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A Desperate Deed







From: The Chessmen Of Mars

E-Med crossed the tower chamber toward Tara of Helium and the
slave girl, Lan-O. He seized the former roughly by a shoulder.
"Stand!" he commanded. Tara struck his hand from her and rising,
backed away.

"Lay not your hand upon the person of a princess of Helium,
beast!" she warned.

E-Med laughed. "Think you that I play at jetan for you without
first knowing something of the stake for which I play?" he
demanded. "Come here!"

The girl drew herself to her full height, folding her arms across
her breast, nor did E-Med note that the slim fingers of her right
hand were inserted beneath the broad leather strap of her harness
where it passed over her left shoulder.

"And O-Tar learns of this you shall rue it, E-Med," cried the
slave girl; "there be no law in Manator that gives you this girl
before you shall have won her fairly."

"What cares O-Tar for her fate?" replied E-Med. "Have I not
heard? Did she not flout the great jeddak, heaping abuse upon
him? By my first ancestor, I think O-Tar might make a jed of the
man who subdued her," and again he advanced toward Tara.

"Wait!" said the girl in low, even tone. "Perhaps you know not
what you do. Sacred to the people of Helium are the persons of
the women of Helium. For the honor of the humblest of them would
the great jeddak himself unsheathe his sword. The greatest
nations of Barsoom have trembled to the thunders of war in
defense of the person of Dejah Thoris, my mother. We are but
mortal and so may die; but we may not be defiled. You may play at
jetan for a princess of Helium, but though you may win the match,
never may you claim the reward. If thou wouldst possess a dead
body press me too far, but know, man of Manator, that the blood
of The Warlord flows not in the veins of Tara of Helium for
naught. I have spoken."

"I know naught of Helium and O-Tar is our warlord," replied
E-Med; "but I do know that I would examine more closely the prize
that I shall play for and win. I would test the lips of her who
is to be my slave after the next games; nor is it well, woman, to
drive me too far to anger." His eyes narrowed as he spoke, his
visage taking on the semblance of that of a snarling beast. "If
you doubt the truth of my words ask Lan-O, the slave girl."

"He speaks truly, O woman of Helium," interjected Lan-O. "Try not
the temper of E-Med, if you value your life."

But Tara of Helium made no reply. Already had she spoken. She
stood in silence now facing the burly warrior who approached her.
He came close and then quite suddenly he seized her and, bending,
tried to draw her lips to his.

Lan-O saw the woman from Helium half turn, and with a quick
movement jerk her right hand from where it had lain upon her
breast. She saw the hand shoot from beneath the arm of E-Med and
rise behind his shoulder and she saw in the hand a long, slim
blade. The lips of the warrior were drawing closer to those of
the woman, but they never touched them, for suddenly the man
straightened, stiffly, a shriek upon his lips, and then he
crumpled like an empty fur and lay, a shrunken heap, upon the
floor. Tara of Helium stooped and wiped her blade upon his
harness.

Lan-O, wide-eyed, looked with horror upon the corpse. "For this
we shall both die," she cried.

"And who would live a slave in Manator?" asked Tara of Helium.

"I am not so brave as thou," said the slave girl, "and life is
sweet and there is always hope."

"Life is sweet," agreed Tara of Helium, "but honor is sacred. But
do not fear. When they come I shall tell them the truth--that you
had no hand in this and no opportunity to prevent it."

For a moment the slave girl seemed to be thinking deeply.
Suddenly her eyes lighted. "There is a way, perhaps," she said,
"to turn suspicion from us. He has the key to this chamber upon
him. Let us open the door and drag him out--maybe we shall find a
place to hide him."

"Good!" exclaimed Tara of Helium, and the two immediately set
about the matter Lan-O had suggested. Quickly they found the key
and unlatched the door and then, between them, they half carried,
half dragged, the corpse of E-Med from the room and down the
stairway to the next level where Lan-O said there were vacant
chambers. The first door they tried was unlatched, and through
this the two bore their grisly burden into a small room lighted
by a single window. The apartment bore evidence of having been
utilized as a living-room rather than as a cell, being furnished
with a degree of comfort and even luxury. The walls were paneled
to a height of about seven feet from the floor, while the plaster
above and the ceiling were decorated with faded paintings of
another day.

As Tara's eyes ran quickly over the interior her attention was
drawn to a section of paneling that seemed to be separated at one
edge from the piece next adjoining it. Quickly she crossed to it,
discovering that one vertical edge of an entire panel projected a
half-inch beyond the others. There was a possible explanation
which piqued her curiosity, and acting upon its suggestion she
seized upon the projecting edge and pulled outward. Slowly the
panel swung toward her, revealing a dark aperture in the wall
behind.

"Look, Lan-O!" she cried. "See what I have found--a hole in which
we may hide the thing upon the floor."

Lan-O joined her and together the two investigated the dark
aperture, finding a small platform from which a narrow runway led
downward into Stygian darkness. Thick dust covered the floor
within the doorway, indicating that a great period of time had
elapsed since human foot had trod it--a secret way, doubtless,
unknown to living Manatorians. Here they dragged the corpse of
E-Med, leaving it upon the platform, and as they left the dark
and forbidden closet Lan-O would have slammed to the panel had
not Tara prevented.

"Wait!" she said, and fell to examining the door frame and the
stile.

"Hurry!" whispered the slave girl. "If they come we are lost."

"It may serve us well to know how to open this place again,"
replied Tara of Helium, and then suddenly she pressed a foot
against a section of the carved base at the right of the open
panel. "Ah!" she breathed, a note of satisfaction in her tone,
and closed the panel until it fitted snugly in its place. "Come!"
she said and turned toward the outer doorway of the chamber.

They reached their own cell without detection, and closing the
door Tara locked it from the inside and placed the key in a
secret pocket in her harness.

"Let them come," she said. "Let them question us! What could two
poor prisoners know of the whereabouts of their noble jailer? I
ask you, Lan-O, what could they?"

"Nothing," admitted Lan-O, smiling with her companion.

"Tell me of these men of Manator," said Tara presently. "Are they
all like E-Med, or are some of them like A-Kor, who seemed a
brave and chivalrous character?"

"They are not unlike the peoples of other countries," replied
Lan-O. "There be among them both good and bad. They are brave
warriors and mighty. Among themselves they are not without
chivalry and honor, but in their dealings with strangers they
know but one law--the law of might. The weak and unfortunate of
other lands fill them with contempt and arouse all that is worst
in their natures, which doubtless accounts for their treatment of
us, their slaves."

"But why should they feel contempt for those who have suffered
the misfortune of falling into their hands?" queried Tara.

"I do not know," said Lan-O; "A-Kor says that he believes that it
is because their country has never been invaded by a victorious
foe. In their stealthy raids never have they been defeated,
because they have never waited to face a powerful force; and so
they have come to believe themselves invincible, and the other
peoples are held in contempt as inferior in valor and the
practice of arms."

"Yet A-Kor is one of them," said Tara.

"He is a son of O-Tar, the jeddak," replied Lan-O; "but his
mother was a high born Gatholian, captured and made slave by
O-Tar, and A-Kor boasts that in his veins runs only the blood of
his mother, and indeed is he different from the others. His
chivalry is of a gentler form, though not even his worst enemy
has dared question his courage, while his skill with the sword,
and the spear, and the thoat is famous throughout the length and
breadth of Manator."

"What think you they will do with him?" asked Tara of Helium.

"Sentence him to the games," replied Lan-O. "If O-Tar be not
greatly angered he may be sentenced to but a single game, in
which case he may come out alive; but if O-Tar wishes really to
dispose of him he will be sentenced to the entire series, and no
warrior has ever survived the full ten, or rather none who was
under a sentence from O-Tar."

"What are the games? I do not understand," said Tara "I have
heard them speak of playing at jetan, but surely no one can be
killed at jetan. We play it often at home."

"But not as they play it in the arena at Manator," replied Lan-O.
"Come to the window," and together the two approached an aperture
facing toward the east.

Below her Tara of Helium saw a great field entirely surrounded by
the low building, and the lofty towers of which that in which she
was imprisoned was but a unit. About the arena were tiers of
seats; but the a thing that caught her attention was a gigantic
jetan board laid out upon the floor of the arena in great squares
of alternate orange and black.

"Here they play at jetan with living pieces. They play for great
stakes and usually for a woman--some slave of exceptional beauty.
O-Tar himself might have played for you had you not angered him,
but now you will be played for in an open game by slaves and
criminals, and you will belong to the side that wins--not to a
single warrior, but to all who survive the game."

The eyes of Tara of Helium flashed, but she made no comment.

"Those who direct the play do not necessarily take part in it,"
continued the slave girl, "but sit in those two great thrones
which you see at either end of the board and direct their pieces
from square to square."

"But where lies the danger?" asked Tara of Helium. "If a piece be
taken it is merely removed from the board--this is a rule of
jetan as old almost as the civilization of Barsoom."

"But here in Manator, when they play in the great arena with
living men, that rule is altered," explained Lan-O. "When a
warrior is moved to a square occupied by an opposing piece, the
two battle to the death for possession of the square and the one
that is successful advantages by the move. Each is caparisoned to
simulate the piece he represents and in addition he wears that
which indicates whether he be slave, a warrior serving a
sentence, or a volunteer. If serving a sentence the number of
games he must play is also indicated, and thus the one directing
the moves knows which pieces to risk and which to conserve, and
further than this, a man's chances are affected by the position
that is assigned him for the game. Those whom they wish to die
are always Panthans in the game, for the Panthan has the least
chance of surviving."

"Do those who direct the play ever actually take part in it?"
asked Tara.

"Oh, yes," said Lan-O. "Often when two warriors, even of the
highest class, hold a grievance against one another O-Tar compels
them to settle it upon the arena. Then it is that they take
active part and with drawn swords direct their own players from
the position of Chief. They pick their own players, usually the
best of their own warriors and slaves, if they be powerful men
who possess such, or their friends may volunteer, or they may
obtain prisoners from the pits. These are games indeed--the very
best that are seen. Often the great chiefs themselves are slain."

"It is within this amphitheater that the justice of Manator is
meted, then?" asked Tara.

"Very largely," replied Lan-O.

"How, then, through such justice, could a prisoner win his
liberty?" continued the girl from Helium.

"If a man, and he survived ten games his liberty would be his,"
replied Lan-O.

"But none ever survives?" queried Tara. "And if a woman?"

"No stranger within the gates of Manator ever has survived ten
games," replied the slave girl. "They are permitted to offer
themselves into perpetual slavery if they prefer that to fighting
at jetan. Of course they may be called upon, as any warrior, to
take part in a game, but their chances then of surviving are
increased, since they may never again have the chance of winning
to liberty."

"But a woman," insisted Tara; "how may a woman win her freedom?"

Lan-O laughed. "Very simply," she cried, derisively. "She has but
to find a warrior who will fight through ten consecutive games
for her and survive."

"'Just are the laws of Manator,'" quoted Tara, scornfully.

Then it was that they heard footsteps outside their cell and a
moment later a key turned in the lock and the door opened. A
warrior faced them.

"Hast seen E-Med the dwar?" he asked.

"Yes," replied Tara, "he was here some time ago."

The man glanced quickly about the bare chamber and then
searchingly first at Tara of Helium and then at the slave girl,
Lan-O. The puzzled expression upon his face increased. He
scratched his head. "It is strange," he said. "A score of men saw
him ascend into this tower; and though there is but a single
exit, and that well guarded, no man has seen him pass out."

Tara of Helium hid a yawn with the back of a shapely hand. "The
Princess of Helium is hungry, fellow," she drawled; "tell your
master that she would eat."

It was an hour later that food was brought, an officer and
several warriors accompanying the bearer. The former examined the
room carefully, but there was no sign that aught amiss had
occurred there. The wound that had sent E-Med the dwar to his
ancestors had not bled, fortunately for Tara of Helium.

"Woman," cried the officer, turning upon Tara, "you were the last
to see E-Med the dwar. Answer me now and answer me truthfully.
Did you see him leave this room?"

"I did," answered Tara of Helium.

"Where did he go from here?"

"How should I know? Think you that I can pass through a locked
door of skeel?" the girl's tone was scornful.

"Of that we do not know," said the officer. "Strange things have
happened in the cell of your companion in the pits of Manator.
Perhaps you could pass through a locked door of skeel as easily
as he performs seemingly more impossible feats."

"Whom do you mean," she cried; "Turan the panthan? He lives,
then? Tell me, is he here in Manator unharmed?"

"I speak of that thing which calls itself Ghek the kaldane,"
replied the officer.

"But Turan! Tell me, padwar, have you heard aught of him?" Tara's
tone was insistent and she leaned a little forward toward the
officer, her lips slightly parted in expectancy.

Into the eyes of the slave girl, Lan-O, who was watching her,
there crept a soft light of understanding; but the officer
ignored Tara's question--what was the fate of another slave to
him? "Men do not disappear into thin air," he growled, "and if
E-Med be not found soon O-Tar himself may take a hand in this. I
warn you, woman, if you be one of those horrid Corphals that by
commanding the spirits of the wicked dead gains evil mastery over
the living, as many now believe the thing called Ghek to be, that
lest you return E-Med, O-Tar will have no mercy on you."

"What foolishness is this?" cried the girl. "I am a princess
of Helium, as I have told you all a score of times. Even if the
fabled Corphals existed, as none but the most ignorant now
believes, the lore of the ancients tells us that they entered
only into the bodies of wicked criminals of the lowest class. Man
of Manator, thou art a fool, and thy jeddak and all his people,"
and she turned her royal back upon the padwar, and gazed through
the window across the Field of Jetan and the roofs of Manator
through the low hills and the rolling country and freedom.

"And you know so much of Corphals, then," he cried, "you know
that while no common man dare harm them they may be slain by the
hand of a jeddak with impunity!"

The girl did not reply, nor would she speak again, for all his
threats and rage, for she knew now that none in all Manator dared
harm her save O-Tar, the jeddak, and after a while the padwar
left, taking his men with him. And after they had gone Tara stood
for long looking out upon the city of Manator, and wondering what
more of cruel wrongs Fate held in store for her. She was standing
thus in silent meditation when there rose to her the strains of
martial music from the city below--the deep, mellow tones of the
long war trumpets of mounted troops, the clear, ringing notes of
foot-soldiers' music. The girl raised her head and looked about,
listening, and Lan-O, standing at an opposite window, looking
toward the west, motioned Tara to join her. Now they could see
across roofs and avenues to The Gate of Enemies, through which
troops were marching into the city.

"The Great Jed is coming," said Lan-O, "none other dares enter
thus, with blaring trumpets, the city of Manator. It is U-Thor,
Jed of Manatos, second city of Manator. They call him The Great
Jed the length and breadth of Manator, and because the people
love him, O-Tar hates him. They say, who know, that it would need
but slight provocation to inflame the two to war. How such a war
would end no one could guess; for the people of Manator worship
the great O-Tar, though they do not love him. U-Thor they love,
but he is not the jeddak," and Tara understood, as only a Martian
may, how much that simple statement encompassed.

The loyalty of a Martian to his jeddak is almost an instinct, and
second not even to the instinct of self-preservation at that. Nor
is this strange in a race whose religion includes ancestor
worship, and where families trace their origin back into remote
ages and a jeddak sits upon the same throne that his direct
progenitors have occupied for, perhaps, hundreds of thousands of
years, and rules the descendants of the same people that his
forebears ruled. Wicked jeddaks have been dethroned, but seldom
are they replaced by other than members of the imperial house,
even though the law gives to the jeds the right to select whom
they please.

"U-Thor is a just man and good, then?" asked Tara of Helium.

"There be none nobler," replied Lan-O. "In Manatos none but
wicked criminals who deserve death are forced to play at jetan,
and even then the play is fair and they have their chance for
freedom. Volunteers may play, but the moves are not necessarily
to the death--a wound, and even sometimes points in swordplay,
deciding the issue. There they look upon jetan as a martial
sport--here it is but butchery. And U-Thor is opposed to the
ancient slave raids and to the policy that keeps Manator forever
isolated from the other nations of Barsoom; but U-Thor is not
jeddak and so there is no change."

The two girls watched the column moving up the broad avenue from
The Gate of Enemies toward the palace of O-Tar. A gorgeous,
barbaric procession of painted warriors in jewel-studded harness
and waving feathers; vicious, squealing thoats caparisoned in
rich trappings; far above their heads the long lances of their
riders bore fluttering pennons; foot-soldiers swinging easily
along the stone pavement, their sandals of zitidar hide giving
forth no sound; and at the rear of each utan a train of painted
chariots, drawn by mammoth zitidars, carrying the equipment of
the company to which they were attached. Utan after utan entered
through the great gate, and even when the head of the column
reached the palace of O-Tar they were not all within the city.

"I have been here many years," said the girl, Lan-O; "but never
have I seen even The Great Jed bring so many fighting men into
the city of Manator."

Through half-closed eyes Tara of Helium watched the warriors
marching up the broad avenue, trying to imagine them the fighting
men of her beloved Helium coming to the rescue of their princess.
That splendid figure upon the great thoat might be John Carter,
himself, Warlord of Barsoom, and behind him utan after utan of
the veterans of the empire, and then the girl opened her eyes
again and saw the host of painted, befeathered barbarians, and
sighed. But yet she watched, fascinated by the martial scene, and
now she noted again the groups of silent figures upon the
balconies. No waving silks; no cries of welcome; no showers of
flowers and jewels such as would have marked the entry of such a
splendid, friendly pageant into the twin cities of her birth.

"The people do not seem friendly to the warriors of Manatos," she
remarked to Lan-O; "I have not seen a single welcoming sign from
the people on the balconies."

The slave girl looked at her in surprise. "It cannot be that you
do not know!" she exclaimed. "Why, they are--" but she got no
further. The door swung open and an officer stood before them.

"The slave girl, Tara, is summoned to the presence of O-Tar, the
jeddak!" he announced.





Next: At Ghek's Command

Previous: Ghek Plays Pranks



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