The Swordsman of Mars

Chapter XXII

Otis Adelbert Kline

BEFORE the sound of Sel Han’s derisive laughter died out, Thorne turned and sprinted for the nearest gawr.

“Send five hundred swordsmen after me,” he ordered as he sprang into the saddle. “This may lead to an ambush.” Then he lifted the guiding rod and was off.

As his bird-beast rose in the air, Thorne saw that Sel Han was already halfway across the lake, and circling toward the northeast, a direction that would carry him over the heart of the marsh and into a terrain altogether strange to the Earthman. A glance behind him showed a horde of his riders coming across the lake. Fearing they might not have marked his course, he raised his baridium torch over his head and flashed it thrice. His signal was answered, almost immediately by three flashes from a rider in the front ranks.

He did not doubt that Sel Han was making for his secret lair, which was believed to be somewhere in Takkor Marsh. But league after league of marshland unrolled beneath them, with the fugitive showing no signs of halting. And gradually, Thorne’s swift bird-beast gained on the other. The nearer moon rose, its bright rays accentuating the details of the scene.

Presently, when it seemed that the two moons were about to meet, Thorne noticed a change in the topography of the country ahead. They were nearing a broad, flat-topped mountain with a sloping base of sand and boulders that led to rugged, frowning cliffs.

Sel Han’s destination was obviously those frowning cliffs, but as he approached them Thorne noticed that his bird-beast had reached the limit of its endurance. With its beak almost over the rim, it fell, fluttering weakly and pecking ineffectually at the sheer cliff face with its hooked bill in an effort to save itself. Fortunately there was a shelf of rock only fifty feet below, and on this the creature alighted.

Thorne arrived on that shelf not five seconds later, but Sel Han had already sprung from his saddle, and with Thaine still slung helplessly over his shoulder, was sprinting away along that narrow ledge. Whipping out his sword, the Earthman leaped down and set out in hot pursuit.

Abruptly the ledge curved around a sharp bend in the cliff wall, and for a moment Thorne lost sight of his quarry. Then, as he rounded the bend, he saw them again. They were now in an indentation of the cliff face about an eighth of a mile deep, and the cliff opposite him was honeycombed with baridium-lighted caverns and terraced with ledges that swarmed with Ma Gongi workmen. On the top of the cliff above them a troop of mounted yellow warriors sat on guard. This, then, was the hidden nest of the conspirators.

Though not more than five hundred feet separated Sel Han and his followers, he was unable to reach them, for the ledge ended suddenly only a short distance farther on. But if he could not cross to his men, he could call them to him, and this he did.

“Ho, warriors! Your Vildus is beset! To me!”

Instantly there came a chorus of answering cries, and the flapping of their mounts’ wings as they took off. Almost at the same moment the vanguard of the Takkor swordsmen rounded the bend in the wall.

Though he had noted all these happenings, Thorne had not slackened his pace; he turned and called to his men.

“Capture those caves,” he shouted, pointing across the inlet with his sword, “and everything in them.”

Again he turned and dashed forward, then suddenly cried out in consternation. Sel Han and his precious burden had disappeared.

The Takkor swordsmen and the Ma Gongi warriors now clashed in midair, but Thorne ran on breathlessly until he reached the very end of the ledge. Then he saw the explanation—a circular doorway hewn in the solid rock at his left.

Fearing an ambush, Thorne stepped warily through that opening. He found himself in an immense cavern, lighted and ventilated by a hole in the roof through which the bright moonlight was streaming. Immediately beneath this hole a narrow wooden bridge crossed a wide chasm which split the floor of the cave from side to side. At the opposite end of the bridge was Sel Han. He had flung Thaine to the floor, and was hacking desperately with his sword at the two slender poles which supported the farther end of the bridge.

Thorne sprang forward, but the wood splintered and the bridge sagged, then fell into the chasm.

Thorne paused on the brink of the chasm. It was fully fifty feet across, and about two hundred feet deep, reaching clear to the smooth walls on both sides.

The Earthman glared at his enemy, who laughed mockingly. Behind him, on a pedestal at the rear of the cave, was a stone colossus with a sardonic grin on its repulsive features, evidently the forgotten god of some vanished race. It almost seemed as if the god had laughed.

“Now if you had a pair of wings . . . ” bantered Sel Han, grinning maliciously.

Thorne had no intention of replying, but at this moment he noticed something which made him change his mind. Thaine, lying on the floor behind his enemy, sat up and opened her eyes, looking about her in bewilderment. She still wore her weapons.

“Sel Han, the mighty swordsman,” he mocked. “The irresistible Vildus of Mars. I am alone, yet you run away. It must be that you fear me.”

“I am too great a man to engage in a common brawl,” Sel Han replied. “As soon as my warriors have defeated yours, they will come and cut you into small pieces. Then . . . ” He paused suddenly, having detected a sound behind him. Thaine had sprung to her feet and drawn her sword.

Sel Han still clutched his own weapon. “Put down that sword, you little fool!” he growled. “Do you think you can beat me?”

For answer, she extended her blade in a swift lunge that would have stretched an ordinary swordsman on the stone floor. But her abductor was no ordinary swordsman. He parried with a quick riposte.

Thorne realized that Sel Han was thoroughly angry and in deadly earnest. The thrust he had aimed at Thaine’s heart was meant to kill!

Suddenly, above the clashing of the blades and panting of the contestants, Thorne heard the sound of footsteps and the clank of weapons behind. Turning, he saw Yirl Du and a dozen Takkor swordsmen.

“The traitors’ nest is captured, my lord,” announced Yirl Du. Then he saw what was taking place at the other end of the cavern . . .  “Why—why!” he stammered.

But on the instant, Thorne had conceived a plan. “Follow me!” he cried. “We can do no good here.”

He ran out of the cave, Yirl Du and the warriors at his heels. Their gawrs were perched on the ledge.

The Earthman leaped into a saddle and pulled up the guiding rod. “Come with me, and bring ten men,” he told Yirl Du.

Thorne guided the bird-beast up over the rim of the cliff and came down beside the hole in the roof of the cavern. Unhooking the two safety chains from the saddle, he fastened them together. Yirl Du and his ten men alighted around him a moment later.

“Bring me all your safety chains,” Thorne ordered.

They brought them, and he swiftly fastened them together, end to end, until he had a chain nearly a hundred feet in length. He hooked one end of this in his belt ring.

“Now let me down that hole and swing me toward the ledge on which they are fighting.”

They seized the chain and let him down swiftly. He was directly above the appalling depth of the chasm.

Leaning down over the rim of the hole, Yirl Du set the chain in motion—a pendulum with a slender linked shaft and a human weight.

Nearer and nearer Thorne swung toward his objective, and Sel Han, who had heard the rattle of the chain, broke away from Thaine for a moment, to try to impale the Earthman as he spun helplessly at the end. But Thaine, seeing Thorne’s danger, instantly went to his rescue, attacking her abductor so furiously that he was forced to devote all his attention to her.

At last Thorne’s feet touched the ledge. The chain slackened, and he reached around to unhook it from his belt ring. This done, he looked up just in time to see a sight that drove him berserk with rage and grief. Two feet of Sel Han’s steel were projecting from Thaine’s back. With an agonized gasp, Thaine crumpled to the floor.

Thorne sprang furiously to the attack, but rage and grief are poor allies in a contest with swords. The Earthman, fighting his opponent, and little caring what happened to himself, constantly risked desperate lunges which left him dangerously exposed to counter thrusts.

Only when he was bleeding from no less than a score of wounds and felt himself growing weaker did his common sense reassert itself. Resolutely, purposefully, Thorne now began to fence.

Sel Han instantly noticed the change in his antagonist’s swordsmanship, and a look of fear came over his flat features. Yet he fought savagely.

Thorne was fencing coolly now, thrusting and parrying with ease and precision. So lightly did he hold the skill of his opponent that on hearing the clank of weapons he took time to glance across the chasm to see who had entered the cave. With a start of surprise he recognized Neva, Miradon Vil, Kov Lutas and Lal Vak. Miradon Vil, he saw, was reaching out for the end of the chain which Yirl Du was swinging toward him. But it was Neva, beside the Vil, who grasped the chain and swung across the chasm.

Thorne was so surprised that he was not quite quick enough in parrying a cut for his head. Sel Han’s blade parted his head-strap and bit through into his skull.

He saw a myriad dancing stars, then the blood spurted down into his eyes, half blinding him.

But for all that, he sprang to the attack, forcing his opponent back, back, until he stood on the very edge of the chasm. Again Sel Han tried that headcut which had worked so well before, but this time Thorne saw it coming. He parried, then countered with a sweeping moulinet to the neck—a drawing cut that sheared off the still-grinning head. It fell at his feet, and the body toppled backward into the chasm.

Staggering drunkenly, Thorne kicked the leering head after the body. Then he lurched forward . . . 

The Swordsman of Mars    |     Chapter XXIII

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