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A Risk For Love







From: The Chessmen Of Mars

"Ey, ey, he is a craven and he called me 'doddering fool'!" The
speaker was I-Gos and he addressed a knot of chieftains in one of
the chambers of the palace of O-Tar, Jeddak of Manator: "If A-Kor
was alive there were a jeddak for us!"

"Who says that A-Kor is dead?" demanded one of the chiefs.

"Where is he then?" asked I-Gos. "Have not others disappeared
whom O-Tar thought too well beloved for men so near the throne as
they?"

The chief shook his head. "And I thought that, or knew it,
rather; I'd join U-Thor at The Gate of Enemies."

"S-s-st," cautioned one; "here comes the licker of feet," and all
eyes were turned upon the approaching E-Thas.

"Kaor, friends!" he exclaimed as he stopped among them, but his
friendly greeting elicited naught but a few surly nods. "Have you
heard the news?" he continued, unabashed by treatment to which he
was becoming accustomed.

"What--has O-Tar seen an ulsio and fainted?" demanded I-Gos with
broad sarcasm.

"Men have died for less than that, ancient one," E-Thas reminded
him.

"I am safe," retorted I-Gos, "for I am not a brave and popular
son of the jeddak of Manator."

This was indeed open treason, but E-Thas feigned not to hear it.
He ignored I-Gos and turned to the others. "O-Tar goes to the
chamber of O-Mai this night in search of Turan the slave," he
said. "He sorrows that his warriors have not the courage for so
mean a duty and that their jeddak is thus compelled to arrest a
common slave," with which taunt E-Thas passed on to spread the
word in other parts of the palace. As a matter of fact the latter
part of his message was purely original with himself, and he took
great delight in delivering it to the discomfiture of his
enemies. As he was leaving the little group of men I-Gos called
after him. "At what hour does O-Tar intend visiting the chambers
of O-Mai?" he asked.

"Toward the end of the eighth zode*," replied the major-domo, and
went his way.

* About 1:00 A. M. Earth Time.


"We shall see," stated I-Gos.

"What shall we see?" asked a warrior.

"We shall see whether O-Tar visits the chamber of O-Mai."

"How?"

"I shall be there myself and if I see him I will know that he has
been there. If I don't see him I will know that he has not,"
explained the old taxidermist.

"Is there anything there to fill an honest man with fear?" asked
a chieftain. "What have you seen?"

"It was not so much what I saw, though that was bad enough, as
what I heard," said I-Gos.

"Tell us! What heard and saw you?"

"I saw the dead O-Mai," said I-Gos. The others shuddered.

"And you went not mad?" they asked.

"Am I mad?" retorted I-Gos.

"And you will go again?"

"Yes."

"Then indeed you are mad," cried one.

"You saw the dead O-Mai; but what heard you that was worse?"
whispered another.

"I saw the dead O-Mai lying upon the floor of his sleeping
chamber with one foot tangled in the sleeping silks and furs upon
his couch. I heard horrid moans and frightful screams."

"And you are not afraid to go there again?" demanded several.

"The dead cannot harm me," said I-Gos. "He has lain thus for five
thousand years. Nor can a sound harm me. I heard it once and
live--I can hear it again. It came from almost at my side where I
hid behind the hangings and watched the slave Turan before I
snatched the woman away from him."

"I-Gos, you are a very brave man," said a chieftain.

"O-Tar called me 'doddering fool' and I would face worse dangers
than lie in the forbidden chambers of O-Mai to know it if he does
not visit the chamber of O-Mai. Then indeed shall O-Tar fall!"

The night came and the zodes dragged and the time approached when
O-Tar, Jeddak of Manator, was to visit the chamber of O-Mai in
search of the slave Turan. To us, who may doubt the existence of
malignant spirits, his fear may seem unbelievable, for he was a
strong man, an excellent swordsman, and a warrior of great
repute; but the fact remained that O-Tar of Manator was nervous
with apprehension as he strode the corridors of his palace toward
the deserted halls of O-Mai and when he stood at last with his
hand upon the door that opened from the dusty corridor to the
very apartments themselves he was almost paralyzed with terror.
He had come alone for two very excellent reasons, the first of
which was that thus none might note his terror-stricken state nor
his defection should he fail at the last moment, and the other
was that should he accomplish the thing alone or be able to make
his chiefs believe that he had, the credit would be far greater
than were he to be accompanied by warriors.

But though he had started alone he had become aware that he was
being followed, and he knew that it was because his people had no
faith in either his courage or his veracity. He did not believe
that he would find the slave Turan. He did not very much want to
find him, for though O-Tar was an excellent swordsman and a brave
warrior in physical combat, he had seen how Turan had played with
U-Dor and he had no stomach for a passage at arms with one whom
he knew outclassed him.

And so O-Tar stood with his hand upon the door--afraid to enter;
afraid not to. But at last his fear of his own warriors, watching
behind him, grew greater than the fear of the unknown behind the
ancient door and he pushed the heavy skeel aside and entered.

Silence and gloom and the dust of centuries lay heavy upon the
chamber. From his warriors he knew the route that he must take to
the horrid chamber of O-Mai and so he forced his unwilling feet
across the room before him, across the room where the jetan
players sat at their eternal game, and came to the short corridor
that led into the room of O-Mai. His naked sword trembled in his
grasp. He paused after each forward step to listen and when he
was almost at the door of the ghost-haunted chamber, his heart
stood still within his breast and the cold sweat broke from the
clammy skin of his forehead, for from within there came to his
affrighted ears the sound of muffled breathing. Then it was that
O-Tar of Manator came near to fleeing from the nameless horror
that he could not see, but that he knew lay waiting for him in
that chamber just ahead. But again came the fear of the wrath and
contempt of his warriors and his chiefs. They would degrade him
and they would slay him into the bargain. There was no doubt of
what his fate would be should he flee the apartments of O-Mai in
terror. His only hope, therefore, lay in daring the unknown in
preference to the known.

He moved forward. A few steps took him to the doorway. The
chamber before him was darker than the corridor, so that he could
just indistinctly make out the objects in the room. He saw a
sleeping dais near the center, with a darker blotch of something
lying on the marble floor beside it. He moved a step farther into
the doorway and the scabbard of his sword scraped against the
stone frame. To his horror he saw the sleeping silks and furs
upon the central dais move. He saw a figure slowly arising to a
sitting posture from the death bed of O-Mai the Cruel. His knees
shook, but he gathered all his moral forces, and gripping his
sword more tightly in his trembling fingers prepared to leap
across the chamber upon the horrid apparition. He hesitated just
a moment. He felt eyes upon him--ghoulish eyes that bored through
the darkness into his withering heart--eyes that he could not
see. He gathered himself for the rush--and then there broke from
the thing upon the couch an awful shriek, and O-Tar sank
senseless to the floor.

Gahan rose from the couch of O-Mai, smiling, only to swing
quickly about with drawn sword as the shadow of a noise impinged
upon his keen ears from the shadows behind him. Between the
parted hangings he saw a bent and wrinkled figure. It was I-Gos.

"Sheathe your sword, Turan," said the old man. "You have naught
to fear from I-Gos."

"What do you here?" demanded Gahan.

"I came to make sure that the great coward did not cheat us. Ey,
and he called me 'doddering fool;' but look at him now! Stricken
insensible by terror, but, ey, one might forgive him that who had
heard your uncanny scream. It all but blasted my own courage. And
it was you, then, who moaned and screamed when the chiefs came
the day that I stole Tara from you?"

"It was you, then, old scoundrel?" demanded Gahan, moving
threateningly toward I-Gos.

"Come, come!" expostulated the old man; "it was I, but then I was
your enemy. I would not do it now. Conditions have changed."

"How have they changed? What has changed them?" asked Gahan.

"Then I did not fully realize the cowardice of my jeddak, or the
bravery of you and the girl. I am an old man from another age and
I love courage. At first I resented the girl's attack upon me,
but later I came to see the bravery of it and it won my
admiration, as have all her acts. She feared not O-tar, she
feared not me, she feared not all the warriors of Manator. And
you! Blood of a million sires! how you fight! I am sorry that I
exposed you at The Fields of Jetan. I am sorry that I dragged the
girl Tara back to O-Tar. I would make amends. I would be your
friend. Here is my sword at your feet," and drawing his weapon
I-Gos cast it to the floor in front of Gahan.

The Gatholian knew that scarce the most abandoned of knaves would
repudiate this solemn pledge, and so he stooped, and picking up
the old man's sword returned it to him, hilt first, in acceptance
of his friendship.

"Where is the Princess Tara of Helium?" asked Gahan. "Is she
safe?"

"She is confined in the tower of the women's quarters awaiting
the ceremony that is to make her Jeddara of Manator," replied
I-Gos.

"This thing dared think that Tara of Helium would mate with him?"
growled Gahan. "I will make short work of him if he is not
already dead from fright," and he stepped toward the fallen O-Tar
to run his sword through the jeddak's heart.

"No!" cried I-Gos. "Slay him not and pray that he be not dead if
you would save your princess."

"How is that?" asked Gahan.

"If word of O-Tar's death reached the quarters of the women the
Princess Tara would be lost. They know O-Tar's intention of
taking her to wife and making her Jeddara of Manator, so you may
rest assured that they all hate her with the hate of jealous
women. Only O-Tar's power protects her now from harm. Should
O-Tar die they would turn her over to the warriors and the male
slaves, for there would be none to avenge her."

Gahan sheathed his sword. "Your point is well taken; but what
shall we do with him?"

"Leave him where he lies," counseled I-Gos. "He is not dead. When
he revives he will return to his quarters with a fine tale of his
bravery and there will be none to impugn his boasts--none but
I-Gos. Come! he may revive at any moment and he must not find us
here."

I-Gos crossed to the body of his jeddak, knelt beside it for an
instant, and then returned past the couch to Gahan. The two quit
the chamber of O-Mai and took their way toward the spiral runway.
Here I-Gos led Gahan to a higher level and out upon the roof of
that portion of the palace from where he pointed to a high tower
quite close by. "There," he said, "lies the Princess of Helium,
and quite safe she will be until the time of the ceremony."

"Safe, possibly, from other hands, but not from her own," said
Gahan. "She will never become Jeddara of Manator--first will she
destroy herself."

"She would do that?" asked I-Gos.

"She will, unless you can get word to her that I still live and
that there is yet hope," replied Gahan.

"I cannot get word to her," said I-Gos. "The quarters of his
women O-Tar guards with jealous hand. Here are his most trusted
slaves and warriors, yet even so, thick among them are countless
spies, so that no man knows which be which. No shadow falls
within those chambers that is not marked by a hundred eyes."

Gahan stood gazing at the lighted windows of the high tower in
the upper chambers of which Tara of Helium was confined. "I will
find a way, I-Gos," he said.

"There is no way," replied the old man.

For some time they stood upon the roof beneath the brilliant
stars and hurtling moons of dying Mars, laying their plans
against the time that Tara of Helium should be brought from the
high tower to the throne room of O-Tar. It was then, and then
alone, argued I-Gos, that any hope of rescuing her might be
entertained. Just how far he might trust the other Gahan did not
know, and so he kept to himself the knowledge of the plan that he
had forwarded to Floran and Val Dor by Ghek, but he assured the
ancient taxidermist that if he were sincere in his oft-repeated
declaration that O-Tar should be denounced and superseded he
would have his opportunity on the night that the jeddak sought to
wed the Heliumetic princess.

"Your time shall come then, I-Gos," Gahan assured the other, "and
if you have any party that thinks as you do, prepare them for the
eventuality that will succeed O-Tar's presumptuous attempt to wed
the daughter of The Warlord. Where shall I see you again, and
when? I go now to speak with Tara, Princess of Helium."

"I like your boldness," said I-Gos; "but it will avail you
naught. You will not speak with Tara, Princess of Helium, though
doubtless the blood of many Manatorians will drench the floors of
the women's quarters before you are slain."

Gahan smiled. "I shall not be slain. Where and when shall we
meet? But you may find me in O-Mai's chamber at night. That seems
the safest retreat in all Manator for an enemy of the jeddak in
whose palace it lies. I go!"

"And may the spirits of your ancestors surround you," said I-Gos.

After the old man had left him Gahan made his way across the roof
to the high tower, which appeared to have been constructed of
concrete and afterward elaborately carved, its entire surface
being covered with intricate designs cut deep into the stone-like
material of which it was composed. Though wrought ages since, it
was but little weather-worn owing to the aridity of the Martian
atmosphere, the infrequency of rains, and the rarity of dust
storms. To scale it, though, presented difficulties and danger
that might have deterred the bravest of men--that would,
doubtless, have deterred Gahan, had he not felt that the life of
the woman he loved depended upon his accomplishing the hazardous
feat.

Removing his sandals and laying aside all of his harness and
weapons other than a single belt supporting a dagger, the
Gatholian essayed the dangerous ascent. Clinging to the carvings
with hands and feet he worked himself slowly aloft, avoiding the
windows and keeping upon the shadowy side of the tower, away from
the light of Thuria and Cluros. The tower rose some fifty feet
above the roof of the adjacent part of the palace, comprising
five levels or floors with windows looking in every direction. A
few of the windows were balconied, and these more than the others
he sought to avoid, although, it being now near the close of the
ninth zode, there was little likelihood that many were awake
within the tower.

His progress was noiseless and he came at last, undetected, to
the windows of the upper level. These, like several of the others
he had passed at lower levels, were heavily barred, so that there
was no possibility of his gaining ingress to the apartment where
Tara was confined. Darkness hid the interior behind the first
window that he approached. The second opened upon a lighted
chamber where he could see a guard sleeping at his post outside a
door. Here also was the top of the runway leading to the next
level below. Passing still farther around the tower Gahan
approached another window, but now he clung to that side of the
tower which ended in a courtyard a hundred feet below and in a
short time the light of Thuria would reach him. He realized that
he must hasten and he prayed that behind the window he now
approached he would find Tara of Helium.

Coming to the opening he looked in upon a small chamber dimly
lighted. In the center was a sleeping dais upon which a human
form lay beneath silks and furs. A bare arm, protruding from the
coverings, lay exposed against a black and yellow striped orluk
skin--an arm of wondrous beauty about which was clasped an armlet
that Gahan knew. No other creature was visible within the
chamber, all of which was exposed to Gahan's view. Pressing his
face to the bars the Gatholian whispered her dear name. The girl
stirred, but did not awaken. Again he called, but this time
louder. Tara sat up and looked about and at the same instant a
huge eunuch leaped to his feet from where he had been lying on
the floor close by that side of the dais farthest from Gahan.
Simultaneously the brilliant light of Thuria flashed full upon
the window where Gahan clung silhouetting him plainly to the two
within.

Both sprang to their feet. The eunuch drew his sword and leaped
for the window where the helpless Gahan would have fallen an easy
victim to a single thrust of the murderous weapon the fellow
bore, had not Tara of Helium leaped upon her guard dragging him
back. At the same time she drew the slim dagger from its hiding
place in her harness and even as the eunuch sought to hurl her
aside its keen point found his heart. Without a sound he died and
lunged forward to the floor. Then Tara ran to the window.

"Turan, my chief!" she cried. "What awful risk is this you take
to seek me here, where even your brave heart is powerless to aid
me."

"Be not so sure of that, heart of my heart," he replied. "While I
bring but words to my love, they be the forerunner of deeds, I
hope, that will give her back to me forever. I feared that you
might destroy yourself, Tara of Helium, to escape the dishonor
that O-Tar would do you, and so I came to give you new hope and
to beg that you live for me through whatever may transpire, in
the knowledge that there is yet a way and that if all goes well
we shall be freed at last. Look for me in the throne room of
O-Tar the night that he would wed you. And now, how may we
dispose of this fellow?" He pointed to the dead eunuch upon the
floor.

"We need not concern ourselves about that," she replied. "None
dares harm me for fear of the wrath of O-Tar--otherwise I should
have been dead so soon as ever I entered this portion of the
palace, for the women hate me. O-Tar alone may punish me, and
what cares O-Tar for the life of a eunuch? No, fear not upon this
score."

Their hands were clasped between the bars and now Gahan drew her
nearer to him.

"One kiss," he said, "before I go, my princess," and the proud
daughter of Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium, and The Warlord of
Barsoom whispered: "My chieftain!" and pressed her lips to the
lips of Turan, the common panthan.





Next: At The Moment Of Marriage

Previous: The Charge Of Cowardice



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