The Swordsman of Mars

Chapter XXIII

Otis Adelbert Kline

THORNE opened his eyes slowly, blinked, then opened them again and stared in astonishment. He was looking up at a frescoed ceiling on which was depicted a Martian battle scene—a beleaguered city fighting off the attack of a vast army. Four golden chains depended from the ceiling, supporting the divan on which he lay beneath silken covers of peacock blue embroidered with a design in gold. Swiftly he glanced around, and saw that he was in a luxuriously furnished chamber, lighted by three large circular windows through which the bright sunlight streamed, their crystal segments opened like flower petals to admit the crisp morning air.

Seated in a swinging chair nearby, a man with white hair was poring over the contents of a large scroll. “Lal Vak!” Thorne exclaimed.

The old scientist turned and smiled. “Ah, you know me at last,” he said. He put down his scroll and walked over to the divan.

“Where am I?” Thorne asked him.

“Why, in the palace, of course.” He pointed to the silken cover and the embroidered design. “These are the colors, and this the design of the royal family of Xancibar.”

“But I don’t understand. The last I remember, I was in that cave.”

“Precisely. Neva pulled you back from the brink of the chasm. You had lost a deal of blood and fainted in her arms. Yirl Du left guards at the captured nest of the conspirators. Then we picked up five hundred more of your Takkor swordsmen at the castle and flew here. They easily cleared the palace of Sel Han’s followers, and Miradon Vil was received and acclaimed by the people with great rejoicing. They were heartily sick of the atrocities of Irintz Tel and the Kamud. But all that took place six days ago. You have been delirious since. Yesterday the royal physician removed the rjembal from your wounds and pronounced them healed. And last night you fell into a deep, healthful sleep which he believed would restore you.”

Thorne raised his hand, and felt the scar on his head reflectively. Again he saw the horror of the struggle in the cave . . .  “Poor Thaine,” he murmured.

“But Thaine is better,” said Lal Vak. “The physician says she can be up and around in a day or two.”

“What! I thought her dead.”

“The wound was highly painful, but not dangerous.” Thorne threw back the covers and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. His head reeled dizzily.

“Where are you going?”

“To Thaine,” Thorne replied.

“But you can’t get up yet.”

“Can’t I?”

Thorne stood erect, swaying uncertainly. His legs were very weak and he felt light-headed. A jar of pulcho and several cups stood on a near-by stand. Lal Vak filled a cup and handed it to him. He drank it off at a gulp and called for another. Then he staggered to the bath box, declining the assistance of his white-haired friend. Stepping out of his sleeping garment, he entered, closed the door, and trod on the plate. A few moments later he emerged, dripping and brushing the water from his eyes. When he opened them he saw a familiar figure standing before him with two great wisps of dry moss.

“Vorz!” he exclaimed.

“The same, my lord,” replied the little orderly, and proceeded to give him a brisk rub-down. “His majesty granted me leave to serve you, and I trust you will not send me away.”

“Not I,” Thorne replied. “If his majesty permits, I’ll take you back to Takkor with me.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

Vorz had laid out his clothing and weapons for him, and these he now proceeded to don. There was a magnificent cloak of orange trimmed with black, the colors of nobility. Then there was the Takkor medallion to hang about his neck. And a jeweled sword and dagger with Takkor serpent hilts.

“Do I look all right to go calling on a lady, Vorz?” he asked.

“Magnificent, my lord,” was the reply. And Thorne thought of the last time Vorz had groomed him, the night of Irintz Tel’s reception, when he and Neva had plighted their troth and she, when they were discovered, had condemned him to the baridium mines. But now there was another picture to add which puzzled and somehow comforted him. It was the memory of Neva swinging across the chasm at the risk of her own life and drawing him back from the brink just in time to save him.

“Come,” he said, taking the arm of his old friend. “Let us find the apartment of Thaine.”

They strode through the hallways in silence for a time. Then Thorne thought of Irintz Tel. “What has become of the Dixtar?”

“I’ll show you,” replied Lal Vak.

Presently they came to a door; the scientist drew a large key from his belt, unlocked the door, and threw it open. “Enter,” he invited.

Thorne stepped inside and recognized the Hall of Heads. There were the shelves, reaching to the ceiling, with their thousands of grisly relics. Then he saw that a pedestal had been set up in the center of the hall. On the pedestal was a jar; a pair of small, beady eyes, glazed with the film of death, looked out at him sightlessly from a wizened, ratlike face.

“Irintz Tel!” he exclaimed. “Well I can’t say that I blame Miradon Vil.”

“You wrong his majesty,” said Lal Vak. “The Vil had nothing to do with this. In fact he had granted the Dixtar full pardon, and bestowed on him a magnificent estate on the Zeelan Canal. But the next day Irintz Tel disappeared. An anonymous note was received that night suggesting that we look here. And we found this. We think it was the work of relatives of some of his victims. But no search is being conducted. The thing is done, and cannot be remedied. After all, they were certainly justified.”

They quitted that place of horrors and came to the apartment of Thaine. A guard saluted and admitted them; a slave girl bade them be seated while she went in to announce them to her mistress.

“I’ll wait here for you,” said Lal Vak, “since I have already paid my respects to the young lady this morning.”

Thorne went in alone. On a luxurious divan beneath fluffy blue silk coverlets lay Thaine.

“Hahr Ree Thorne!” she cried a trifle faintly, and held up both arms to him. He bent, and the arms went around his neck—drew his face to hers. Their lips met.

“You should not be up,” she said reprovingly, “for you were worse injured than I.”

“My scratches have healed,” he laughed, “and now I’m ready to leave—to go back to Takkor. I don’t care for cities—or palaces.”

“Nor I,” she told him. “This is such a big lonesome place. Already I am homesick for the marsh—for the hunting and fishing, and the blazing log fires in the evenings.”

It suddenly occurred to Thorne that, since he had put Neva forever from his mind, life would be far more worth the living with Thaine by his side.

“Thaine,” he said, “do you remember that day in your father’s cabin when you tried a certain experiment?”

She smiled up at him. “How could I forget?”

“And you said you must have time to think.”

“Since then I have thought—much. I was so inexperienced—I thought love was a thing which might be cultivated, little knowing that it is a flower which springs up spontaneously in the heart.”

“Thaine! You can’t mean that at last . . . ”

“Yes, Hahr Ree Thorne. At last I have found true love. It came to me so unexpectedly, when I met Kov Lutas, that it left me weak and breathless.”

“Kov Lutas!”

“Why, yes. We are to be wed as soon as I am well. Hadn’t you heard?”

Thorne achieved a smile, but in his heart there was a feeling of emptiness—of desolation. He forced his lips to say the conventional things, to wish her joy and to proclaim Kov Lutas the luckiest man on Mars. But to himself he thought: First Sylvia, then Neva, and now Thaine! It is my destiny to be alone and loveless.

Rising, he said: “I must go now and prepare for my journey. Farewell, and Deza grant you much happiness.”

Once outside her door, however, he could dissemble no longer. Lal Vak remarked his woebegone expression.

“Why so sad?” he asked. “I trust you found the lady well.”

“Perfectly,” Thorne replied. Then added: “Old friend, I’m a fool ever to have anything to do with women. From now on, I’m through, and I mean it.”

“Why, what’s this?” asked the scientist. “Do you fall in love with every woman you meet?”

“Well, not exactly that. But since Neva betrayed me . . . ”

“Betrayed you! What talk is this? Why she has twice saved your life! What are you talking about, boy?”

“You should know as well as I,” Thorne said bitterly. “Was it not she who sent me to the baridium mines?”

Lal Vak looked at him quizzically for the moment. “You are a greater fool than I thought, my boy. She sent you to the baridium mines to save you from the headsman. And who do you think it was who aided you to escape from the mines? There were only three people in Xancibar with the power to do so. The other two were Irintz Tel and Sel Han. Do you think they did it?”

“Why I thought it was you.”

“I had a small part,” Lal Vak admitted, “but it was she who engineered everything—who pulled the strings and moved the officials in high places, so the thing could be accomplished. You should have seen her, tearful and apprehensive that next day, as she connived with Kov Lutas and me to win your freedom. And after the thing had been done, she was beside herself with worry for fear you would be captured. Every day she besought me to try to obtain news of you. You should know, also, that the tales of her heartless flirtations were utterly false, invented by Sel Han and spread by his henchmen to keep off powerful rivals. She was no more a murderous siren than our little Thaine. That I can attest, and I have known her all her life.”

Thorne was stunned. “I have done her a great wrong, old friend,” he said, “and not only in my heart. I openly cut her when she held out her arms to me that night in Takkor Castle. I have lost the only woman I ever really loved through my own lack of faith.”

“She saved your life in the cave at the risk of her own,” Lal Vak reminded him. “Is that the act of one who has ceased to care?”

“I don’t know,” groaned Thorne. “The more I see of women the less I understand them.”

“At least, you should call on her and apologize.”

“That I will do. Let us go to her apartment.”

As they approached the door of Neva’s apartment, two guards saluted smartly and stood aside for them to enter. In the reception room a slave girl met them. “Tell your mistress Sheb Takkor is calling,” Thorne told her.

The slave girl returned almost immediately. “My mistress is not receiving callers, my lord,” she said.

Thorne turned to Lal Vak. “You see, I was right,” he said. “But it is no more than I deserve for my little faith. Come. Let us go back to my apartment. I must prepare for my journey.”

The Swordsman of Mars    |     Chapter XXIV

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