remind you that my warriors take orders only from me.”

Irintz Tel shot him a venomous glance. Then he swung on his heel and entered Neva’s apartment.

Thorne looked at Miradon Vil with an apologetic smile. “I hope that your majesty will excuse me, as I have pressing duties. Preparations must be made at once, so we can all leave the castle before morning. Sel Han may return at any moment with his ray projectors, and if he finds us here our case will be desperate, if not entirely hopeless.”

The Vil returned his smile. “I understand. Can I help?”

“No, I thank your majesty.”

Thorne hurried down the corpse-littered stairs, and out into the courtyard. Here he set about making immediate preparations for flight, ordering that all available weapons and provisions be brought out and loaded onto the gawrs. He planned to leave the Vil and Thaine in their secret hiding place, and to find another for Irintz Tel and Neva. Then he would lead his warriors far out into the marsh and hide from Sel Han and his fearsome new weapons until he could devise some plan for successfully combating him.

He was overseeing these preparations some time later, when Yirl Du came and asked to speak with him aside.

“My lord,” he said, “Sur Det cannot be found among either the dead or the living.”

“Then he has escaped. We must hasten our preparations, for he has undoubtedly gone to Dukor, and will bring Sel Han and his ray projectors down upon us.”

But the words had scarcely left his mouth when a guard called from one of the towers: “A vast host of warriors mounted on gawrs is approaching. Also there are a score of the great metal gawrs.”

Instantly, confusion reigned in the castle. A frightened warrior leaped on the back of a half-loaded gawr and jerked the guiding rod. The bird-beast flapped awkwardly up out of the courtyard. But it had scarcely cleared the castle walls when a strange and terrible thing happened. A green ray shot out from somewhere beyond the wall—struck the fleeing warrior and his mount. For an instant they were visible, bathed in that weird, green light. Then they seemed to suddenly shrivel and disintegrate. Where they had been there was nothing at all. The ray winked out and consternation settled over the courtyard.

The Swordsman of Mars    |     Chapter XX

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