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A Duel To The Death







From: A Princess Of Mars

My first impulse was to tell her of my love, and then I thought of the
helplessness of her position wherein I alone could lighten the burdens
of her captivity, and protect her in my poor way against the thousands
of hereditary enemies she must face upon our arrival at Thark. I could
not chance causing her additional pain or sorrow by declaring a love
which, in all probability she did not return. Should I be so
indiscreet, her position would be even more unbearable than now, and
the thought that she might feel that I was taking advantage of her
helplessness, to influence her decision was the final argument which
sealed my lips.

"Why are you so quiet, Dejah Thoris?" I asked. "Possibly you would
rather return to Sola and your quarters."

"No," she murmured, "I am happy here. I do not know why it is that I
should always be happy and contented when you, John Carter, a stranger,
are with me; yet at such times it seems that I am safe and that, with
you, I shall soon return to my father's court and feel his strong arms
about me and my mother's tears and kisses on my cheek."

"Do people kiss, then, upon Barsoom?" I asked, when she had explained
the word she used, in answer to my inquiry as to its meaning.

"Parents, brothers, and sisters, yes; and," she added in a low,
thoughtful tone, "lovers."

"And you, Dejah Thoris, have parents and brothers and sisters?"

"Yes."

"And a--lover?"

She was silent, nor could I venture to repeat the question.

"The man of Barsoom," she finally ventured, "does not ask personal
questions of women, except his mother, and the woman he has fought for
and won."

"But I have fought--" I started, and then I wished my tongue had been
cut from my mouth; for she turned even as I caught myself and ceased,
and drawing my silks from her shoulder she held them out to me, and
without a word, and with head held high, she moved with the carriage of
the queen she was toward the plaza and the doorway of her quarters.

I did not attempt to follow her, other than to see that she reached the
building in safety, but, directing Woola to accompany her, I turned
disconsolately and entered my own house. I sat for hours cross-legged,
and cross-tempered, upon my silks meditating upon the queer freaks
chance plays upon us poor devils of mortals.

So this was love! I had escaped it for all the years I had roamed the
five continents and their encircling seas; in spite of beautiful women
and urging opportunity; in spite of a half-desire for love and a
constant search for my ideal, it had remained for me to fall furiously
and hopelessly in love with a creature from another world, of a species
similar possibly, yet not identical with mine. A woman who was hatched
from an egg, and whose span of life might cover a thousand years; whose
people had strange customs and ideas; a woman whose hopes, whose
pleasures, whose standards of virtue and of right and wrong might vary
as greatly from mine as did those of the green Martians.

Yes, I was a fool, but I was in love, and though I was suffering the
greatest misery I had ever known I would not have had it otherwise for
all the riches of Barsoom. Such is love, and such are lovers wherever
love is known.

To me, Dejah Thoris was all that was perfect; all that was virtuous and
beautiful and noble and good. I believed that from the bottom of my
heart, from the depth of my soul on that night in Korad as I sat
cross-legged upon my silks while the nearer moon of Barsoom raced
through the western sky toward the horizon, and lighted up the gold and
marble, and jeweled mosaics of my world-old chamber, and I believe it
today as I sit at my desk in the little study overlooking the Hudson.
Twenty years have intervened; for ten of them I lived and fought for
Dejah Thoris and her people, and for ten I have lived upon her memory.

The morning of our departure for Thark dawned clear and hot, as do all
Martian mornings except for the six weeks when the snow melts at the
poles.

I sought out Dejah Thoris in the throng of departing chariots, but she
turned her shoulder to me, and I could see the red blood mount to her
cheek. With the foolish inconsistency of love I held my peace when I
might have plead ignorance of the nature of my offense, or at least the
gravity of it, and so have effected, at worst, a half conciliation.


chariots.]

My duty dictated that I must see that she was comfortable, and so I
glanced into her chariot and rearranged her silks and furs. In doing
so I noted with horror that she was heavily chained by one ankle to the
side of the vehicle.

"What does this mean?" I cried, turning to Sola.

"Sarkoja thought it best," she answered, her face betokening her
disapproval of the procedure.

Examining the manacles I saw that they fastened with a massive spring
lock.

"Where is the key, Sola? Let me have it."

"Sarkoja wears it, John Carter," she answered.

I turned without further word and sought out Tars Tarkas, to whom I
vehemently objected to the unnecessary humiliations and cruelties, as
they seemed to my lover's eyes, that were being heaped upon Dejah
Thoris.

"John Carter," he answered, "if ever you and Dejah Thoris escape the
Tharks it will be upon this journey. We know that you will not go
without her. You have shown yourself a mighty fighter, and we do not
wish to manacle you, so we hold you both in the easiest way that will
yet ensure security. I have spoken."

I saw the strength of his reasoning at a flash, and knew that it were
futile to appeal from his decision, but I asked that the key be taken
from Sarkoja and that she be directed to leave the prisoner alone in
future.

"This much, Tars Tarkas, you may do for me in return for the friendship
that, I must confess, I feel for you."

"Friendship?" he replied. "There is no such thing, John Carter; but
have your will. I shall direct that Sarkoja cease to annoy the girl,
and I myself will take the custody of the key."

"Unless you wish me to assume the responsibility," I said, smiling.

He looked at me long and earnestly before he spoke.

"Were you to give me your word that neither you nor Dejah Thoris would
attempt to escape until after we have safely reached the court of Tal
Hajus you might have the key and throw the chains into the river Iss."

"It were better that you held the key, Tars Tarkas," I replied

He smiled, and said no more, but that night as we were making camp I
saw him unfasten Dejah Thoris' fetters himself.

With all his cruel ferocity and coldness there was an undercurrent of
something in Tars Tarkas which he seemed ever battling to subdue.
Could it be a vestige of some human instinct come back from an ancient
forbear to haunt him with the horror of his people's ways!

As I was approaching Dejah Thoris' chariot I passed Sarkoja, and the
black, venomous look she accorded me was the sweetest balm I had felt
for many hours. Lord, how she hated me! It bristled from her so
palpably that one might almost have cut it with a sword.

A few moments later I saw her deep in conversation with a warrior named
Zad; a big, hulking, powerful brute, but one who had never made a kill
among his own chieftains, and a second name only with the metal of some
chieftain. It was this custom which entitled me to the names of either
of the chieftains I had killed; in fact, some of the warriors addressed
me as Dotar Sojat, a combination of the surnames of the two warrior
chieftains whose metal I had taken, or, in other words, whom I had
slain in fair fight.

As Sarkoja talked with Zad he cast occasional glances in my direction,
while she seemed to be urging him very strongly to some action. I paid
little attention to it at the time, but the next day I had good reason
to recall the circumstances, and at the same time gain a slight insight
into the depths of Sarkoja's hatred and the lengths to which she was
capable of going to wreak her horrid vengeance on me.

Dejah Thoris would have none of me again on this evening, and though I
spoke her name she neither replied, nor conceded by so much as the
flutter of an eyelid that she realized my existence. In my extremity I
did what most other lovers would have done; I sought word from her
through an intimate. In this instance it was Sola whom I intercepted
in another part of camp.

"What is the matter with Dejah Thoris?" I blurted out at her. "Why
will she not speak to me?"

Sola seemed puzzled herself, as though such strange actions on the part
of two humans were quite beyond her, as indeed they were, poor child.

"She says you have angered her, and that is all she will say, except
that she is the daughter of a jed and the granddaughter of a jeddak and
she has been humiliated by a creature who could not polish the teeth of
her grandmother's sorak."

I pondered over this report for some time, finally asking, "What might
a sorak be, Sola?"

"A little animal about as big as my hand, which the red Martian women
keep to play with," explained Sola.

Not fit to polish the teeth of her grandmother's cat! I must rank
pretty low in the consideration of Dejah Thoris, I thought; but I could
not help laughing at the strange figure of speech, so homely and in
this respect so earthly. It made me homesick, for it sounded very much
like "not fit to polish her shoes." And then commenced a train of
thought quite new to me. I began to wonder what my people at home were
doing. I had not seen them for years. There was a family of Carters
in Virginia who claimed close relationship with me; I was supposed to
be a great uncle, or something of the kind equally foolish. I could
pass anywhere for twenty-five to thirty years of age, and to be a great
uncle always seemed the height of incongruity, for my thoughts and
feelings were those of a boy. There was two little kiddies in the
Carter family whom I had loved and who had thought there was no one on
Earth like Uncle Jack; I could see them just as plainly, as I stood
there under the moonlit skies of Barsoom, and I longed for them as I
had never longed for any mortals before. By nature a wanderer, I had
never known the true meaning of the word home, but the great hall of
the Carters had always stood for all that the word did mean to me, and
now my heart turned toward it from the cold and unfriendly peoples I
had been thrown amongst. For did not even Dejah Thoris despise me! I
was a low creature, so low in fact that I was not even fit to polish
the teeth of her grandmother's cat; and then my saving sense of humor
came to my rescue, and laughing I turned into my silks and furs and
slept upon the moon-haunted ground the sleep of a tired and healthy
fighting man.

We broke camp the next day at an early hour and marched with only a
single halt until just before dark. Two incidents broke the
tediousness of the march. About noon we espied far to our right what
was evidently an incubator, and Lorquas Ptomel directed Tars Tarkas to
investigate it. The latter took a dozen warriors, including myself,
and we raced across the velvety carpeting of moss to the little
enclosure.

It was indeed an incubator, but the eggs were very small in comparison
with those I had seen hatching in ours at the time of my arrival on
Mars.

Tars Tarkas dismounted and examined the enclosure minutely, finally
announcing that it belonged to the green men of Warhoon and that the
cement was scarcely dry where it had been walled up.

"They cannot be a day's march ahead of us," he exclaimed, the light of
battle leaping to his fierce face.

The work at the incubator was short indeed. The warriors tore open the
entrance and a couple of them, crawling in, soon demolished all the
eggs with their short-swords. Then remounting we dashed back to join
the cavalcade. During the ride I took occasion to ask Tars Tarkas if
these Warhoons whose eggs we had destroyed were a smaller people than
his Tharks.

"I noticed that their eggs were so much smaller than those I saw
hatching in your incubator," I added.

He explained that the eggs had just been placed there; but, like all
green Martian eggs, they would grow during the five-year period of
incubation until they obtained the size of those I had seen hatching on
the day of my arrival on Barsoom. This was indeed an interesting piece
of information, for it had always seemed remarkable to me that the
green Martian women, large as they were, could bring forth such
enormous eggs as I had seen the four-foot infants emerging from. As a
matter of fact, the new-laid egg is but little larger than an ordinary
goose egg, and as it does not commence to grow until subjected to the
light of the sun the chieftains have little difficulty in transporting
several hundreds of them at one time from the storage vaults to the
incubators.

Shortly after the incident of the Warhoon eggs we halted to rest the
animals, and it was during this halt that the second of the day's
interesting episodes occurred. I was engaged in changing my riding
cloths from one of my thoats to the other, for I divided the day's work
between them, when Zad approached me, and without a word struck my
animal a terrific blow with his long-sword.

I did not need a manual of green Martian etiquette to know what reply
to make, for, in fact, I was so wild with anger that I could scarcely
refrain from drawing my pistol and shooting him down for the brute he
was; but he stood waiting with drawn long-sword, and my only choice was
to draw my own and meet him in fair fight with his choice of weapons or
a lesser one.

This latter alternative is always permissible, therefore I could have
used my short-sword, my dagger, my hatchet, or my fists had I wished,
and been entirely within my rights, but I could not use firearms or a
spear while he held only his long-sword.

I chose the same weapon he had drawn because I knew he prided himself
upon his ability with it, and I wished, if I worsted him at all, to do
it with his own weapon. The fight that followed was a long one and
delayed the resumption of the march for an hour. The entire community
surrounded us, leaving a clear space about one hundred feet in diameter
for our battle.

Zad first attempted to rush me down as a bull might a wolf, but I was
much too quick for him, and each time I side-stepped his rushes he
would go lunging past me, only to receive a nick from my sword upon his
arm or back. He was soon streaming blood from a half dozen minor
wounds, but I could not obtain an opening to deliver an effective
thrust. Then he changed his tactics, and fighting warily and with
extreme dexterity, he tried to do by science what he was unable to do
by brute strength. I must admit that he was a magnificent swordsman,
and had it not been for my greater endurance and the remarkable agility
the lesser gravitation of Mars lent me I might not have been able to
put up the creditable fight I did against him.

We circled for some time without doing much damage on either side; the
long, straight, needle-like swords flashing in the sunlight, and
ringing out upon the stillness as they crashed together with each
effective parry. Finally Zad, realizing that he was tiring more than
I, evidently decided to close in and end the battle in a final blaze of
glory for himself; just as he rushed me a blinding flash of light
struck full in my eyes, so that I could not see his approach and could
only leap blindly to one side in an effort to escape the mighty blade
that it seemed I could already feel in my vitals. I was only partially
successful, as a sharp pain in my left shoulder attested, but in the
sweep of my glance as I sought to again locate my adversary, a sight
met my astonished gaze which paid me well for the wound the temporary
blindness had caused me. There, upon Dejah Thoris' chariot stood three
figures, for the purpose evidently of witnessing the encounter above
the heads of the intervening Tharks. There were Dejah Thoris, Sola,
and Sarkoja, and as my fleeting glance swept over them a little tableau
was presented which will stand graven in my memory to the day of my
death.

As I looked, Dejah Thoris turned upon Sarkoja with the fury of a young
tigress and struck something from her upraised hand; something which
flashed in the sunlight as it spun to the ground. Then I knew what had
blinded me at that crucial moment of the fight, and how Sarkoja had
found a way to kill me without herself delivering the final thrust.
Another thing I saw, too, which almost lost my life for me then and
there, for it took my mind for the fraction of an instant entirely from
my antagonist; for, as Dejah Thoris struck the tiny mirror from her
hand, Sarkoja, her face livid with hatred and baffled rage, whipped out
her dagger and aimed a terrific blow at Dejah Thoris; and then Sola,
our dear and faithful Sola, sprang between them; the last I saw was the
great knife descending upon her shielding breast.

My enemy had recovered from his thrust and was making it extremely
interesting for me, so I reluctantly gave my attention to the work in
hand, but my mind was not upon the battle.

We rushed each other furiously time after time, 'til suddenly, feeling
the sharp point of his sword at my breast in a thrust I could neither
parry nor escape, I threw myself upon him with outstretched sword and
with all the weight of my body, determined that I would not die alone
if I could prevent it. I felt the steel tear into my chest, all went
black before me, my head whirled in dizziness, and I felt my knees
giving beneath me.





Next: Sola Tells Me Her Story

Previous: Love-making On Mars



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